Fast learners

Language proved no barrier for Colombia natives Karen and Brian Cárdenas. The whiz-kid siblings graduated first and second in their high school class of more than 500 and chose UT Arlington to continue their educational journey.

By Anthony Williams

Karen and Brian Cárdenas

Brother and sister Brian and Karen Cárdenas are typical teenagers. Brian’s flashier, with golden highlights in his dark brown hair. Karen’s a year older and more mature. In many ways they’re like the 2,629 freshmen—a record number—who enrolled at UT Arlington in fall 2009.

With a few exceptions.

Karen was valedictorian of Irving MacArthur High School’s 541-member graduating class last May. Brian? Salutatorian. The Colombia natives learned English only in the last 10 years (Brian in the last five).

They faced the usual first-semester challenges, working out their financial aid, schedules and more. But nothing has sidetracked their success.

“My parents’ struggles inspire me to appreciate every opportunity and learn from their mistakes,” Karen says. “Learning the language and being well educated were the top goals.”

Karen moved to the United States in 1999 at age 9 with their 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, which is why she and Brian graduated the same year.

Brian, who came here in 2004, loves to socialize. His colorful Facebook profile is in both Spanish and English. As he walked through the University Center during the second week of classes, he greeted friends every other step, texting others in between. For a 13-year-old in a new country, grasping English was a must.

“There was a lot of pressure,” he recalls. “I felt alone, like I didn’t belong here. I have to mingle and wanted to assimilate, so I knew I had to learn the language.”

In Colombia, Brian went to school only because he had to. He found new motivation after leaving his home country. “I thought, ‘I’m here, and I want to make my mom proud and be something.’ ”

The siblings’ mother remained in Colombia after she and their father, Alfonso, separated. He works in construction but injured his back several years ago.

“We see our parents suffering, and we want to give them a little peace of mind by working hard in school,” Brian says. “My mom is my inspiration because she’s all alone in Colombia, and I want to make her decision of letting us come here worth her efforts.”

In addition to being top students, Brian and Karen provide financial support for their family, including younger brothers David and Yesid. Karen works at a chiropractor’s office in Grand Prairie, while Brian works with the Greater Irving-Las Colinas Chamber of Commerce and DJs at children’s parties.

Alfonso is proud of his oldest children and wants to support them on whatever path they take.

“I hope they will continue to be good, honest and humble people who are helpful to society,” he said through Karen in an e-mail.

Little brother Yesid says Brian and Karen inspire him to work harder in school and make good grades, and David is glad his older siblings are attending college “because they will get good jobs and make money in the future.”

Karen points out that while they both knew they would go to college, neither she nor Brian imagined they would attend the same school. Now they’re part of the highest-achieving group of freshmen in UT Arlington history.

“This is not only our largest freshman class yet, but it is also the most accomplished,” says Provost Donald Bobbitt, who notes that 25 percent of the first-time undergraduates ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class. “Karen and Brian Cárdenas are perfect examples of the type of students we want to attract.”

Brian plans to major in mechanical or aerospace engineering because he enjoys learning how to build things and knowing how they work. He dreams of working at NASA, but right now he just appreciates his classes and his “really cool” teachers.

Karen wants to pursue 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 and her brother navigated the financial aid process. Both received UT Arlington’s Top 10 Percent Scholarship and the Outstanding Freshman Scholarship.

“I want to know it all for myself,” she says. “And business administration is really flexible. There are a lot of options.”

Karen and Brian enjoyed their first semester, both inside and outside the classroom. They love going to the Maverick Activities Center, and Karen has joined Christians on Campus and the Student Alumni Association.

“We’re really glad to be here,” she says.
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