Coming Alive at UT

How scholarships helped Michelle Quiñones escape violence and poverty to attend UT.

Michelle Quinones

As someone who grew up in Ciudad Juarez, surrounded by drugs, violence, and poverty, Michelle Quiñones seems an unlikely soul to wind up a student at The University of Texas. Her parents, a Mexican mother and a Cuban political exile father, had modest dreams for their daughter. They wanted her to stay alive, stay out of trouble, and maybe even become a licenciada — someone with a college degree.

But Michelle, who was born in El Paso, had a bigger dream. She planned to go to college in the United States, ideally at The University of Texas. Everyone who had a reasonable chance at influencing her — her parents, her teachers, even her high school guidance counselors — urged Michelle to aim for lower, more realistic goals. Though her grades were among the best in her school, she spoke almost no English. And even if she managed to get into an American college, she could not pay her own way.

Determined nonetheless to chase her dream of a world-class education, Michelle and her family moved to the United States in her last semester of high school. She enrolled at a school filled with the children of immigrants, many of them undocumented, where The University of Texas seemed as far away as the stars. She applied anyway.

“When I got my acceptance letter, I couldn’t believe it,” Michelle says. “I saw my mother, the strongest woman I’ve ever met, cry for the first time. She was really happy and proud of my achievement, but she was concerned about how to afford it financially.”

Two bittersweet weeks passed as the family agonized over what was best for Michelle and what was possible. Then a letter arrived notifying her that she had won a Hispanic Texas Exes Challenge Grant Scholarship. When her mom saw the letter she didn’t say a word for five minutes — she simply read it over and over. That money, along with other scholarships, enabled Michelle to come to UT. The day she moved into Jester was her first time in Austin.

Michelle scored a 4.0 her freshman year, despite having to learn English on the fly. Last summer she studied in Brazil and picked up some Portuguese while researching race relations and economics. Now a government and international relations double major, Michelle interns at a local nonprofit that helps Cuban and Salvadoran refugees.

In her spare time, Michelle volunteers with the Latino Leadership Council and dances competitively with Texas Latin Dance, Longhorn Salsa, and Texas Ballroom. Last spring, at a competition at Rice, she placed second in the bachata.

During her first week at UT, Michelle heard a quote from American theologian Howard Thurman that has since become her mantra: “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

“Thanks to the Texas Exes Scholarship Foundation and to all the people who contribute to making UT such a great place,” she says, “I am being able to study and do what makes me come alive every day.”


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