In many ways Karen Cárdenas is a typical teenager, just like the other 2,629 freshmen—a record number—who enrolled at UT Arlington in fall 2009.
But there are a few exceptions.
Karen was valedictorian of her 541-member graduating class at Irving MacArthur High School. Even more impressive, the Colombia native only learned English in the last 11 years.
She faced the usual first-semester challenges, such as working out her financial aid, schedules, and more. But nothing has sidetracked her success.
"My parents' struggles inspire me to appreciate every opportunity and learn from their mistakes," she says. "Learning the language and being well-educated were the top goals."
Karen moved to the United States in 1999 at age 9 with her father, Pedro Alfonso Cárdenas Ossa. She has always loved learning and became acquainted with English through cartoons like Dragon Tales and reading. Her first "big book" was To Kill a Mockingbird.
"In Colombia I excelled academically," she says. "So when I came to the United States, I just wanted to do my best because I had the disadvantage of not knowing the English language." That barrier caused her to repeat the third grade.
Karen's younger brother, Brian—also a UT Arlington student—joined her and her father in the United States in 2004. But their mother remained in Colombia after she and their father separated.
"We see our parents suffering, and we want to give them a little peace of mind by working hard in school," Brian says. So far, he and Karen are doing a good job: Both siblings received UT Arlington's Top 10 Percent Scholarship and the Outstanding Freshman Scholarship.
Karen is currently pursuing a business degree. She likes the idea of being independent and knowing how money and taxes work. She got a taste of handling her own money last summer as she navigated the financial aid process.
"I want to know it all for myself," she says. "And business administration is really flexible. There are a lot of options."
Her academic excellence is at least one way she does resemble her classmates, as she was part of one of the highest-achieving groups of freshmen in UT Arlington history — in 2009 25 percent of the first-time undergraduates ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating classes. That was a record until this year, when 25 percent rose to an incredible 30 percent.
Karen enjoyed her first year, both inside and outside the classroom. She loves going to the Maverick Activities Center, and has joined Christians on Campus and the Student Alumni Association.
"I'm really glad to be part of the Maverick family," she says.
"We see our parents suffering, and we want to give them a little peace of mind by working hard in school," says Karen's brother Brian. So far, he and Karen are doing a good job: Both siblings received UT Arlington's Top 10 Percent Scholarship and the Outstanding Freshman Scholarship.