2015 American Dream Student of the Year Finalists

This post is also available in: Portuguese (Brazil), Spanish

Emanuela P. Leaf

Editor’s Note: The American Dream Scholarship Award aims to recognize immigrants or children of immigrants 16 years or older, who live in the Fairfield County area and have faced many challenges along their journey to achieve their American Dream. In this award category, six finalists have been selected and they have received two tickets to attend the gala. On the eve of May 16, three winners will be revealed and will receive a $2,000 scholarship and the American Dream Awards statue, and have their names permanently displayed on a plaque in Danbury City Hall honoring Tribuna’s American Dream Awards.

Below is a snapshot of the stories of our six 2015 American Dream Student of the Year finalists.


David Leach

His mother couldn’t finish high school because she had to drop out in order to support her six brothers and one sister after the death of her parents. She was the first in her family to come to the United States, from a rural area surrounding Peru’s capital city, Lima. Despite not knowing the language or a single soul, she got her first job here in Danbury at the White Street Wash & Cleaners laundromat across from Westconn.

Between working several jobs at once and obtaining her Nurse’s Certification at Danbury Hospital, she utilized every resource available to her here in Danbury. “One of my most vivid memories is arriving early with her on cold Wednesday mornings, when we would wait in line outside of a local gymnasium so that we could have bread for that week,” shared David. To him, his mother’s determination is why he sees as his mission to make all her efforts worthwhile.

“She is, undoubtedly, the single most pivotal reason why I am sitting here right now, in a well-lit room with all the utilities bills paid in full. I can’t underscore enough how financially adept she is at saving money, and how savvy with her time she is. Between working around-the-clock overtime and providing all home cooked meals, cleaning, shopping, mending our clothing and even cutting our hair regularly, she always provides more than enough resources to sustain a much higher quality of life for the family than would otherwise be available. And I don’t want waste it.”

Over the past three years, David has immersed himself in the most challenging courses available to him, including UCONN Chemistry 1127-1128 and an online pre-calculus course during his sophomore year, in order to enroll in AP Calculus AB the following year.

“Every student has the potential to make a mockery out of everything that has come before them or honor it.”


Cindy Zhunio

“The waters of the Rio Grande, in Mexico, surrounded my mother as she struggled to keep afloat. She begins to swim towards land and prays. The water was strong and it was beginning to bring her down. She pushed harder and goes closer to the land. She can almost feel the land on the tip of her toes. She finally sets foot on land; she was one step closer to the Land of Dreams,” Cindy wrote.

Her mother is one of many who risk their lives for a better future for their family. In her case, she was taught that education and hard work are the only way to that better future and even though her parents did not have an opportunity to get an education themselves, they instilled these values in her.

“I become the first person in my family to pass high school and the first to be accepted into a college. With hard work and dedication, I also overcame the language and cultural barriers as well as the many responsibilities that I had growing up.”

Some of these responsibilities included reading any legal documents, writing checks, paying bills, cooking meals, cleaning and caring for younger family members, all of which she continues to do.

“Carrying out these responsibilities helped me mature earlier than most of my peers and because of this, I began to realize at a young age that the world was a cruel place to live in. War, poverty, and injustice dominate the lives of many. I want to help change these situations by becoming a Human Rights Officer in the United Nations.”

Cindy plans to attend the University of New Haven and study International Justice and Security with a minor in Legal Studies. “I know that I will be able to obtain my dream because all the sacrifices that my family and I made are all worth it. I have dedicated my time to studying hard and achieving high grades [and] volunteering with many organizations, in addition to working to help my family financially.”

She has faith that she will continue to reach the American Dream that she and her family dream of. “As actress Gina Rodriguez said, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’ I am an American Dream in progress who will not be ignored.”


Rafael Cardoso

His father, a Portuguese immigrant, came to the United States to help his poverty-stricken family and was able to do so as a construction worker.

He remembers the family’s financial struggles that he witnessed as a child. “I remember strolling through those aisles of used clothing while my parents looked around, grasping that shopping cart as I tagged along. At first I wasn’t accustomed to the musty smell of old furniture and used books, but I soon became used to it after visiting the Goodwill at least once a week,” wrote Rafael.

His mother became ill, suffering from chronic kidney stones and an injury to her spinal disk, which nearly paralyzed her but yet she kept working restoring old furniture, working long hours. “From her I learned a lesson so simple, yet so meaningful: If you want something, work hard for it. That couch represented what I wanted… I had to persevere in order to get that beautiful end-result. Her struggle became my motivation.”

