A big, handsome envelope arrived at Alyssia Casillas’ home in Grand Island a decade ago. She was only about 14 at the time, so she was surprised it had her name on it.
With big eyes, she watched her mom open it. (“When you’re a kid,” Alyssia says, “your mom opens your mail.”) She watched her mom jump up and down in their living room with green-painted walls.
She heard her mom scream. “You got it! You got it!”
Alyssia was a girl with intelligence and drive. She had good people in her life, like her mom – a single mother who worked hard to raise her three kids. But Alyssia’s lack of confidence had led her to make some bad choices. Friends were getting pregnant. She was hanging with a rough crowd.
So this big envelope in her mom’s hands, Alyssia knew, must contain some big news.
“I’m standing in front of my mom and I’m thinking, ‘I’m either in trouble or I did something really good.’”
Because the letter inside was also making her mom cry.
Why? “Why are you here?”
That’s the question the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Deena Curtis poses each September to the freshman class of the Nebraska College Preparatory Academy (NCPA).
Deena, the NCPA’s diversity and community outreach counselor, is one of its teachers.
“Today, you’re going to write down why you’re here – why you are in college,” she says. “And it’s what you’re going to use every morning and read every morning to get you up. Then we’re going to pull it out at the end of this first semester and see if your why is the same, and at the end of the year, and every year. And we’re going to see how you’ve matured and thought differently about what is your why.”
“You’re going to need a blank piece of paper,” Deena tells the freshmen. “This is your time to write down what is your why.
My why is to get a college degree and use it to get a job that is for the benefit of humanity...
My why is not to be the best there is, but to be the best me that I can be...
My why is because there are so many like me who need me to stand up and tell them that they are not defined by their tragedies, and they will set the world aflame with their capabilities one day, just as I intend to do...
My why is because I deserve to accomplish my dreams, and my family deserves to see me do so. I will change the world someday...
Alyssia graduated with a sociology degree from Nebraska in May 2015 and is now in her final year in UNMC’s dental hygiene program. She’s passionate about educating people on oral health. Being a dental hygienist, she says, will help her help people.
So why did her mom cry that day a decade ago?
Because that envelope with Alyssia’s name on it had come from NCPA.
“It was crazy when I got it – four years, full ride. I was like, ‘What does that even mean?’”
“But my mom knew what it meant at the time, even if I didn’t.”