If you are ever in doubt that dreams do come true, spend just five minutes with Marisol Saenz.
As a child growing up in Lodi, Calif., Saenz lived in a household of eleven. She and her four siblings were raised by their grandmother, because their parents worked seven days a week.
“My father started picking fruit in the fields of California at the age of 12, and my mother began working at a restaurant at the age of 13,” Saenz said. “My parents were taught that working to help support the family was more important than an education. They provided all of our basic needs, but we all knew never to ask for more."
But Saenz knew she wanted more for her future. That is when she started dreaming of going to college.
"I have not forgotten a quote that I heard from a seminar: 'An ordinary human being adapts to their circumstances, but an extraordinary person makes their circumstances adapt to them,'" she said.
Even as a child, Saenz was determined to be extraordinary. While Saenz spoke Spanish at home, she learned English at school.
"I used to complete my homework packet every Monday, because if I had any questions, I couldn't ask my parents because they didn't have the educational background to help me. So I would do it early then take it to school and ask the teacher for help when I needed it," she said.
"As a little girl, I loved to do the right thing and make my parents proud. School was the one thing that came naturally to me, and it was something I was good at."
While her parents never had the opportunity to go to college, they instilled in their five children the desire to get a degree and become successful.
“My mom always told us education was the most important thing. We are Mexican, and in our traditional culture girls are often raised thinking they don’t have to go to school. We are supposed to be stay-at-home moms and cook and clean and that’s it,” said Saenz.
When she was 14 years old, due to gang violence where they lived in California, Saenz and her family moved to Kaufman, Texas, near her mother’s relatives. Saenz was now in high school and started thinking about where she wanted to go to college.
“I knew I didn’t want to go to a big school like UT or A&M, and my principal’s assistant had a son going to Sam Houston and she invited me to go with her and check it out,” Saenz said. “She brought me three times, and I really liked it; it was not too big, not too small, and just close and far enough away from home.”
The only obstacle then was figuring out how to pay for a college education.
“Money has always been my weak point; you feel a little helpless if you don’t have it. But my mom has always been a go-getter,” Saenz said. “She told me not to worry about the money. She said if she had to work one job, two jobs or three jobs, she’d find a way to pay for college.”
Then during her senior year of high school, Saenz interviewed for an opportunity to earn a four-year business scholarship at Sam Houston. That is when all of her hard work started paying off.
“I remember getting the scholarship letter. My mom and I were crying and jumping with joy because we weren’t going to have to bear the expense of college,” she said.
Saenz was accepted into the Smith-Hutson Scholarship program and soon began studying accounting at SHSU.
While working on her degree, she made many new friends and memories at Sam Houston. One of her favorite memories is attending the Tree of Light ceremony each year and working in the campus bookstore.
In May 2011, an entire year early, Saenz did something no one else in her family had ever done. She walked across the stage and got her degree.
“My mom just cried and hugged me. It is not just my degree and my accomplishments; I do believe it is my whole family’s, my parents above all,” she said.
Since she completed her degree in three years, her scholarship donor is allowing her to use the fourth year of her scholarship money to work on her master’s degree. Saenz will graduate in August with a Master of Science degree in accounting and then begin studying to take the certified public accountant exam.
She has already accepted a position with one of the largest public accounting firms in Houston and will begin working in the fall. When the firm made her the job offer, it was a defining moment in her life and her parent's.
"When I opened the paper with the job offer, I just sat there for a minute," said Saenz. "I couldn't believe it. I thought 'oh my goodness, it took my dad 17 years to make this much money.' I remember wondering what my dad would think about this, knowing I'm going to make this much money right out of college.
"I showed my dad and he just said 'wow', but my mom paused and said, 'oh my goodness honey' and she started to cry. And it makes sense that it affected her that way because she is the one who had to take care of all the bills, and she knows how far this much money goes."
For Saenz, the job offer gave her a never before sense of freedom.
"I immediately started budgeting. I guess it is the accountant in me," she laughed. "But I've never had money before to budget. It is so liberating to know I can actually help my parents now and give back to them immediately. It feels incredible. I am my parents' partner now in my siblings' education. I know college is not for everyone, but I believe everyone should have the opportunity to go; that's what I want for my siblings."
And when it comes to her own children in the future, Saenz knows her success will also allow her to spend valuable time them, instead of working late nights in a restaurant as her mother did when she was growing up.
"God blessed me with the best parents I could ever ask for. But one thing I thought about as I was growing up is I didn't want my children to have to worry about asking for something they may need or want," she said.
While she thanks her parents for their motivation and love; professors at Sam Houston for their continuous support and the generous contributors of the Smith-Hutson Scholarship program, Saenz wants everyone to know she is where she is today because of a much higher power.
“If it weren’t for Jesus Christ, I wouldn’t be here at all. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Jeremiah 17:7: ‘But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him.’ All my confidence comes from Him. My faith is what has lead me to where I am today, and it is my faith in Him that assures me that I will fulfill my ultimate dream of being the successful person I know He created me to be,” she said. “I’m not only a first-generation college graduate. I’m proof dreams do come true.”