Natalia De Paz is building her American Dream one step at a time. The 17-year-old Bastrop ISD student is old enough to have a vision of what she wants but still young enough for the dream to evolve and still reveal itself.
She is one of nearly 50 students who will graduate from the Colorado River Collegiate Academy (CRCA) in May 2018 with a high school diploma and from Austin Community College with an Associate’s Degree. This will be CRCA’s inaugural graduating class.
“I want to be an immigration attorney. It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I can remember,” the CRCA senior said.
A daughter of immigrants, Natalia became interested in immigration law as a child when federal paperwork and other obstacles nearly led to her mother being deported to Mexico. The issue was resolved, and the family was able to stay together, but Natalia knows hers is not the ending for everyone.
“I’ve seen the process of trying to get legal status here in the U.S., and it can be difficult,” she said.
As a 8-year-old child sitting in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Office in San Antonio, Natalia witnessed firsthand the separation of families. Ten years later, that image is part of what fuels her motivation.
“I remember sitting there and not knowing if my mom was going to come back or not. It was scary,” she recounted.
Her mother Balbina Reza, a bus driver in Bastrop ISD, is the other thing that fuels her passion and motivation to succeed. It was in first grade that Natalia began riding the routes with her. She would get up at 4:00 a.m. and join her mother on the bus route so that they could be together.
“My mother is my biggest inspiration. She’s a good mom, a hard worker. She’s my best friend,” said Natalia.
Using her childhood inspiration and her mother’s work ethic, Natalia has turned her life story into her life’s work. This past summer, her last before heading to college, instead of carefree days relaxing with friends, Natalia travelled to Washington D.C. to participate in the Constitution Academy. The week-long program is an opportunity for students to practice civil discourse, meet with members of Congress, and learn the inner workings of politics and public service.
“What’s happening today in our country and in our world has made me more involved, you can say. As soon as I got back from the Academy, I started with Dawn,” Natalia said with a glimmer in her eye.
Dawn Salas is an immigration attorney in the Austin area, and Natalia served as her intern towards the end of summer, an opportunity arranged for her by Bastrop ISD alumnus and Austin attorney, Rico Reyes.
“I sat in on some immigration cases and took notes for her. It was intense, but I learned so much!” Natalia exclaimed.
Salas says Natalia’s passion and ambition will take her far. “Natalia shows a great interest in assisting those in need. I am sure her compassion and convictions will serve her well in all her future endeavors.”
Natalia takes her praises with embarrassment but acceptance.
“Getting two diplomas at once, the experiences I have had this summer. It’s what I want--to go places. I feel so happy being able to do all of this,” she said with a smile.
Natalia is focusing her efforts now on college admissions, scholarship applications, and the next chapter.
“I’ve narrowed it down to UT Austin and Texas Tech--those are my two choices,” said Natalia. “I want to go to UT because it’s close to the Capitol, and I love politics, but Texas Tech is my first choice because of their Honors Program. If you’re accepted, you can earn credits toward a law degree as an undergraduate.”
She knows the promise and determination it takes to earn a diploma and a college degree at the same time, and she’s ready for whatever her next steps might be. Natalia De Paz is proof that hard work and determination can turn a dream into reality.