In our family, graduating from high school is a triumph.
Neither of my grandmothers finished high school. My mom graduated, but her siblings never did. My father, Alberto Rodriguez, quit during his sophomore year, when he ran with a gang.
Convicted of a juvenile crime, my dad was sent to a group home where his view on education changed. He met a staff member who'd made it out of gang life by playing sports. That had an impact on my dad. He earned his GED at that group home when he was 17.
My dad says most people in our family have survived working dead-end jobs or committing crimes.
"I didn't want to be like my family," he said. "Nobody ever graduated high school. Nobody went to college. So, I knew education was the best way out of that one."
He continued his education, taking college courses on and off over the years in the hopes of having a better life.
Even though my dad has not reached all of his dreams, he set the bar high for my older sister, Marinda, and me. We've both graduated from Cristo Rey Jesuit High School and she's already in college. That's my dad's expectation for us.
“If you have an adult in your life mentoring you... you're more likely to graduate.”Yariset Rodriguez
"You're raised with the idea that when you go to college you decide what you wanna do, but it's never if you go to college," he said.
But in the Twin Cities, college is out of reach for many students because they don't have a high school diploma or GED.
In the Minneapolis Public Schools, only 34 percent of Latino students the class of 2011 graduated from high school that year, the most recent statistics available. Nearly 22 percent dropped out.
As a second-generation Mexican-American, these numbers are upsetting to me.
Students leave school for a variety of reasons, but many drop out because they don't realize how education can lead them to careers, said Colleen Kaibel, drop-out prevention coordinator for the Check and Connect program in the Minneapolis Public Schools. Counselors from the program are in regular contact with at-risk students to help keep them in school.
"They're looking with a very small lens at the future and what it holds for them and thinking 'college just isn't gonna get me where I to be,' " she said. "They don't know where they can be if they went to college."
One of the keys to helping at-risk students, Kaibel said, is making sure they talk about their future with a parent or another caring adult.
"If you have an adult in your life mentoring you, holding you accountable, encouraging you, supporting you, you're more likely to graduate," she said.
Kaibel's words give me insight into why my sister Marinda and I value education. Our dad's words of encouragement and high expectations push us. But Marinda says some of her strongest mentors have been outside the family.
"I had a few really good teachers, who, you know, believed in me and helped me learn -- actually learn," she said. "And that changed everything completely because once things started to make sense, education and going to school, now I'm all for it."
My sister is now taking courses at Saint Paul College to earn her associate's degree. She plans to continue to get her bachelor's degree.
Marinda lives at home with our large extended family of 10 in a small house -- so small that no one is ever alone. It makes concentrating on school assignments a challenge. While we talked, other family members chatted and played a game on the Wii.
"College has been incredibly difficult for me, not necessarily because of the content -- that's part of my frustration," she said. "It is a little bit difficult, but it's just that my living situation and having to work and, you know, not having money necessarily to go to college is what's most frustrating and difficult."
I know exactly what she's talking about. I bounced between living in Minneapolis and St. Paul with my mom, my dad and my grandmother -- and all of the households are crowded and noisy. But I still finished. In the fall, I'll be attending the College of Saint Benedict where academic and merit scholarships will help me pay for my studies.