09:29 AM

Defying the Odds

Dual Credit Alum Sets the Bar for College


After becoming a mother as a freshman in high school, Yulissa Ibarra vowed she would return to school one day and enter college. Her comeback started her sophomore year when she transferred to the Sonia M. Sotomayor Early College High School at PSJA ISD, a school exclusively for teen moms which requires all students to take dual credit classes through STC.

When Yulissa Ibarra’s life took an unexpected turn, and she became pregnant during her freshman year of high school, she refused to become another statistic.

After all, only 38 percent of teen moms earn their high school diplomas, according to Students for Life of America. Meanwhile, just 2 to 3 percent will achieve their college degrees before they turn 30.

But not Ibarra. In fact, she is the first in her family to earn not only her high school diploma, but also an associate degree from STC in the Dual Credit program. Not one to rest on her laurels, Ibarra is also off to the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley this fall.

Her secret to beating the odds?

“If I wouldn’t have found out about Sotomayor [Early College High School], and especially if I wouldn’t have met Ms. Leslie,” says the STC alum, “I wouldn’t be here and accomplished what I accomplished.”

According to Dual Credit Instructor Teshawn Leslie, the professor couldn’t be prouder: “Yulissa is a great individual who I know will continue to break the cycle and break barriers.”

Ibarra’s comeback started in her sophomore year when she transferred to the Sonia M. Sotomayor Early College High School (PSJA ISD). The school is exclusively for teen moms and requires all students to take dual credit classes through STC.

“It has such a powerful impact,” says the instructor. “Ninety-nine percent of our girls are going to be first-generation graduates from taking these college classes.”

Ibarra, who didn’t know anything about college when she began, was a little intimidated, especially since she started as a sophomore instead of a first-year.

“I didn’t think I was going to be able to finish it,” recalls the student. But with Leslie’s encouragement, she buckled down, focused and realized that her determination could carry her forward. As the proud alum says, “I actually did one year and a half with no summers off, and I finished it.”

Last May, after continually making the President’s Honor Roll, Ibarra earned the Human Resources Associate of Applied Science from STC. She credits her boost in confidence to Leslie’s classes.

“I’m looking forward to getting to study law — I’m going to start school this fall."
Julissa Ibarra

“I get shy talking in front of people in public,” confides Ibarra. But at her instructor’s recommendation, she joined the Business Professionals of America (BPA) club to practice what she was learning in her human resources class. As she says, “That really helped me out, talking in front of a lot of people.”

The instructor remembers how at first, Ibarra barely spoke in class. But, after a few months of dual credit classes and joining the club, she started to come into her own. “She got to discover her own potential,” says Leslie. “The shy student was able to transform herself.”

In fact, through the club, the once-timid student entered the limelight at the Advanced Interview Skills category of the BPA State Competition in Dallas. She ended up earning first place — along with a ticket to the national competition hosted in California.

“I was the only one in the district that year from PSJA that made nationals,” beams Ibarra.

It was the student’s first time visiting California, and Leslie remembers how exciting the journey was for Ibarra. “I was on the airplane with her,” recalls the instructor, “and she grabbed my hand. I asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ And she said, ‘I’ve never flown on an airplane before!’”

According to the instructor, many of the school’s students have never left the Valley, much less traveled by air, so the journey itself was exhilarating and eye-opening. And once in Anaheim, Leslie couldn’t resist taking Ibarra to Disneyland on a break. As the instructor recalls, “Her face lit up.”

But the real magic happened at the BPA event, where students from all over the country competed, connected and had fun. As the instructor recalls, it was a transformational experience for Ibarra. “She brought back not only a multicultural experience, but also just being this open-minded student,” recalls Leslie. “She came back a completely different person.”

In fact, Ibarra would return to become president of the school’s BPA club and helped her fellow classmates compete the following year. The second time around, not only did Ibarra make it to nationals, but so did two other club members. While the Washington event had to be canceled because of the pandemic, Ibarra still feels satisfied with inspiring her team to victory.

“It felt good to help people out … and seeing them excited about it,” recalls the student. “It was good for all of us to win together.”

With the boost in courage, Ibarra took on leadership roles in other avenues as well. She became a student ambassador, helping with events and giving school-wide speeches. She was also a part of the student council, assisted with the yearbook, and created the Coffee Zone Club, where students would discuss current events and support each other.

“Her confidence level has totally taken off,” effuses Leslie. “I’m so proud of her right now because she has not settled.”

As it happens, Ibarra says she still keeps in close contact with her former professor, who continues to be a strong mentor long after graduation. “She kept pushing me to go back to school,” shares Ibarra. “She was like, ‘I’m not going to stop bugging you until you enroll!’”

So, a year after earning her diploma and STC associate, Ibarra decided to keep going. She says her dual credit classes in human resources taught her excellent interpersonal skills, so she wants to work with people and become an attorney.

“I’m looking forward to getting to study law — I’m going to start school this fall,” says the future UTRGV Vaquero.

“She defied all the odds,” says proud professor Leslie. According to her, the STC program has created room for endless opportunities for high school students.

“What Dual Credit has done for these girls is to make them believe in themselves,” says the instructor. “Not only are they breaking cycles, but they’re setting the bar high for their kids.”

As for the first-generation college student, Ibarra says that her family shares her excitement about attending university.

“My grandparents, that’s what they wanted their whole life,” says Ibarra. “They were disappointed when they found out I was pregnant, so they were happy that I didn’t give up.”

The future attorney shares that she is also the oldest of her little brothers and sisters, in addition to being a mom. And she says that she’s shown that with determination, focus, and the right support, they, too, can reach for their dreams.

As Ibarra says, “Hopefully, I’m able to be a role model, and they graduate from college too.”