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From Leon to Stanford University: the story of a young migrant in the US

Michelle was valedictorian at Miami Dade High School and excelled as a civic activist, which earned her a scholarship to the prestigious university

Michelle’s effort is directly proportional to the sacrifice her mother has made for her, expresses this young Nicaraguan migrant in the United States, who at the age of 18 has excelled in the country that welcomed her and her family.

Michelle Mairena is from León and left Nicaragua for the United States six years ago with her younger sister and her mother, Sayda Peralta, in search of better economic opportunities. 

In this short period of time, she stood out as the best student in her school in Miami-Dade, Florida, the state that is home to the majority of Nicaraguan migrants in the country. 

She won several awards for high school journalism, was leader of the campaign “When we all vote”, an initiative led by former first lady Michelle Obama that encourages young people to vote, and she is now the founder of an organization called Rhizome, that promotes civic activism. 

Because of her student record, she was accepted to Stanford, one of the most prestigious universities in the United States where, thanks to a scholarship, she will have the opportunity to explore between journalism and law. “I still don’t know what I’m going to study, but what I am sure of is that I want to be a public servant”, she says excitedly. 

Sacrifices that pay off

Michelle defines the first months in the United States as a time of many sacrifices, but with great results. Adjusting to a new country, language, school system and culture was a challenge. “Many times I would go home crying, because I went from being one of the best students in my school, in Leon, to being a student who could not even understand what the teacher was saying in the lectures,” she says. 

At that time the school enrolled Michelle in a three-year program to learn English, but in the first year of classes she managed to master the language, because she set it as a goal. “I decided to listen, read, and watch things in English from home and always talk to my friends in English,” she explains. 

Daughter and granddaughter of journalists, the young woman was instilled with a love for writing, a habit that helped her in her transition from one country to another. She followed in the footsteps of her grandmother, Mercedes Peralta, and began to write what she saw around her, the stories of migrants she encountered at school. “That’s how I became known at school, and it led me to be part of the school newspaper and to win many awards for my writing,” she shares. 

She recalls growing up in an environment where political conversation and civic activism were encouraged by her family. During the 2018 midterm elections, which were her first in the country, Michelle decided to volunteer with When We All Vote, a program through which she helped many young people register and prepare for voting. 

Two years later, in 2020, she was leader of the same campaign in Miami Dade county and was able to get more than three thousand high school students involved too. “Youth activism is among the most important, especially when it comes to election issues. Today’s vote reverberates in the generations to come and will define the future,” she adds. 

The young woman has also been part of other political campaigns, interned and volunteered for Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for the Democratic Party. This summer, along with 90 students around the country, she created a nonprofit organization called Rhizome. 

She wants to promote civic education in young people, especially in low-income minority communities and schools. “I’m excited because even though I’m not a citizen, I’m a resident, and this hasn’t stopped me from promoting voting and doing activism with young people,” she assures. 

Packing her bags for Stanford

When it was time to apply to high school, Michelle had the option of sending applications to five schools. She had to go through a selection process similar to that of University to get into the one that attracted her attention the most, or had the classes she preferred. Michelle chose the ones that would allow her to study journalism during her high school years. “They all accepted me, and that’s when I saw the first fruits of my efforts”, she says, smiling with satisfaction. 

She applied to several prestigious universities in her county and other states, such as Dartmouth College, University of Southern California, Bowdoin College, Hamilton College, Tufts University, University of Florida and Stanford University. They all accepted her and offered her scholarships, but she decided on Stanford. 

“I still can’t believe I got into Stanford. I’m going to be the first in my family who, at my age, is going to have the privilege of not worrying about a job, not worrying about having food on the table, and instead the only thing I have to focus on is my studies”, she says excitedly. 

In her senior year of high school she won an award given by the Junior League of Miami, an organization that recognizes young women in the Miami Dade community for outstanding participation in community service and academic achievement. “I won the trophy for promoting the youth vote at the Florida and Miami level, which for me is a privilege and it’s money that goes towards (paying for) my time at Stanford.”

Currently, she is packing her bags to travel from coast to coast and move to Stanford, in California. Filled with mixed feelings and enthusiasm, she shares that this is the first time she will be traveling outside of the state. “In September I’m going to start this new phase of my life that I can focus all my energy on, I have a lot of expectations”, she says. 

The dilemma that Michelle faces now is whether to study journalism or law, which is why she will be taking History, Economics Philosophy, Latin American Studies, and Political Theory classes during her first semester. “For the moment, I haven’t settled on what career path to choose, but I am sure that I want to be a public servant”.

She believes that being from Nicaragua, a country that faces a dictatorship and constant human rights abuses, has motivated her to get involved in civic and political activism. 

“The majority of students that I have engaged in civic activism with are Cuban, Venezuelan and some Nicaraguans. I think that coming from countries with dictatorships, we feel committed to activism, it’s part of our identity as a latino migrant”, she reflects. 

“The reality of many young people in my country hurts” 

Michelle worries about the situation in Nicaragua, especially the events taking place this electoral year, and she compares the electoral processes of both countries. “Democracy in the United States is very complex, but here you have the ability to influence the political process, which you cannot do in Nicaragua. There is no longer freedom of expression, freedom of the press. Sometimes I think that if I, with my ideals, were still in Nicaragua and had the desire to be active in the civic sector, I would probably be imprisoned, disappeared or exiled… The reality of many young people and students in my country hurts”, says Michelle. 

She reflects on the opportunity she has in the United States to be an activist and do what she loves without fear. She also emphasizes the different academic spaces that have allowed her to develop her abilities and where she has been able to demonstrate her skills. “This would not have been possible in Nicaragua”, she laments. 

She longs to return to Nicaragua, feels committed to rebuilding the country, and is hopeful that Orteguismo will soon leave power. “This also motivates me to focus on my studies, to continue working in the public sector, hand in hand with the youth, to be an agent of change and to be able to contribute to my country,” she says.

She admires her mothers courage and effort, which gave her and her sister a better future. Sayda Peralta was a journalist in Nicaragua, working in local and national media such as 100% Noticias for a long time. 

Although Sayda had a job and her own house in the city of Leon, there were limitations, like a lack of economic stability that would not allow her daughters to have quality education in the country. That is why Sayda sacrificed her career in Nicaragua and opted to migrate to the United States: so that her daughters would have opportunities like the ones Michelle has had. Michelle gives her all in her studies to achieve every goal and shine in the northern country, and this, in turn, makes her mother’s effort worthwhile.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff

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