Breakthrough Miami graduate named Gates Millennium Scholar

Katherine Barahona and her mother have been a team for so long sometimes it feels like the pair have lived out the lyrics of that old mother-and-child pop standard, You and Me Against the World.

Katherine and Ana Barahona left their home in Honduras 12 years ago for a one-bedroom apartment in Miami. Barahona left behind an elementary school teaching career but packed a lifetime’s worth of dreams for her young, shy daughter.

A mother’s sacrifice, a daughter’s initiative, hard work, plus caring mentors in the Breakthrough Miami program, helped lead Katherine to Duke University on a four-year, full scholarship in the fall. She is one of 1,000 high school graduates nationwide to win the coveted Gates Millennium Scholar, out of 54,000 applicants.

It hasn’t been easy. Ana Barahona’s teaching degree in Honduras isn’t valid in the United States so, instead, she works nights at Jackson Memorial Hospital in housekeeping.

“She had to take on jobs under her capabilities to provide,” said Katherine, from inside the principal’s office at downtown Miami’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Memorial Senior High School.

Katherine will be the new magnet school’s top graduating student, with a 4.0 GPA, in the school’s inaugural graduation class. She will receive her diploma Monday at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center.

Today, Katherine laughs easily. She’s popular with fellow students, her Facebook page is festooned with photos of her friends and prom pictures, and her teachers adore her.

“She’s an unbelievable young lady,” said Law Enforcement principal Christopher Shinn. “She’s possesses the characteristics you wish every student had. She’s passionate about what she does, she’s a genuine person, not boastful, not egotistical, liked by her student body and giving of her time. You talk about someone with true conviction and purpose to do what they do every day…she loves to learn. She will not sit in an idle classroom. If a teacher is sitting idle, that teacher won’t survive Katherine.”

Sitting idle isn’t an option for the student who calls science and math her specialties. “My friends say ‘Katherine cries over Bs.’ If I get an 89 I’m freaking out. It’s affecting me. It’s affecting her,” Katherine says of her desire to succeed and to please her mom.

Katherine has a full plate — she interns with a neuroscience researcher at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, she works part time at Bayside’s Victoria Secret and she readies the next day’s dinner when she comes home, as her mom works until midnight.

“I’m really horrible at cooking,” says Katherine, who washes and cuts the vegetables and herbs and cleans the chicken. “She comes home so tired from work I don’t want her to come home to an overwhelming environment where there’s so many things to do.”

For Katherine, her journey began as a kindergarten student at Riverside ES Elementary in Miami. She was old enough for first grade, but held back due to language issues and a late birthday.

“Every day I came home frustrated. I hated it. I always wanted to go back home,” Katherine said. “With all of our economic struggles, my mom hired a tutor for me to see me every day after school. We’d sit together in the library and it was really about being immersed. By second grade I was still bad. By third, I became fluent. By fourth grade I was the best writer in my class.”

Or so her teachers told her.

“I still remember in second grade we did this evaporation science project. I didn’t speak English yet but I still remember doing well at that. I think I’m a left brainer,” Katherine says, as she tries to assess why science has come naturally to her. At Law Enforcement, she focused on the forensic science program, but also participated in mock court trials and the study of law.

Her mom liked the idea of a law curriculum because it would require public speaking and presentations before an audience. These skills would help Katherine overcome any shyness and set her up well for high school, college and beyond.

Lauren Kellner, a site director with Breakthrough Miami, an academic enrichment program that pairs student teachers with motivated but economically disadvantaged students from fifth through 12th grades, has mentored Katherine for six years. She is one of 40 Breakthrough students in Miami-Dade who will graduate from high school.

“What amazes me about Katherine is her mom is always behind her but [Ana] works a lot. It’s just the two of them and she doesn’t miss anything. She takes advantage of every education leadership opportunity she’s presented with,” Kellner said. “She’s so smart at her school she took almost every AP class she could this year. She didn’t have as many challenging courses as she’d liked, so we helped her get an internship with a UM brain researcher. This was a great opportunity for someone who wants to become a doctor.”

Duke has been Katherine’s dream school since seventh grade when another Breakthrough mentor, who attended Duke, spoke highly of the North Carolina university.

Katherine visited earlier this year, has already found a roommate from Miami to share a dorm, will pursue a degree in either biology or neuroscience, and is smitten.

“It’s everything I want. Everyone is so nice, so down to earth and the environment is great,” she says.

Her mother is proud, but wistful.

“Some times it’s very happy, some times …,” she says, glancing at her daughter, a sad look flashing across her face.

“But it’s OK. Because my dream is that of her studying at a very good university in this country. This is my reason for coming to this country.”

Katherine inched closer to her mom.

“It’s very complicated in Hispanic families and culture. Kids are usually staying with the parents and now we’re an American family where your kid goes off to college at 18,” she shares, with a chuckle. “It’s definitely difficult because I’m an only child — just my mom and me — so she’s definitely going to have to be alone. She takes me to her job and tells everyone, ‘Oh, my daughter is going to Duke!’ I got her a Duke Mom shirt. It’s the cutest thing!”

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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