Friday, February 8, 2013

Stratford High siblings seek success at Harvard and MIT

Linda, Fernando and their mother, Marisa Pena-Alfaro.
Stepping off the plane from Mexico City in Houston eight years ago, Fernando and Linda Trujano could have never predicted the success they would find in America. As two of Spring Branch ISD’s own, Linda and Fernando have been invited to attend two of the world’s finest colleges, an opportunity that many would consider the meaning of the American Dream.

Linda, a Stratford High school graduate, was admitted to Harvard University in 2011. Today, she is a sophomore majoring in psychology and French. Fernando, a Stratford senior, was accepted earlier this year into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He plans to major in electrical engineering and computer science there.  

The Trujanos, who are U.S. citizens, came to Houston in 2006. Like many immigrants, Linda, Fernando and their mother moved from Mexico to find a fresh start in America. At ages 13 and 11, they began classes at Memorial Middle School while their mother found work as a childbirth educator or helper, known as a doula. Linda enrolled in eighth grade and Fernando in sixth.

“Eighth grade was definitely a difficult year. I entered school here at a time when my class had already spent two years bonding and developing friend groups. There were some students that were welcoming towards me, but not everyone was open to new people. One of the first things I did was join the volleyball team, which introduced me to a lot of people,” said Linda, who is now 21 years old.

Both of the Trujanos had the benefit of going to a dual-language private school in Mexico. There, they spoke, read and wrote in both Spanish and English. Still, a classroom setting is far different from that of the real world. In Houston, the Trujanos learned to use their English everywhere.

“That first year was hard as far as communication goes. Everyone in Texas spoke such fast English; I could only understand bits and pieces. Imagine taking an English test in a language you aren’t familiar with. Not only do you have to understand the questions, but you have to be able to interpret and find deeper meaning to words you can barely read,” said Fernando, 18.

While the Trujanos made good grades in Mexico, Memorial Middle had an entirely different curriculum that was far advanced compared to their former Mexico City school. Linda recalls getting a failing grade on her first math quiz of her eighth-grade year, the first such grade she had received in her entire education.

“In Mexico, I always made straight A’s without having to push myself. Then I came to America and received a 65 on my first math quiz. I was devastated and shocked. My failing grade woke me up; it made me understand that in order to succeed I was going to have to work really hard. I started going to tutorials for math and got my grade up, but that quiz has been etched in my memory ever since,” said Linda.

Currently, Linda lives in Cambridge, Mass., where she has fallen in love both with Harvard and the whole college experience.

“It is really awesome to be surrounded by so many different people from all over the world, and to hear about all of the amazing things they have done. Everyone is so nice and genuine here. I definitely feel like I have found another home,” Linda said.

When she graduates in a few years, Linda is considering graduate school at Rice University. She hopes to become a certified clinical psychologist.

Unlike Linda, Fernando adjusted to his surroundings by spending a lot of time at home exploring his interests.
“In middle school, I spent a lot of time on the computer. I had friends and all; I just preferred to spend my time doing other things at home. I became really interested in computer science and anything technological. During eighth grade, I started to make special effect videos and founded my own special effects company, Fertego Productions. While part of me wasn’t fond of my middle-school days, I do have them to thank for leading me to my true passion,” said Fernando.

Fernando and Linda’s mom, Marisa Pena-Alfaro, has been an encouraging figure throughout both of their lives, yet has refrained from putting pressure on them. 

“Our mom has never been strict with grades; she just wants what is best for us. If we were to make a poor grade she might suggest to study more for that subject, but she wouldn’t ever punish us,” said Fernando.

Pen-Alfaro is very proud of both children. “Besides Fernando and Linda’s good grades, they have been loving, supportive, and kind. One of the reasons I decided to move to the U.S. was because I thought they were going to have better opportunities. In retrospect, I can see that this was the best decision I could have ever made,’’ Pena-Alfaro said.

The Trujano siblings have high personal standards and are self-motivated. Linda recalls always being a perfectionist and needing things to go her way. She assumes her perfectionist mind-set pushed her to achieve the recognition she has, and she also takes credit for some of Fernando’s academic success, which he agrees with on some level.

