Viviana Andazola Marquez ranks getting into Yale as the single proudest moment of her life. Her frank personal statement about growing up homeless was published by The New York Times as part of a collection of college essays about money. Being selected was as much a symbol for her as it was an accomplishment.
“It was affirmation that my life was under my control. I knew that things would never be the same and that I could make anything I wanted of myself,” Andazola Marquez told The Huffington Post over the phone last week.
She recorded herself opening her Yale acceptance and uploaded it to YouTube. She lets out a pretty memorable shriek when she discovers that she got in.
The 19-year-old is currently starting her sophomore year at Yale after spending the summer on campus, interning in a chemistry lab. She says she doesn’t know yet if she wants to major in chemistry, history or both, but has the upcoming school year to decide.
Andazola Marquez grew up in Thornton, Colorado, right outside of Denver. Her life as a teen revolved around where she and her siblings would sleep, what they would eat and how she would stay in school.
“We had been turned away from several homeless shelters and we were bouncing around from stranger’s home to stranger’s home.”
Her parents, who came to the United States from Mexico more than 20 years ago, owned two restaurants when Andazola Marquez was a child. They divorced when she was in the third grade and her father eventually remarried. Things worsened for the family around the time Andazola Marquez reached middle school.
Her college essay details the ways they struggled. Some nights, she, her mother, sister and two toddler brothers would sleep on the kitchen floor of a good Samaritan’s home and turn on the oven, hoping that it would keep them warm throughout the night.
“We had been turned away from several homeless shelters and we were bouncing around from stranger’s home to stranger’s home,” Andazola Marquez told HuffPost. She used to travel around the city looking for open Wi-Fi networks to use so that she could complete her schoolwork on borrowed laptops.
Luckily, she had a support system at school. The teachers and administrators at the school she attended from fifth grade until graduation were well aware of her situation.
Her closest mentor and teacher, Eric Munoz, says tenacity is one of Andazola Marquez’s most unique gifts. "I saw the challenges put before her increase, [but] her ability to academically thrive followed. It was amazing to see her not view the problems in her life as roadblocks -- but as moments to be more resilient. She never touted her homelessness; she learned to live from it," he told HuffPost via email.
Mr. Munoz, along with other teachers, often picked Andazola Marquez up from wherever she had stayed the night before -- which was sometimes a motel or shelter -- and helped get her to school or activities later in the day.
“They did everything possible to make sure that I stayed with them. They went out of their way,” Andazola Marquez said.
When she was 13, Andazola Marquez's mother was arrested and the event served as a breaking point in the family. Andazola Marquez’s mother was charged with disturbing the peace but because she was undocumented, she was transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
She was released two weeks later, but was put on house arrest for six months. Andazola Marquez and her sister stayed with their father for part of that time.
“I saw so many examples of what my life could end up being. I thought one way or another, I have to leave this place.”
Being separated from her mother uprooted Andazola Marquez's life -- but it also served as motivation for the middle schooler. She decided that she wanted only one thing: to get as far away as possible.
“I saw so many examples of what my life could end up being,” Andazola Marquez said. “I thought one way or another, I have to leave this place.” She started researching colleges and found out that nearly all Ivy Leagues met 100 percent demonstrated need for financial aid.
“I thought if I can get accepted to an Ivy League, I will be gone. That will be the surest way to get out,” she said.
Andazola Marquez's high school -- actually her entire school district -- had never sent a single student to an Ivy before. “Anything I found out about, I found out about on my own,” she said. Andazola Marquez obsessively researched schools like Yale, Harvard and Princeton and brought all of the information to her guidance counselor.
She used the website College Confidential to apply to summer programs for high school students and to read forums about acceptance criteria for the schools she was interested in.
At age 16, during the summer before her junior year of high school, she received full financial aid to attend Yale’s Young Global Scholars summer program. It was her first time away from home without her family. She describes the experience as shocking and frustrating.
“I encountered the opposite kind of student from me -- the one that I wasn’t going to get to be. The student who went to Exeter and had an infinite amount of resources. It was shocking. I had no idea that that kind of a school existed,” she said.
Most of the students she met that summer were oblivious to what Andazola Marquez was going home to -- a lot of unknowns and the occasional bed in a motel.
