Maria Reyes can still feel the bitter cold stinging her fingers and toes as she sorted newspapers, glass and aluminum at a local recycling company years ago. In the summer, the job was equally unbearable as she stood in the same position for hours, sweat pouring down her back as she sorted garbage in the extreme heat.

As she endured the low-paying job which she described as “hard, hard work,” she promised herself she would reach for something better for herself and her daughters.

That something better has translated into a college degree for herself and the prestigious 2013 Gates Millennium Scholarship, for her eldest daughter, 18-year-old Karina Salazar-Reyes, a 2013 St. Thomas More High School graduate.

As her daughter prepares for her freshman year at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y., studying international business, Maria and her husband, Antonino Salazar’s dreams for their children are coming to fruition.

Originally from Jalisco, Mexico, Maria ran out of money before she could finish the accounting program in which she was enrolled in Mexico.

Feeling like a failure, she joined her brother and sister in California. She worked in a factory for a couple years, but kept wanting more.

While in California, she met and married Antonino, originally from Durango, Mexico. Forty days after Karina was born, the couple moved to Milwaukee, thinking the city would offer a better life for their family.

“Rents were very expensive (in California) and as a family, we wanted to have our own place and my brother (in Milwaukee) told us that in Milwaukee, there were more opportunities for families, rents were cheaper,” she said of their decision to move west.

Education and faith are priorities for their family.

“One thing we always said when we married was that we wanted to give a good education to our children and we always planned to walk in the same faith,” she said. “I’m Catholic, he’s Catholic, and if you keep your faith, God will guide you. You can do nothing (without God). For me, it is the most important thing. Living in another country, with a different culture, there is a reason for me to keep strong in my faith and transmit it to (our children.)”

They settled on the south side near 14th and Scott streets but moved farther south near Greenfield when Karina was in fifth grade. They attend Prince of Peace and St. Patrick churches.

 Antonino worked construction and after several years at the recycling plant, Maria, realized if she no longer wanted to suffer the bitter cold, extreme heat and hard work sorting garbage, she had to return to school.

Additionally, she wanted to be an example for her daughters – Karina and Chelsea, 12, a seventh-grader at Notre Dame Middle School, Milwaukee.

“Another reason to go back to school, I want them to look at me and I don’t want us to just tell them what to do, I want them to see if we can do it, they can, too,” she said, explaining how she wanted to be a role model for her daughters.

She took classes through Esperanza Unida, moved on to Milwaukee Area Technical College where she earned an associate degree and then on to Cardinal Stritch University where she finished her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education last year. She is a teacher at Guadalupe Head Start.

The four to five years at MATC and three at Cardinal Stritch were grueling, admitted Maria.

“When driving back home at 9, I was so hungry driving on 27th Street, feeling like I don’t want to keep doing this, but I’d tell myself, it’s so hard, but you can do it, don’t quit,” she said.

She also recalled many weekends studying side by side with Karina. “It was a good experience attending Cardinal Stritch because it was a good opportunity to work with Karina. She was my support.”

Seeing her mom push herself impacted Karina.

“Her perseverance – she never had the opportunities I have, with the money situation, the environment, I have everything on a silver platter and my family is very united. We’re not rich, but I have financial means available to pursue things,” said Karina, adding, “The only thing stopping me would be myself.”

Proud of her mom for finishing her degree, Karina acknowledged the struggles she went through.

“While she did know English, she never used it in writing and to see how it developed and her speaking abilities – even in a class of native English speakers, she was still the best presenter,” said Karina of her mom.

Karina also praised her father’s example of hard work.

“He’s been a great example, a hard worker, even though he doesn’t have the education, he teaches me about life and his experiences. He grew up on a farm and he teaches us we have to appreciate what we have and work hard. We’ve been able to become who we are because of our parents and their hard work,” she added.

Karina also saw the importance her parents placed on education.

After attending Morgandale Elementary School, Maria and Antonino enrolled Karina at Notre Dame Middle School for fifth through eighth grade.

Providing a Catholic education for their girls was a priority, said Maria, even though it was a financial sacrifice.

Karina regularly made the honor roll at Notre Dame, according to Angela Peñaflor, director of graduate support, and was involved in dance and volunteer outlets, including Casa Romero Renewal Center.

“She was always very mature, very responsible, hard working. We knew she was going places,” said Peñaflor of Karina. “I hate to take credit for such a good kid, but we’re very proud of Karina. I think she would agree being in this environment where culture was celebrated, she was able to thrive here.”

After graduating from Notre Dame, Karina went to St. Thomas More High School where she maintained a 3.79 GPA, taking AP and honors classes along the way, according to chief administrator Mark Joerres. She was involved in the Latino
Student Organization and participated in traditional dance groups in the Milwaukee community.

While at St. Thomas More, Karina was enrolled in the Marquette University Upward Bound program which prepares low-income, first generation college students to enter and successfully complete college. Through the program, Karina learned of the Gates Scholarship. She was one of 10 students in Wisconsin chosen for the scholarship – three of whom were Upward Bound participants.

She’s the first student from St. Thomas More to win this honor, something Joerres said speaks well of Karina, but of the St. Thomas More community as a whole.

“It speaks volumes of the faculty and staff who work with and support our students every step along the way and in every facet of their lives,” he said. “We have an incredibly caring, hard working staff who really connect well with the kids and are willing to be attentive and supportive of them, be there for there for them along the way whether in academic areas, extra-curriculars or in personal matters.”

Describing Karina as quiet and unassuming, Joerres said she has a solid work ethic, her academics are exemplary and “she’s a beautiful person to the core, no pretense, she has her head on straight, is mature beyond her years and will be a rock star in our community because of her focus on academics, the tenderness and the respect she has in her heart for life. She gives respect and it comes right back to her.”

He added, “She is the epitome of someone who reflects Christ, her approach her selflessness and her deep spirituality.”