“As the younger sibling, it is almost impulse to want to live up to your older brother or sister and maybe even outdo them. When Linda got accepted to Harvard, I definitely wanted to live up to her achievement, but I didn’t feel pressured by it. Seeing her go to her dream school made me realize that with hard work goals can actually be met,” Fernando said.

Throughout the past few years, Fernando has taken his interest in technology to a whole new level. Fernando spends scads of time on the Internet learning computer coding such as HTML, C++ and JavaScript.  The company that he started in eighth grade, Fertego Productions, now takes orders for custom special effects.
Fernando has also joined clubs and taken classes at Stratford and at the Guthrie Center to help expand his knowledge in technology and film-making.

Both Linda and Fernando said that their experiences at Stratford High School have helped them reach their goals. Having teachers who care about your future and encourage you to follow your dreams is one of the best things about Stratford, Fernando says.

Linda, having graduated two years ago, can still recall the welcoming strangers she met in her freshman year of high school, now life-long friends.

 “Fernando’s acceptance to MIT came as no surprise to me,” Stratford High science teacher Tracey Jensen said.  “He is such a hardworking, respectful and smart student whom I have enjoyed watching grow and mature over the years. Fernando’s older sister Linda is also terrific. She is a wonderful role model for him.”
For Fernando, the key to success has been finding things that he enjoys, and pursuing them.

“I like what I do. I think it is really important to find what you love, and then put it out there so other people can give feedback and help encourage you to continue making progress. Also remember that anything is possible, I think that is something people forget too often,” Fernando said.

Q&A with Linda and Fernando Trujano 

Spring Branch ISD: Do people treat you differently when they hear that you attend or were admitted to prestigious schools such as Harvard and MIT? 

Linda Trujano: Unfortunately people do treat you differently. When I was first accepted to Harvard, there were girls in my grade who had ignored me all of high school then suddenly wanted to be friends—I found that annoying and not genuine. When I am in Houston on break and people ask where I go to college, I usually just tell people I go to school in Boston. Otherwise some people make a big deal out of it, or rely on society’s stereotypes to figure me out. 

Fernando Trujano: Although I have yet to attend MIT, I have felt a change in the way people treat me since my admission. People have been really nice and excited for me to go to MIT, which is comforting. There are some random people that point me out in the halls and congratulate me on my acceptance – it is kind of funny.

SBISD: Does Harvard University actually correspond with an Ivy League stereotype? 

Linda: For the most part, it doesn’t. Yes, there is a small percentage of students with opulent wealth, but the majority of the student body is composed of average people. Many of the students are smart, but that doesn’t mean Harvard is, as many people assume, composed of only nerds. 

SBISD: How would you advise high school students to study for the SAT? 

Linda: I studied hours upon hours for the SAT. I have this huge box at home with hundreds of flashcards and all of these test-preparation books. Every day I sat myself down and went through vocabulary or did book work. I would recommend for anyone to study as much as possible, and take the test as many times as you need! 

Fernando: Unlike Linda, I didn’t study but an hour for the SAT. Instead, I spent that time doing things I love like building a robot and completing graphics on the computer. I would recommend for any high school student to study as much as they need to, but not to bombard their life with it. I think you should get out and do what you like to do instead! 

SBISD: What do you think is the most important part of a college application? 

Linda: It ranges from school to school, but I would say test scores, interviews and essays are key elements to a good application. Of course your grade point average accounts for a lot, but once they narrow applicants down by grades, they will chose students that stand out from the others. Write college essays that are unique and intriguing; perform on your SAT or ACT; and sign up for an interview! 

Fernando: A lot of people underestimate the importance of interviews, but they can make or break a student’s application. If you are good at keeping conversation going and taking about yourself, I would highly recommending interviewing for whatever college you want to attend. My interview for MIT was really fun. The MIT alumni interviewer and I had so much in common. 

This report and Q&A were compiled by Communications Dept. intern Kali Venable


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