Born in New York, bullied in school when her mother returned with her to El Salvador, Francis Zuniga returned to her native land. Learning English, working for her rent, she has overcome many obstacles with boosts from her sister, her friends, and her teachers.

By Francis Zuniga ’14, as told to Laura Barlament / Photo by Nick Romanenko

I was born in New York, in Far Rockaway, Queens. When I was 3, my mother decided to move back to her hometown in El Salvador. We lived there for eight years — she and my sister and brother and I. My mom was a single parent, always busy working, and my sister took care of me. She’s seven years older than me, and she was basically like my mother. But after a few years, first my brother and then my sister went back to New York. When my sister left, it was really hard on me. I was alone most of the time.

We lived in a town called San Vincente. Our house was next to the city jail. We’d open the back door and say hello to the guards standing in the doorway. The front of the house faced the dusty streets. The people across from us had a big farm with cows, horses, pigs, chickens. We had a finca, like a backyard, an acre of land to grow fruit — mangoes, papaya, kiwis, avocado. We had so many different types of mangoes. The green ones were the best; we would cut them in pieces and eat them with lemon and salt.

I was bullied a lot. Because I was born in America, the other kids were kind of jealous. After school I would get jumped. My mom would say, “Hey, listen, you have to fight back.” I had to learn how to protect myself.

I had no idea how I would be able to afford college, but God has always put guiding angels in my life.

I was happy when my mother told me we were coming back to New York. It was thanks to my sister that we were able to go. She was 16 or 17, working multiple jobs to bring us back. I was 11 years old, and I didn’t speak English, only Spanish. In El Salvador, I went to a Seventh Day Adventist school, a private school with uniforms and lessons on how to be a good Christian girl. School there is very strict, and they expect a lot. So when I came here, I was a perfectionist. Even if I didn’t understand what I was doing, I would do it anyway. I would read the questions and try to match them up with the book and copy the answers.

Once I got a grasp of everything, I became an A student. I learned English really fast, I think because I was born here. And I was determined to be successful. I wanted to help my family and not be in those living conditions anymore, so I worked hard every single day in order to succeed.

My mom is a housekeeper and doesn’t have a steady job. She would move constantly, every six months from one house to another house, from town to town. And I would always have to move schools. In middle school, I got fed up. We moved from Levittown, in Long Island, to Freeport, and I would wake up at 4 in the morning to go back to my middle school in Levittown, until the school found out I was doing that and made me go to my local school.

When I finished middle school, my mom decided to move again, but this time she was going to Florida. I went with her for three months. I didn’t like it, and I came back here. The court placed me with my aunt in Levittown. But life is rough, and my aunt couldn’t just say, “Yeah, come for free.” So, my mom and I paid rent. I was working at KFC, the Dollar Store, and I was tutoring, too. That’s how I was able to help pay my own rent.

I went to Island Trees High School. I was on the track and cross country teams; I was in Student Council, Environmental Club, Peer Leaders, Athletes Helping Athletes. I was a top student in my graduating class.

I had no idea how I would be able to afford college, but God has always put guiding angels in my life. Mr. Weber, my guidance counselor, guided me through every single step. I applied to 17 schools. Every letter I would get, I would go talk to him about it. I didn’t know anything about money. When I got my financial aid package from Wagner, Mr. Weber was filled with joy. He helped me write letters and get a bigger scholarship. That’s what really enforced my decision to come here.

Now I’m in my junior year at Wagner College, a biopsychology major with a concentration in physical therapy and a minor in Spanish. These last three years at Wagner College have been great for me. I have met wonderful friends, wonderful faculty and staff, and many doors have been opened. One that has impacted me the most was studying abroad in Spain. Being an independent student making $200 a month, you might think that there would be no chance of having this amazing opportunity, yet that was not the case. By studying abroad, I learned that I really can do anything I put my mind to.

Wagner College keeps me busy. I have been a cross country and track and field athlete; I am president of Habitat for Humanity. In 2010 we went to Ecuador, and this year we have been very busy helping people affected by Hurricane Sandy. Now we’re raising money for our next trip. This spring, I was named the Megerle Scholar for Achievement in the Sciences. Recognition like this inspires me to move forward and reach all of my goals. I won’t feel satisfied until I get my doctorate in physical therapy. Then I want to work internationally and help unfortunate families throughout the world.

The life I have had has not been easy. The obstacles might at first seem discouraging; but once I overcome them, I get stronger and become motivated to strive for more.

For me, God is the main thing, the key to living. I don’t think I would have gotten this far without God. He plays a big part in my sister’s life, too. She’s always been a role model to me. She supported me and my mother, and she completed her degree and is a dental hygienist and happily married. She expects me to do well and believes in me. Without her support, my faith in God, my family and friends, all the nice people I have met at Wagner, I might have given up. Knowing they believe in me keeps me going. When you get along with people, the place where you are doesn’t really matter; it’s the people you meet who really make the difference.