Zuleyma Zambrano liked to wear scrubs to preschool. Back then, the aspiring nurse liked to care for siblings and toys, and eagerly tagged along to any family doctor appointment.
“She wasn’t even in kindergarten yet when she first turned to me and said, ‘I want to be a nurse,’ ” Patricia Zambrano, Zambrano’s mother, said in Spanish. “She likes to help.”
After Zuleyma Zambrano graduates from Santa Fe High School, she’s headed for the University of Portland in Oregon, where she plans to continue studying toward a career as a pediatric nurse.
Hers is one of hundreds of stories from the Class of 2020, whose final months of high school were marred by a COVID-19 pandemic that altered a senior year — and, likely, a future.
But Zuleyma Zambrano, like so many of her classmates both at Santa Fe and other schools, seems determined to carry on regardless. And in her case, the years ahead are filled with promise: An extremely organized student who bemoaned B’s and color-codes her notes, she will be the first in her family to attend a four-year university.
“It can be terrifying to be the first,” she said. “But that challenge has been what has been shaping me my whole life.”
Over the past few months, her school day has started at 9:30 a.m., when she helps her younger sister Dulce, a second grader at Gonzales Community School, set up videoconferences and complete distance-learning assignments. In the afternoons, she has been preparing for exams in three classes with the potential for college credit.
Zuleyma Zambrano also has two older brothers who graduated from Santa Fe Community College and first began to teach her English when she was in prekindergarten.
“I remember being a little worried when they told me I’d be going to a school that only speaks English,” she said. “Then in kindergarten, I remember not really being able to make friends because most kids didn’t understand me.”
Zuleyma Zambrano, a quick learner, said she reached grade-level proficiency in English by first grade. At home, her parents, who emigrated from Mexico and did not graduate from high school, speak Spanish.
As she progressed during her academic career, her mother said she was as encouraging and supportive as possible while being helplessly unable to offer advice on English-language assignments.
“We always told our kids that education supersedes everything, so I felt terrible at some times when I couldn’t help,” Patricia Zambrano said. “But I didn’t worry too much about Zuleyma. She would cry if she didn’t get the grade she wanted, and as soon as she stopped, she would start working hard toward improving it.”
At Santa Fe and Capital high schools, the AVID Program (Advancement Via Individual Determination) helps aspiring first-generation college students navigate the often-Byzantine college entrance exam, application and scholarship processes. Charlotte Ault, the AVID program coordinator at Santa Fe High, used to teach at Gonzales and first met Zambrano when she was in kindergarten.
Ault said she was not at all surprised to cross Zuleyma Zambrano’s path again as a high school sophomore with her sights set on a bachelor’s degree.
“You worry about every student who is the first in their family to go to college and leaves New Mexico for the first time,” Ault said. “But Zuleyma will be the one organizing the study groups. She knows how to ask for tutoring and help. I trust she’s going to finish her four years because she’s so resilient.”
Zuleyma Zambrano said she never really considered going to school farther than the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque until New Mexico Simon Scholars, a nonprofit that mentors and supports first-generation college students, and the Davis Scholarship, which covers the full cost of attendance for first-generation college students, opened her eyes to the possibility of studying nursing in Portland.
Between earning her full ride to college, Zuleyma Zambrano tutored elementary school students in literacy with nonprofit Reading Quest, interned at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center and by many accounts was a very supportive friend.
“Zuleyma will be there for you,” said Megan Sandoval, a fellow graduating senior at Santa Fe High who’s been Zambrano’s friend since kindergarten at Gonzales. “I remember being so happy she took the time to come to my last softball game in the spring. She’s so empathetic in the way she believes in herself and other people.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Zuleyma Zambrano said her desire to help and care for others through a career in medicine has only been strengthened as she plans to use her bilingual background to help patients feel at ease.
“I think it’s a huge bonus for patients to have a nurse who speaks Spanish,” Zuleyma Zambrano said. “That way they can be sure their questions are answered and they’re not receiving any less care than anyone else.”
After a visit to the University of Portland this spring was canceled, she still is unsure if she will attend classes in person in the fall. Graduation and typical celebrations are also canceled, which she shrugged off as disappointing but necessary.
“It’s not safe to gather. I get that,” she said. “It’s disappointing, but I will still get that diploma.”
Without any schoolwide celebrations, Zuleyma Zambrano said she is taking advantage of the quarantine to spend more time with her parents, who helped with homework more than they ever realized.
“If it wasn’t for their sacrifices coming here from Mexico and making sure my siblings and I worked hard in school, I feel like I wouldn’t have accomplished anything,” she said. “Even if they could never really guide me through an assignment or college applications, I still couldn’t have done any of it without them.”