Since then, Rafael has participated in ConnCAP/Upward-Bound, which familiarizes low-income students with the college process. In addition, he recently was a part of the A.M.B.Y.E.S.E (Annual Multicultural Business Youth Educational Services Embarkment) program, which allowed him to job shadow at major companies like PepsiCo and IBM. He has been accepted into a prestigious eight-member program, the “Student Teacher Pipeline Program,” he tutors other students and as a junior, he has passed the college semester with an A. In his first D.E.C.A. Distributive Education Clubs of America) competition at Washington DC, he earned a perfect score and won a medal, out of 600 others.


Jessica Manfredi

Jessica Manfredi moved to the United States from Brazil with her mother a little over two years ago. Despite her short time in the country, she spoke English fluently and more importantly, she had already developed a plan to make her higher education dreams come true. Although she was unsure about how her undocumented status would impact her college career, she did not let her insecurities stop her.

Instead, she sought out the answers she needed by reaching out to CT Students for a Dream, She learned that she would not qualify for in-state tuition or for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Disappointed but not discouraged, she applied to several universities after doing much research to determine which schools were the best fit for her. Jessica is now also one of the leaders of CT Students for a DREAM – Danbury Chapter.

Jessica’s American Dream is to give back to the community through the arts. She finds several methods to express herself – dancing, painting, acting and singing. As a member of the Danbury High School Madrigals and vice president of the Fighting Child Hunger Club, her heart is split between the arts and social Justice.

One of her goals is to pursue a career as a musical arts therapist and seek a degree in recreational therapy. She has graduated high school and is now enrolled at Naugatuck Valley Community College’s Danbury campus.

According to Carolina Bortolleto, CT Students for a DREAM director, who nominated Jessica for the award, “Her growing knowledge and interest in immigration policy, her passion to help the community, her commitment and willingness to lead and to learn makes me feel very proud to have her in our organization. She is never scared to take risks and work hard for what she believes in. Despite all the obstacles in her way, she is making her dreams come true the only way she knows how, through hard work and commitment.”


Wesley Neves

In 2000, Wesley’s parents decided to leave Brazil to come to the United States with hopes to work and support their son. They left him behind, under the care of his grandparents, and for about 12 years, they were unable to see him or have him join them.

“I remember I would talk with my mom and dad on the phone every day but it is not the same experience when you are with the person. I wondered if I would ever see them again.”

After a long journey toward their own legalization, they were finally able to reunite their family in 2012.

When he came here, everything was so different. He started the school year right away, even though he couldn’t speak English at all. After a year, he was able to learn enough to get by, but making friends was a challenge. In his native country, he always took his studies very seriously. “My grandma would always say, ‘You’ll go places when you study, son’ and I carry this quote with me everywhere. So I also take school here very seriously. I’m always trying my best and making sure that I am making progress.”

Wesley is now a junior at Danbury High. “My parents struggle every day to give me the best. I’m glad to have them and I want show them that I am capable to achieve my American Dream and not let this huge opportunity in my life pass me by,” he said, continuing, “I’m a low-income student and it’s hard for me to see myself getting in some colleges due to the cost of tuition. I am striving to keep my grades as high as I can, keep working hard focusing on my American Dream, using all the opportunities that life is giving me and eventually I’ll get there. This scholarship is one of them.”


Mohammed Alam

“As a child, I dreaded hearing comments like, ‘Why aren’t you getting all 100s?!’ or ‘Be a doctor or an engineer so we’ll have something to be proud of!’ It was difficult for my parents to show me affection and acceptance like other American families. My parents wanted a clone of a stereotypical Muslim kid: straight A’s and a Ph.D. But it wasn’t what I wanted. I wasn’t living in Bangladesh anymore, and I didn’t always need to please Mom or Dad. It was America, and I had the freedom to live my own life,” explained Mohammed.

During the summer of his first year in high school, Mohammed was introduced to Western Connecticut State University’s ConnCAP/Upward Bound program, which sought to help first generation, low-income students to pursue further education in college. Watching the upper-class students constantly apply themselves to their education as well as their extracurricular activities was just the motivation he needed. The program opened doors to several opportunities that pushed him out of his comfort zone and helped him develop as a person. Through community service and other activities, he became more willing to challenge himself, to lead, to succeed, and to be his own person.

“I believe with the opportunities I’ve taken so far in my life I’ve shaped myself into the strong and devoted student I am today. I have challenged myself with advanced classes and activities, including many hours of community service. I have pushed myself in the physical sport of wrestling and the skillful sport of volleyball. I have strengthened my values and raised my goals. And most importantly, I have carved my own path for a hopeful future.”

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