Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Leto High students hear inspirational message from USF official who immigrated from Cuba

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 sokol@sptimes.com.

Patsy Feliciano, interim director of diversity and inclusion at the University of South Florida, can be reached at (813) 974-3827.

Leto High students hear inspirational message from USF official who immigrated from Cuba 03/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 4, 2011 11:38pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Rick and Tom podcast: Will Bucs go 2-0? Are Gators on upset alert?

    Blogs

    It's football friday as Rick Stroud and Tom Jones break down the Bucs' game in Minnesota, including the improved offensive line.

    Ali Marpet moved from guard to center on an improved Bucs offensive line.
  2. In this Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017, photo distributed on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017, by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers a statement in response to U.S. President Donald Trump's speech to the United Nations, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim, in an extraordinary and direct rebuke, called Trump "deranged" and said he will "pay dearly" for his threats, a possible indication of more powerful weapons tests on the horizon. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. [Associated Press]
  3. Locals help clear debris from a road after the passing of Hurricane Maria, in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, Thursday, September 21, 2017. As of Thursday evening, Maria was moving off the northern coast of the Dominican Republic with winds of 120 mph (195 kph). The storm was expected to approach the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Bahamas late Thursday and early Friday. [Associated Press]
  4. Forecast: First day of fall brings more showers, humidity to Tampa Bay

    Weather

    More moisture will filter into the Tampa Bay area on Friday, the official start of fall, allowing for higher rain chances through the day and beginning half of the weekend.

    Tampa Bay's 7 day forecast. [WTSP]
  5. Polk childcare workers who berated autistic child turn themselves in (w/video)

    Crime

    WINTER HAVEN — Two childcare workers are facing child abuse charges after a Snapchat video surfaced of them berating, taunting and throwing a backpack at an 8-year-old autistic child.

    Police are searching for two childcare workers - Kaderrica Smith, 26, and Alexis Henderson, 20 - after a Snapchat video surfaced of them berating, taunting and throwing a backpack at an 8-year-old Autistic child in Winter Haven. [Winter Haven Police Department]