This year’s high school graduates have faced upheavals unlike any class in memory, but Tatiana Mendez, the valedictorian of Boston Preparatory Charter Public School in Hyde Park, believes the challenges she and her peers have endured are preparing them to build a better future.
“I feel like our generation is just going to be picking up the slack for this entire moment. . . . It’s just about going beyond this, just being those leaders for the future,” said Tatiana, 19, as she smiled and chuckled through a socially distanced interview last week.
Having overcome early learning challenges that had her left behind in first grade, Tatiana has gone on to an impressive academic record that she largely directed herself, devoting long hours to her studies while her single mother worked several housekeeping jobs to support their family.
“I’ve gotten guidance along the way, but it’s always, for the most part, been self-driven. I want to do X, Y, and Z — and I’m going to do X, Y, and Z things to get there,” said Tatiana, who was born in the United States to a family of immigrants from the Dominican Republic.
Tatiana’s mother, Vivian Cabral, 46, raised her and her siblings, Nicolle Vittini Cabral, 23, and Gary Vittini Cabral, 28, while working long days and nights cleaning a hospital and offices in the western suburbs.
She took on an exhausting workload so her children could focus on their educations — and they focused like lasers.
All three graduated from Boston Prep, where Nicolle was the 2015 valedictorian. Gary completed a business degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2016, and Nicolle earned a degree in English from Williams College last year.
Tess Bernhard, Tatiana’s academic advisor, said the teen’s decision to attend Columbia University is just the latest example of her tendency to compete with her big sister.
When Tatiana came to Boston Prep in sixth grade, Nicolle was already a standout student there, Bernhard said, and over time Tatiana worked to step out of her sister’s shadow.
“She was very focused on claiming her name as just as good — if not better — than what Nicolle had carved before her,” Bernhard said. “She was singularly driven.”
Nicolle said, “She takes note of what I do, she sits with it for a while, and then she’ll think, ‘How can I one-up it? How can I make it better?’ ”
When they were younger, Nicolle said, she sometimes told Tatiana, “Stop following me around! Stop trying to do what I do!”
“It would really get on my nerves,” she said. “But as I’ve grown into being an adult, and having some distance . . . being away from home and no longer seeing her as an annoying little sister, but actually a young woman coming into a voice of her own, I really appreciate it.”
“It’s an acute rivalry,” Tatiana admitted last week on the front porch of her home in Dorchester, blocks from Franklin Park, as fireworks exploded in the distance.
This community has become home. Tatiana values her neighbors and friends, local businesses and shopkeepers, and the elementary school where teachers first recognized her promise.
“It wasn’t until I moved to Dorchester and I switched schools, where they provided me the therapy I needed to help me excel as a student,” she said. “In Brighton [where I started school] it was just like, ‘You’re getting kept back.’ They didn’t give me any assistance.”
At John Winthrop Elementary School, her teachers invited her to join an advanced-work class with more challenging assignments and self-directed learning.
“A lot of my fifth-grade experience was me teaching myself multiplication and division and stuff, and I thought that was really great,” she said.
Tatiana is proud of her hardworking family, her diverse neighborhood, and her working-class background.
She also has felt deeply the differences between herself and her academic peers. Attending a pre-college program at Columbia’s Barnard College on a scholarship, Tatiana was one of few students of color and few from modest backgrounds.
“As a person that’s there on a scholarship, you can’t really enjoy all these things other girls are doing,” she said. “They’d be like, ‘Oh, we can go to Shake Shack after class.’ And you’re like, ‘I don’t have the money to go to Shake Shack after class. I have to stay here.’ And you start to feel like, maybe I don’t belong.”
With her mother leaving for work at 6 a.m. and often not returning home from her second or third job until late in the evening, Tatiana has become self-reliant. At a college fair attended by representatives from top universities, Tatiana was one of few students without a parent there nudging them to make introductions and ask questions.
Aaron Canto, who heads the Persistence Project at Boston Prep, said Tatiana described her surprise at seeing “people of color there . . . who just seemed more in the know, more well-versed, who just knew how to navigate a white space better than her.
“I think it was the first time for her that she really understood that there are people of color who are privileged and come from well-resourced backgrounds, who went to boarding schools and prep schools,” he continued.
Tatiana said she “definitely felt singled out again” in that crowd. But she didn’t let herself be intimidated.
“I was just different than everybody around me,” she said. “It kind of made me angry, but also more motivated to apply to these institutions that I know would put me out of my comfort zone.”
In the fall — assuming Columbia University goes through with its planned reopening — Tatiana will be far from Dorchester, back on the campus where, she says, she didn’t quite fit in.
She’s looking forward to it, and to being busy with schoolwork again, and this time she isn’t worried about being different.
After Columbia, she wants to come home and reinvest in the community that has given her so much.
“Too often, people get out of these neighborhoods, they get these really great jobs and they move into gentrified areas, and they don’t come back,” she said, glancing toward the three-deckers up and down her street, some in need of fresh paint.
“This could be a lot better if people would just come back and invest.”