High School + STLCC Classes = Achievement, Part One
A Special Series Presented by St. Louis Community College
St. Louis Community College provides several opportunities for area high school students to earn college credit before they graduate. In some cases, students can complete both their high school diploma and an associate degree at the same time. STLCC is proud to share the voices of students in these programs. This is the first installment of our four-part series exploring how young STLCC students benefit from an early college experience.
Meet Zoraya Piedra, McKinley Classical Leadership Academy
It has never been easy for Zoraya Piedra. The middle child of five of a single mom, money is always tight and a secure life can sometimes seem out of reach.
Piedra plans to change that.
“As a young kid, I realized that the only way to help my family is through education,” she said. “I knew that those who have a higher education have more opportunities than those who do not. That's why I always strive to do well in school, not just because of my family's situation but because I genuinely enjoy learning. There's a sense of pressure to graduate from Forest Park and go to a four-year school, but at the same time, I want to do it for my family.
“There is pride that comes along with this. I’m representing my family.”
St. Louis Community College has provided her a head start. Two years ago, as a sophomore at McKinley Classical Leadership Academy, in the Saint Louis Public Schools district, Piedra learned that as part of Early College, dual enrollment students complete an associate degree in the same semester they graduate from high school.
She begins her final semester as a senior this month just 11 hours shy of qualifying for graduation with an associate degree in general transfer studies. That means she could use spring 2022 to enjoy herself and take less academically rigorous classes.
Nope. Not for the only member of her entire extended family to take a college course, let alone go to college. She is registered for classes in physics, geometry and calculus, philosophy, and meteorology.
“She wants to be a role model for her siblings and her community,” said Sandra Arumugam-Osburn, Ed.D, professor of mass communications at STLCC-Forest Park. “She’s going to be one of those who proves that someone’s background alone is not going to be the determining factor of one’s success.”
Osburn had Piedra in Smart Start for College Success, a class that helps prepare students for the differences of college in contrast to high school expectations. But because that was online, she and Piedra didn’t get to know each other until Piedra became an active member of the Xi Epsilon chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, an international honor society that Osburn advises.
The coronavirus pandemic drove down active participation and prospects for student leadership didn’t look positive.
In summer 2021, Piedra accepted the role of chapter president. She, along with other leaders, helped rebuild the program to include weekly meetings, guest speakers and volunteer opportunities for members.
“Zoraya has been on top of it with Phi Theta Kappa,” Osburn said. “She wasn’t going to get involved if she couldn’t be active.”
It’s important to keep in mind what Piedra does during an average week.
In addition to taking a full load of college courses and volunteering a few hours each week with PTK, she helps at home with her 12-year-old twin siblings.
To help the household financially, she works no less than 19 hours per week as a busser at a local restaurant.
Unhappy with her first score on the ACT, she spent four hours a week this past fall in an ACT preparation program offered by Washington University in St. Louis.
Oh, and Piedra carries a 3.6 grade point average at STLCC with a 4.259 GPA for high school.
A Role Model
For Piedra, there has been no better role model, cheerleader and support system than her mom, Adania Piedra, who emigrated from Guerrero, Mexico to the United States when she was 10 years old.
Her mother’s formal education ended before high school. She speaks some English, but mostly communicates in Spanish and works as a housekeeper at a worldwide hotel chain.
Piedra learned the love of learning from her mother, who pushed her children to value education and make it a priority in their lives. Yes, there were times when food was scarce and the possibility of eviction was real but she credits her mother for ensuring the family was cared for.
“In some ways, I don’t feel like my family knows what’s going on,” Piedra said. “(My mom) doesn't understand the responsibilities that I carry as a high school and a college student but has always taught me to be a hard worker, and I've seen that through her when she goes to work early in the morning to provide for me and my siblings.”
When things got especially challenging for Piedra as fundamentals of chemistry made her wonder if she was in over her head — she did exactly as her mom taught her — she found a solution.
Piedra took advantage of the College’s free counseling services and spoke to a counselor once a week about all she faced. She said it was key in getting her through the semester.
Despite all of the hours her mom puts in at work, Piedra knows she can lean on her mom for advice and love.
“Whenever I feel stressed out because of work or the exams that are coming up, I always go to her.
“She has always been proud of me. Although there are times when she doesn't say it to me personally, she shows it through her actions. At family reunions, she would always share my achievements with my family and talk about the activities I'm involved in.”
Piedra plans to study aeronautical engineering when she matriculates to a four-year college. She is interested in Missouri University of Science and Technology, Saint Louis University and University of Kentucky. She’s not certain what she is going to do with the degree, but she knows exactly where she wants it to take her.
“I have this huge dream,” she said. “I want to become an astronaut. I know that most astronauts study engineering, but the reason why I chose this field was the fact that I'll be able to work with my hands and challenge myself to find solutions to problems.”
It’s been her dream since sixth grade when a teacher noticed her love for science and space specifically and encouraged her to learn more about the subjects. She spends hours reading about space science and listening to TED Talks hosted by retired Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Chris Hadfield and NASA Astronaut Megan McArthur.
Piedra wants to follow in the footsteps of Ellen Ochoa, former director of the Johnson Space Center and first Hispanic woman in space.
She wants to do this because it’s her dream and her passion, but also for a more important reason.
“I'm striving to get scholarships so that I can get the opportunity to earn my bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering," she said. "I would like to have a career that I genuinely enjoy working in so that once my two younger siblings go to college, I'll be able to help them financially.”