Andrea Castillo is not a stranger to hard work. Raised in a single parent household in the Castle Park community, she and her brother Irvin did what they could to help their mother Tereza Aguilar during economic struggles. Aguilar and her extended family are well rooted in San Diego’s South County. Aguilar graduated from Southwest High School but life presented some challenges. She often worked three jobs just to get by.
“We moved around a lot,” Castillo said. “But it was part of life. I didn’t really know we were poor until I was in sixth grade. It’s then you start realizing that you dress and look different.”
Castillo, 19, says school was a distraction to what was happening at home. She immersed herself in academics and afterschool activities. When she became old enough to work, she joined mom in cleaning homes or working at a local taco shop. Making the rent and having enough money for food was a daily concern.
“My mom always encouraged higher education. She didn’t want us to have the same life as her,” Castillo said. “But I really never thought about how to do it or that it was even possible. I was just trying to get by each day and help take care of my mom and brother.”
Then one day, attracted by some give-a-ways, Castillo said she happened upon a Chula Vista Promise Neighborhood (CVPromise) informational booth at Castle Park High School.
“I really just wanted the give-a-ways, but then they handed me a flier and started talking to me about colleges and activities. So, I thought, why not?”
Soon after, Castillo, with her mom and CVPromise Academic Advocate Gerardo Hernandez, began planning for college. Castillo received help with homework, scholarships, connecting with community service opportunities, and learning the important steps needed to get into college.
“Visiting college campuses put everything into perspective,” Castillo said. “I saw the kind of places I could be at and realized that there was a lot of diversity on campuses too. I also realized I wanted to go away to school. Breaking that news to my family was tough.”
In 2016, Castillo was accepted to her school of choice, San Francisco State University as a Kinesiology major. As the first in her family to go to college, there were many mixed emotions. Her tight knit family had weathered many challenges together, but accepting Castillo’s academic journey away from home was going to be difficult.
“My Academic Advocate really supported us. He helped us communicate and talk about the positives of attending San Francisco and how grants and scholarships can help the cost,” Castillo said. “But most importantly he helped me show them that I was leaving for school and not leaving them.”
Last fall, Castillo and her family took the long drive to San Francisco where Castillo settled in her three-bedroom dorm to begin her first year of school.
“I remember the first day they left, I looked around my new place. It was so cool. I knew I’d be totally fine. But, then I started to cry. Feeling that separation was tough,” Castillo said. “I didn’t know anyone. The first week was really frustrating and I learned a lot about myself.”
Castillo said that her early work experience helped create a strong work ethic that was an essential driver that first year of school. She sought out resources and joined school organizations like MEChA and Metro Association for Social Equity. She also learned that she was not alone in her story and struggles, and that her experiences can help others as well. Castillo began helping with local homelessness issues and supporting other students like herself navigate campus life. Castillo completed her first year earning A’s and B’s.
“My Academic Advocate is still a phone call away. I can call him with financial aid questions or talk to him about my classes. I also served as my school’s ambassador when he brought a group from Castle Park [High School] to visit the campus,” Castillo said.
Back home, her family has become more confident and supportive in her decision. Mom is working with Manpower, a CVPromise partner, to build new work skills and find a better paying job. Her brother Irvin, 18, is following in her footsteps and will be attending San Diego State University in the fall. Mom is encouraging him to move into the dorms and become part of campus life like Castillo.
“My advice to students is to believe in yourself,” Castillo said. “Go above and beyond and be on time. Don’t be afraid to seek out and use resources. Explore your campus. And remember that we are in school for a reason. We can have whatever career we want, we just have to stick to our goals.”