Kentucky State University graduate and valedictorian Alma Lopez Arellano arrived in the United States from Mexico at age 15. At that time, neither of her parents had finished high school and she didn’t know what a valedictorian was.
None of that mattered. She finished high school, after attending three different high schools in two states, with a 3.8 GPA.
“I always had the dream of going to college,” Arellano said. “I was the first one in the family to actually finish high school and I was undocumented at the time. I didn’t know I had the possibility of attending college without documents.”
Determined to get a college degree one way or another, Arellano hatched a plan.
“I started saving money because I thought if I cannot go to college here, I’ll go back to my country and go to college there,” Arellano said.
During that transition, Arellano also got married, had a child and then decided to wait until her son was a little older before she went back to school.
“It was always in the back of my mind,” she said. “Going back to college, getting that degree.”
When former president Barack Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy in 2012, Arellano saw an opportunity.
“I was really excited because I thought maybe this is going to help me go to college,” she said. “Right after I got my work permit and my Social Security card, I came over to the admissions office at Kentucky State.”
With her high school transcript and GPA, Arellano was a prime candidate. There was only one hitch: she needed to take the ACT.
“So, I had two whole days to prepare for the ACT,” Arellano said.
She earned a high enough score to qualify for a scholarship that covered the cost of her tuition, leaving her with the cost of books and supplies.
“I was very grateful for that,” Arellano said. “That’s what started me on my college career.”
Arellano now has two sons, ages 10 and one-and-a-half. Balancing motherhood and college were difficult, she said, but her organizational and time management skills made it possible.
“I tried to fit my class schedule into my life schedule and I took classes while my son was in school,” Arellano said. “It was a balancing act.”
Arellano, a business administration major with a specialization in accounting, is currently interning in the Kentucky State University accounting department. During her internship, Arellano said she’s looked forward to doing anything that’s asked of her.
“If I don’t know how to do it, I will ask somebody to teach me,” she said. “I love learning and I feel like every day I learn something new is a good day.”
With a degree in hand, she’s waiting to see what the next step in her life will be. She has job applications out and is eager to see where she will land.
Arellano credited her business professors for always being available and for making her college experience better because she knew she had people in her corner.
Kim Sipes, deputy provost for undergraduate education and faculty affairs, was Arellano’s advisor and unspoken mentor, Arellano said.
“She worked with me and she helped me get through it,” Arellano said. “She will even, sometimes, offer to babysit so I can attend an honors convocation if I didn’t have a sitter.”
Arellano said earning valedictorian feels amazing because she never thought she could make it.
“I mean, I didn’t know what a valedictorian was. I didn’t know it was possible for me, coming from a really small town in Mexico,” Arellano said.
To her parents, she said, it’s just another achievement to go along with the multiple accolades their daughter has earned. They’ve always known her as organized and driven.
Despite the obstacles of coming from a different country, attending college through a pregnancy, raising a newborn, juggling a house, two kids and school, Arellano made it.
“I guess all those sleepless nights paid off,” Arellano said.