Sisters Laura, ‘21, and Sara Beltrán, ‘21, never planned to graduate at the same time from the same university, but when the first-generation students receive their degrees from Southern this May, the two women are certain their parents will look at each other and say, “We did it.”
“It’s a very big deal that we are getting our degree,” Sara says. “My mother [Isabel] was in her early twenties when she fled the El Salvador Civil War and crossed the Rio Grande to come to the United States. She left for a better life.”
Laura, 27, will earn a master’s degree in Business Administration with a concentration in Healthcare Administration and Sara, 23, will earn a master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology. Education was a mainstay of the siblings’ upbringing, despite the fact that their father, Leonardo, who came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico, and their mother earned only their high school diplomas.
“For my mother, coming here and having hot water was a luxury,” Laura says. “Education was very important, and we were always learning. We used services like free museum passes and New Haven Reads,” which provides free after-school tutoring, educational family support, and a community book bank.
“My mom couldn’t help us with our homework,” Sara says. “But we always had a dictionary by us and we did internships — even in the summer. She also has a good head on her shoulders. She cleans and cooks for a living, and everyone she works for is highly educated, and her bosses were very influential — the families she nannied for were a close network and like an extended family.”
It’s how Sara ultimately chose the highly selective Smith College for her undergraduate degree.
“Both of my mother’s employers encouraged me to look at colleges [Mount Holyoke and Smith],” she says. “We are all very close. They have looked out for Laura and I ever since we were babies.”
When Sara applied to graduate schools, she set her sights on Connecticut, where the siblings’ family lives (she and Laura attended Hamden High School). Laura had already earned a BA in Psychology-Mental Health from Southern and decided it was a “no brainer” to continue her education at the university.
“Laura and I were together when we got the acceptance news!” Sara says. “It turned out to be a fluke that we went [to Southern] together. We never planned it, but it worked out for both of us.”
That’s not to say there weren’t obstacles along the way. Like everyone, the sisters dealt with the omnipresent stress of higher education during a pandemic and balancing job commitments with classes, homework, and labs. Laura was hospitalized with pneumonia and acute respiratory failure due to Covid; her father was admitted at the same time. Sara and their mother also contracted Covid but thankfully weren’t hospitalized.
“The first day at the hospital I called my professors and panicked,” Laura says. “I felt terrible. I was there for a full week, and my thinking and processing speed is still delayed because of Covid. But everyone at school was super understanding. The business department and my professors were amazing in helping me catch up with my schoolwork during my recovery. I honestly would not have made it this far without all their extra help, support, and kindness.”
Sara understood all too well the stress of managing a health condition.
“I have severe asthma and have even missed school for it,” Sara says. “When my sister got Covid she said she knew what I felt like all those years and said, ‘I don’t know how you do this.’ I feel very blessed to have gotten the vaccine at Southern.
“And I agree with Laura that the professors and faculty make the programs what they are. They went the extra mile to make school feel the same regardless of Covid. My professor would meet me in parking lots with materials. They even mailed us supplies for labs. They went over time with Zoom calls. They see us as colleagues, on their level, and they treat us like that.”
“After graduation,” Laura adds, “I’m honored to be able to carry the Southern association with me wherever I go.”
Laura and Sara are no strangers to “combination parties” — the sisters had a combination graduation party when Sara was a senior in high school and Laura was a senior in college, but this year, the milestone is especially poignant.
“I fully expect my parents to be crying,” Sara says.
“My mother left everything behind when she left El Salvador,” Laura says. “All of her family. She missed her father’s funeral. She missed so much.”
This May, when the Beltráns celebrate their daughters’ successes at Southern’s upcoming commencement ceremony, her mother won’t miss a second.