Summer/Fall 2023 Distinguished Graduate
Paying It Forward:
Valencia College’s Summer/Fall 2023 Distinguished Graduate Hopes to Repay a Debt to
her Family and Her New Home
When Andrea “Andy” Silva was a kid in Venezuela, she dreamed of becoming an astronaut, then a scientist, and, by middle school, she’d turned her attention toward becoming a psychologist.
Though her career goals changed, there was one constant: College was always in the plans.
That is, until she was 13 years old, and all those plans were nearly upended when her family fled Venezuela after being politically persecuted by the government. Moving to the United States, Andy spent most of her high school years wrestling with a dilemma familiar to many immigrant families. Her parents had given up everything for their children’s future, but that future hinged on college – and Andy had no idea how to pay for it.
Today, at age 21, Andy Silva is one step closer to realizing her dream. In August, she graduated from Valencia College – and now she has been named Valencia College’s Summer/Fall 2023 Distinguished Graduate.
How she went from being discouraged – and wondering if college was even possible for her – to an honors graduate and a member of UCF’s Burnett Honors College is a tale of perseverance and hope.
Although Andy arrived in the United States knowing some English, it had been four years since she’d attended a bilingual school – and her English was rudimentary, at best. In middle school, she did well in math, but English classes and writing essays remained a struggle. Even making friends was difficult.
“I would get the words ‘but’ and ‘because’ confused, and I would mix up all my tenses. People couldn’t understand me,” she recalls. “Back then, it was very frustrating. It was also pretty difficult to make friends because, coming from a different culture, I didn’t know how to read the room.”
By high school, though, Andy had begun to find her stride. Her English had improved, and she zeroed in on her studies. She made great friends in the theater and arts program. But Andy still had high hurdles to overcome. Namely, while she was a good student, Andy didn’t know anything about how Americans apply for college. She was late in understanding the importance of taking the SATs, how to write an essay for college applications, and getting recommendation letters from teachers. Even more important: She had no idea how she would pay for college.
Although Andy’s parents applied for political asylum in the United States, their asylum status is still pending – meaning that Andy isn’t eligible for most scholarships and financial aid, which are available only to U.S. citizens.
“When I figured out that I couldn’t qualify for most scholarships because of my citizenship status, it was very discouraging,” Andy says. “I was also learning how expensive tuition really was. I thought maybe my parents would pay for me, but they sat me down and said, ‘We can’t pay for it. You’re going to have to figure something out.’ It got to the point where I thought, maybe I can’t go to college. Maybe it isn’t going to happen for me.”
Andrea Silva Distinguished Graduate
Luckily for Andy, one of her teachers at Boone High School in Orlando told her that students in Valencia’s Seneff Honors College received free tuition. She applied – and crossed her fingers.
“I’m really glad that that happened – because Valencia College has so many great resources for students like me, for first-generation students and those who aren’t sure how they’re going to make it through college,” she says.
Although she was intimidated at first, uncertain what to expect at college and afraid to ask what she feared might be dumb questions, Andy was surprised by the reception she got at Valencia.
“Everyone at Valencia was so kind and so wonderful. I actually belonged here – it was just very inspiring. If it wasn’t for the people I met at Valencia, I’m not sure I would still be in college.”
From the small classes to the relationships that she developed with her instructors and her classmates; Andy began to blossom. In the Seneff Honors College, she dove into an undergraduate research project, studying whether psychedelic mushrooms could potentially be used to treat depression, a project that won her an award at the Valencia College Honors Undergraduate Research Showcase.
Eager to get involved, she joined the Student Government and eventually became Student Government President of the East Campus. There, she focused on helping student clubs rebound after the pandemic and increased the number of clubs from 12 to more than 30 during her term in SGA.
Looking back, she’s so grateful that she started at Valencia College.
“I feel like if I had started as a freshman at a big university, it would have been so much harder,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been able to get to know my professors as well and build my confidence. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd in such big universities. And it’s a lot harder to make friends. Without the knowledge of how to get involved in college, which I learned at Valencia, it would have been extremely isolating to start at a big university right away.”
Today, Andy is studying psychology at the University of Central Florida, where she’s president of the UCF Transfer club, “Transfer Knights,” a student in the Burnett Honors College, and a scholar in the prestigious Ronald E. McNair scholars’ program due to her academic excellence. She’s working part-time in a research lab studying team cognition for astronauts – and she’s working on her Honors Undergraduate Thesis on simulator training for astronauts. More than a decade later, she’s come full circle – back to her childhood fascination with astronauts.
She still worries about her financial situation, and how she’ll keep paying for college and graduate school, but she keeps her eyes on a few goals – earning a doctorate in psychology and paying back the debt that she owes her parents and to her adopted community.
“To see my parents leave everything behind for me and my brother was heartbreaking,” says Andy. “A huge lesson that has taught me is to take a leap of faith, to take risks and to make sacrifices for what you really want.”
And when she looks around at her classmates at Valencia College, she knows many share her story.
“Many of us,” she says, “have found our way to Valencia College looking for more than was given to us, because being at Valencia is an opportunity a lot bigger than most of us can imagine.”