My family came to the U.S. from a small town in Mexico for a chance to work hard for the opportunities that this great country has to offer. As an immigrant, I always told myself to remain in the shadows and aim low in life. I was afraid to voice my opinion because I feared that if I stood out too much, my family would pay the price. I was afraid to dream big and ended up working long hours at a restaurant—it felt like I was in quicksand. I desperately wanted to better myself, but no matter how hard I worked, it never felt like I was moving forward.

Year Up was the very first place where I wasn’t afraid to speak up. In my third week of class, I felt like I was drowning, suffocated by the idea that maybe the program was too much. One morning, I decided to march into Year Up and quit, to simply give up and give in to an idea that had been pushed on me since I was a child: that because of where I was born, I would never succeed at anything more than manual labor. But instead of quitting, I reached out to my teacher and asked if she had time to talk. She pulled up two chairs without hesitation and heard me out. For the first time in my life, I began to believe that I deserved a chance.

The remarkable staff at Year Up and the amazing team I worked with during my internship at ALEX AND ANI showed me what it really means to be accepted and treated equally. As a customer engagement intern, I was the liaison between ALEX AND ANI CHARITY BY DESIGN, the philanthropic division of the company, and the community. After graduating from Year Up, I was hired by ALEX AND ANI as an outreach coordinator, connecting the jewelry company with local non-profits and enabling innovative partnerships.

Ultimately, my goal was to leverage these relationship-building skills at Year Up and this year, I joined the Year Up team as a Recruitment Specialist. In this role, I enjoy getting to meet young adults who don’t appear to have the motivation or self-confidence to do better, and seeing them transform into someone they didn’t necessarily think they could be.

Year Up has given me something I thought I had lost: Courage. The courage to pursue the happiness that we are all entitled to, regardless of race, income, gender, or religion. The courage to believe that my future is not decided by what street I grew up on or the color of my skin, but by the amount of hard work and determination I’m willing to put in to achieve my goals. Never again will I allow society to make me think that I’m not good enough.

*Update: Christian is now the Alumni Engagement Manager at Year Up.