Toppenish senior Brenda Lustre never failed a high school class, but she’s not the valedictorian either.
She got a couple of C’s along the way to graduation tonight, June 14. She’s not proud of that, but she is matter-of-fact about it.
“My grades depended on my situation,” she said in an interview this week.
Mostly they were A’s and B’s. The C’s came when she didn’t have enough time to study. Lustre, the youngest of eight kids, moved to the United States at 8 years old without knowing English. Then she spent her entire school career in Toppenish caring for her ailing mother and helping out with younger nieces and nephews. She did it because someone had to.
Lustre’s mother, Leonila Lustre, had a series of health problems and suffers from depression. She couldn’t do the typical work a parent does around the house. So Lustre did it herself, cleaning the house every day, walking nieces and nephews to and from school, making sure the family was fed and the household ran smoothly. And she did it without many luxuries.
“Along the way, I realized my mom’s struggle wasn’t just because of depression,” Lustre said. “It was also because our economic situation wasn’t that high. I would see my friends and people I know go out with their families and do fun stuff. That was never the case with me.”
In fact, when Lustre started high school her mother flatly told her the family couldn’t afford college. It was a hard truth, but one of the things Lustre most respects and appreciates about her mother is that her mother never sugarcoats things. She’s open and truthful with her children.
“She told me, if you want to go to college, you have to find a way in school to make that happen,” Lustre said.
She found the way via the Act Six Scholarship, a national program that focuses on low-income students with leadership ability. The program works in seven areas of the country, including the Yakima Valley, paying for students to attend colleges in those areas. For the Yakima Valley, the partner is Heritage University, where Lustre plans to study business administration and computer science on a full four-year scholarship.
She’s one of 138 Act Six scholars this year, including 10 from the Valley, three of whom are from Toppenish. Lustre vividly remembers getting the phone call telling her college would be paid for. It was overwhelming and seemed unreal. But after the news sank in she felt something wonderful and unfamiliar: relief.
“I felt like I didn’t have anything on my shoulders,” Lustre said. “I felt all of that go away.”
Her mother, of course, was excited and proud. Lustre will be the first of her immediate family to attend college. And she doesn’t plan to stop after graduating. She intends to get a master’s degree and a doctorate. Ultimately, she hopes to create some kind of business that helps people in low-income areas find better jobs than field work or factory work.
Her inspiration for that comes from Toppenish teacher Brad Baker’s leadership class, which Lustre credits for the realization that she enjoys helping others enough to make a career out of it. Since taking the class she has volunteered at a local food bank and signed up to spend this summer assisting a Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic program that provides educational classes for people with chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
That should look good on grad school applications.
“There’s a lot of people my age who graduate and say, ‘I did it,’” Lustre said. “But to me, my perspective is, ‘I haven’t done it yet.’ It’s not that I’m not proud of myself. I am. But I have more to do.”