TAMPA — You get street cred when you come to this country on a boat.
Patsy Feliciano, one of the University of South Florida's top diversity officers, was in of the 1980 Mariel boatlift from Cuba. She was 13, born of parents who, she said, "were not Communist enough."
She endured a horrifying journey at sea that cost 24 fellow travelers their lives. Rescued from an overcrowded and broken-down boat, she then spent three days on a U.S. Coast Guard vessel, too weak to sit and subsisting on drops of juice fed to her by a kindly rescue officer.
Learning English as a teenager, she attended West Tampa's Leto High School. She worked full time to put herself through Hillsborough Community College and USF, unaware of the scholarships that might have helped. "I wish I knew then what I know now," she said.
On Friday morning she was back at Leto to inspire a new generation of English-as-a-second-language students. She told her story, including a detailed account of her search for that Coast Guard officer, decades after the rescue.
When the story was over, without prompting, more than 100 students stood and applauded.
"I was crying," said Taisha Rosa, 15.
Feliciano, 43, had been invited by Leto principal Victor Fernandez, who views motivating students as a central part of his job.
The school population skews low income, and 30 percent require English instruction.
About 75 percent read below grade level. Teachers say the gap between the two numbers reflects a large group who have been mainstreamed, but still need help to conquer the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Fernandez has been pushing for more reading classes and tutoring sessions to reach that group, but getting students to participate has not been easy.
Enter Feliciano. "There is nothing better than finding people like you in places where you think you don't belong," she said before the session.
As she spoke, it was clear the students could relate.
They nodded when she described her family's first rental home in Tampa, where they could not afford to run the heat or air conditioner. They listened intently when she said she had to translate for her parents, thus involving herself in every adult decision they made.
After telling her story in English, she switched to Spanish to dispense advice. She learned, through two questions to the audience, that nearly every student would like to go to college. But more than half believe they cannot afford it.
"I'm here to tell you that it's not easy, but you can do anything you want if you try hard enough," she told them.
She boiled the complicated process of financial aid down to a handful of steps: Research the issue online. Seek out individuals who are familiar with the process and can guide you through the steps. And keep your grades up, because "without the grades there are no opportunities."
Adding to her remarks, Fernandez was more direct. Make your parents proud of you, he told the group in Spanish. Boys, respect the girls as you would respect your mother. Girls, you don't need to be 14 or 15 years old and pregnant. Stay away from the bad influences that will hold you back.
"We believe in you," he told them before dismissing them to class.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.