This story originally appeared on KUT.
Seventh grade was a pivotal year for Violet Jimenez. It’s when she started her first job, working as a clown.
“I did birthday parties for little kids and weddings,” Violet says. “One of the jokes we always had is, ‘We do birthday parties, we do weddings, we do quinceañeras, we do divorces, we do funerals.’”
Seventh grade was also the year Violet started playing the viola at Mendez Middle School in Dove Springs. Now 17 and a senior in high school, she loves playing music. She lives in Elgin but commutes 40 minutes into Austin every day to attend the McCallum High School’s Fine Arts Academy.
For many low-income immigrant families in the U.S., work and taking care of family can sometimes become a bigger priority than graduating high school. Many times, those family responsibilities land on the shoulders of high school students, who must find ways to balance the load.
Statistically, the chances that students like Violet finish high school and go to college are low. Her parents are undocumented and divorced. They didn’t graduate high school in Mexico. Violet grew up poor with an unstable home life and a negligent father who had custody of her sister and her
“When I first started doing orchestra or…things like that, my dad would always be like, ‘Oh, you’re probably going to end up quitting eventually,'” Violet says. “And, so, that’s always been the mentality in my family. It’s really hard to want to try to be successful.”
Growing up in Dove Springs, Violet says she and her sister were often left home alone. Eventually, she started working so she could pay for her own food and clothes. Throughout high school, Violet has balanced schoolwork with practicing the viola and multiple jobs. She says her junior year was the toughest because she helped her mom clean businesses while also working at a nearby Sonic.
“I’d cry at night because it would get to the point it was so stressful,” Violet says. “Dropping out has crossed my mind and, like, I’ve considered it. But obviously you’re not thinking straight when you’re thinking that. Because, what are you going to do when you drop out? Work at Burger King? I mean, I’m sorry, but that’s not the kind of life I want.”
Not all high school students realize they should stay in school—and realizing that is tougher if you have foreign-born parents in the U.S. Those students have an eight percent chance of dropping out of high school, according to the non-profit Child Trends.
For Violet, having a support system has helped. She found one at Breakthrough Austin, a non-profit that works with first-generation college students for 12 years starting in sixth grade and all the way through college. While teachers, counselors and schools can change every year, Breakthrough is different because of that consistent guidance.
“We can meet with a student and just know them for the length of time. The duration of the program, I think, makes it really special,”says Zakkiyah Kareem, Violet’s counselor at Breakthrough. Last year, the program served more than a thousand students in the Austin area. Violet applied to the program through her middle school. Ever since, she’s had a Breakthrough counselor check on her weekly. Breakthrough also offers counseling, and summer academic courses, in addition to helping families with college applications and financial aid paperwork.