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New London senior heads to college, first in family

New London — It was at an airport in Miami in 2018 that Nicole De La Cruz got her first real taste of the English language.

Sure, she has been taking English classes after school at her home in Lima, Peru, in anticipation of the move to the United States but her ears weren’t yet attuned to the speech of native English speakers and she had a hard time following the conversations going on around her.

She was 15 at the time and said it would be years before she became confident in her English. She still claims to be “working on it.”

De La Cruz, now 18, graduates later this month from the Science & Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut in New London, where not only has she pretty much mastered the English language but also excelled in her work despite the tribulations associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the fall, she will be attending the University of Connecticut, where she plans to focus on studies related to environmental sciences. She will be the first in her family to attend college and plans to make her parents proud. It’s all her parents have ever asked for.

“They worked for this. They brought me here for a reason,” De La Cruz said.

She admits she wasn’t doing all that well in English classes prior to her move to the U.S. and had to work at it.

“I was so disappointed in myself. I changed to another academy. I put in more effort. I wanted to make friends. I was moving to a new school. I wanted to fit in to the new environment,” she recalls.

De la Cruz is not alone when she entered the New London school district being a non-native English speaker. About 25% of the students in the district are English language learners.

She entered high school midyear as a freshman, took English as a Second Language classes and kept her focus. Her love of math and science led to her application and acceptance into the STEM Magnet High School and led her on her current path. This year she earned the highest grade in her class in a UConn environmental science class, which earned her college credits.

“Nicole is an amazing young woman,” STEM pathway counselor Jennie Levin said. “She moved to the United States from Peru her freshman year and had to acclimate to a new school, language and culture. She has worked very hard and been at the top of her class all four years.”

She made friends and got involved in afterschool activities and clubs. She is a member of the Multicultural Club and More Than Words, a group which she says meets with students from other schools and whose goal is to connect people of all races, identify issues and find solutions, “to help the community embrace and include everyone, people from different backgrounds and different countries.”

She remained focused throughout the COVID-19 pandemic that upturned her junior year at school. She was perhaps too focused during her time attending school virtually.

“It was horrible,” she said. “I tend to close myself in my room and study and read. I didn’t go out much. It led to anxiety. I was basically anxious all of the time.”

But she wanted to protect herself and her family.

“It affected my mental health. I’m doing well now because I’m back at school. Being at home without going out — it’s just not good for you. Now I understand that. People would say take breaks. Go out. I was just so focused. I wanted to be a good student. I forgot my essence — about me.”

How did De La Cruz end up in New London?

De La Cruz’s father moved to the U.S. when she was still a toddler, to pave the way for her family’s move. “He basically was looking for a better future for me, wanted to bring us more opportunities,” De La Cruz said. Her mother raised her in the years leading up to the move.

“I’m just trying to work hard," she said. "I have an opportunity in a country where the doors are opened to you."

She plans to continue to push herself.

“They always say 'Try to do well and make them proud.' They worked for that. They brought me here for a reason.”

De La Cruz said time will tell what her future holds but she hasn’t ruled out a return to Peru. Her focus for the time being is on the environment and the impact of climate change. She said perhaps one day she will start her own nonprofit with a focus on spreading what she’s learned to the “little ones.” And maybe that will be back in Peru.


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