“I had just been staying in a dorm with regular meals and I knew where I was going to sleep that night,” she said. “I was going to return to not even knowing where I was going to stay.”
But visiting Yale showed Andazola Marquez something important, too: that she belonged. “I performed just as well as the other students who had all the resources. It was really motivating to get a taste of what my life could be like if I kept working hard.”
The following summer, when she was about to enter her senior year of high school, she was admitted to a similar summer program for high school students at Princeton, called the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America.
It was a seven-week program, where in part, students were assigned writing instructors to help them get their college essays ready to submit. Andazola Marquez worked hard with her teacher. Months later, in 2014, Marquez heard from her because The New York Times was holding a contest for college essays about money and she wanted Andazola Marquez to submit.
Andazola Marquez's essay, which was later selected, features the lines: “I can never forget the classic motel stays. The countless notes that stated in all capitals 'MUST EVACUATE BY 4PM' were my cues to negotiate with the manager to give us one more day to make our payments. I learned where $5 would buy enough food to feed a family of 5.”
Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions, Jeremiah Quinlan, told The New York Times that Andazola Marquez's essay was the most powerful one they read. “Lots of people write about obstacles, but there is a forward-looking nature to this,” he said of Andazola Marquez's personal statement.
By the time the world read Andazola Marquez's essay in print, she had been admitted to many of her dream schools. She was offered full rides to Harvard, Princeton and Yale.
But when asked about her parents’ reaction to this kind of an achievement, she speaks matter-of-factly. “My mom is really proud of me, but it’s not necessarily an emotional thing for her. My dad didn’t want me to go so far away. They never dreamed that I would be able to go to school for free. They just don't fully understand how big of an accomplishment it is,” she said.
“I knew that my story would become very public and people were going to know a lot about me.”
By the time she graduated, she had been awarded over $1 million in scholarships to different schools (in fact, she came very close to $2 million total).
Having her college essay published was exciting but also nerve-wracking for Andazola Marquez. “A lot of people who had seen me do well didn’t know the specifics of my situation. I knew that my story would become very public and people were going to know a lot about me,” she said.
When it came time to fly from Colorado to Connecticut to move into her freshman dorm, Andazola Marquez had her mentor Mr. Munoz and his wife by her side. Because her parents couldn't afford to travel with her, Munoz and his wife said they were honored to fill the role.
Showing up at Yale wasn’t as anonymous of an experience as Andazola Marquez might have expected. Many students had read her college essay in The New York Times and talked to her about it.
“I get a mix of things,” she said of her peers’ reactions. “Some say it’s really inspirational, or some wonder how things are now. Other people don’t really understand how one thing led to another. But overall it was a really positive reaction.”
Yale has proven to be the perfect fit for Andazola Marquez. She chose the school in part because of its specific services for students who come from non-traditional backgrounds. Welcome programs were put in place to help her transition from her former life to her new life as a college student.
She also loves the residential college system, which she says is like Harry Potter. Students get sorted into one of 12 colleges and it reminds her of Hogwarts. But ultimately, Andazola Marquez says she just feels a sense of belonging at Yale: "It was my gut instinct to come. It felt natural. It felt like the home I wished I had," she said.
Unlike some college students who might groan about a full class schedule, Andazola Marquez talks joyfully about all the classes she gets to take with the specific excitement of someone who knows what the alternatives are.
“More than anything, I’m focusing on really maximizing the opportunities I have. These are four years of resources I will never be able to replicate in my life again,” she said.
Now that she has a stable living environment, she is able to work two jobs and send money home. One of her jobs last year was as an afterschool program coordinator at a local school in New Haven.
“I have a lot of interest in working with high school students, particularly in relation to college access,” she said. She also works as an application reader for the Yale summer program she attended as a teen.
It is not easy being nearly 2,000 miles away from her family -- especially since her youngest siblings are only four and five years old. She still worries about the things that they need. Her family currently lives in a basement, but Andazola Marquez is happy that her mother has a more stable source of income.
“It’s hard being away because I am missing my brothers growing up and they could use my help,” she said. “But in the long run, my being in college will be a lot better for them.”
Also on HuffPost: