Francis Catalino
Submitted by Program Coordinator, Hostos Lincoln Academy Early College Initiative CUNY, Rocio Rayo
Francis Catalino is a member of the Health, Education, and Research Occupations High School  (HERO)/Hostos Early College Partnership - and an incredible reminder of just how transformative the early college partnership is in young people’s lives.

Francis Catalino started as an Early College student in 2016 as a freshman in high school. Initially, Francis chose Health, Education, and Research Occupations High School (HERO) because of the 2-year access to a free college education. She knew she found the right place when she went to the first open house. “We played the board game Operation, against each other's family, it was great.” At the open house, she learned more about the Hostos HERO High program and she instantly “fell in love with it” but was worried it was too good to be true. It was free, an easy commute from her house to both schools, a flexible schedule, and most importantly to Francis, the chance afforded the internship opportunities that later allowed her to contribute financially to her family. 

Taking her first college class was daunting. She took Public Speaking (now Communications) the summer before her sophomore year in high school. She described it as “really intense” but she was determined to succeed. Francis and her classmates would go to the library right after class to work on the public speaking homework, which was hard by itself but “extra hard for me because it was my first time having a serious presentation in front of my peers.” However, through laborious work and persistence, she was able to earn an A in the class.

“I felt prepared to take college classes,” she said. “Beginning in the 9th grade, Ms. Smith and Ms. Gorla always reminded me that my high school grades had to be up to par to get into the college program, and they had to stay that way to be able to keep taking college classes. There were a lot of workshops available to me and I took all of them. The HERO staff guided and prepared me to take the classes by encouraging me through difficult times. When I felt overwhelmed, they kept me grounded so that I stayed on track.”

She went on to share: “HERO advised me to take all the classes that were offered in the early college program because even though it was hard and stressful in the end Ms. Smith said it would be worth it — and she was right. I graduated high school with 49 college credits. I took every single class offered to me no matter if it was in the morning or the afternoon. And the best part was, it was free.”

Thanks to that experience, Francis now finds it easier to cope when things become stressful. Since 2016, she has gone back and forth between two campuses, staying up late, going to class, doing extracurriculars, and working at internships all in preparation for real life. Now that she is only working and taking college classes, her life feels “simpler.” At HERO, Francis learned to be responsible for her actions, and she takes those lessons with her wherever she goes. “In the last five years, I realized that being early is on time, and being on time is late,” she said. “I learned email etiquette — something important to know in life, especially in times like now where most people are communicating online.”

Francis graduated from high school in 2020. She said that even though the last semester was hard, she succeeded and checked off a very long list of goals that she had set for herself. With that, she is the first person in her family to graduate from high school and continue in college.“Even though it was on zoom, even in the pandemic, I graduated!” Francis said, her pride radiating through her voice. “I did that! With honors! With my friends!”

Francis is most looking forward to discovering her true, authentic self. She also looks forward to financial freedom for herself and her family. She wants to be able to pay for her mom’s trip to the Dominican Republic, where she hasn’t been in over ten years, because of her dedication to raising her family.

Through her life experiences, Francis learned that she wants to develop meaningful relationships and is in charge of her destiny. “Nothing is nobler than helping others and serving as a role model, not just to my nephews and nieces, but to everyone from the Bronx,” she said. “I believe the Bronx is full of untapped potential, and it continues to be overlooked. With perseverance and higher education, I believe that I can make a positive impact, not just for my own life, but for my community.”

Francis also had some advice for new HERO students:
“First, don't be afraid to ask for help. There are more people than you think who want to see you succeed. Seeking support or guidance from others is also a skill that must be owned and carried on. Second, you will often need to knock on 20 doors before one will open. But when it does, it can be transformative. Many of us, especially those who are the first in our families to go to college, are often taught not to bother people when we get to school. But we have to do the opposite for our voices to be heard. Third, take advice from HERO staff, especially Ms. Smith, Ms. Nosek, and high school advisors. If you are in HERO, you have people who have got your back. Talk with them and keep them updated, whatever it is. Communicating with your advisors at HERO is important for your future. Fourth, you will make mistakes, and that is when you will find that connection with your advisor and teachers especially valuable. Fifth, learn how to network with the right people. Find your group of friends or family members who will not just be there for you but will push you. Time management is key. If your friends are your friends, they will let you do your thing in school, and they will make time for you, and you will make time for each other. Finally, don’t take anything for granted. Take every opportunity that HERO gives you because nothing comes easy. You will sacrifice a lot, but it is worth it in the long run.”

When Francis talks about HERO and the staff, her entire face lights up. She sits up straighter, and she radiates with pride. Even though she’s on track to graduate in 2022 with an Associates in Science in Community Health, Francis says she will remain a part of the HERO/Hostos program after graduation. She declared that in the next ten years, HERO will be ranked one of the best high schools of the City. She wanted to make sure I wrote that so that people know she called it. “I can’t wait to say I went to one of the top ten schools in New York.”