An Instagram post April 9 by Sinahi Carrizales said, “came to this country at age four not knowing how to speak English; eighteen years later and I’m about to become the first from both sides of my family to graduate college.” Receiving her bachelor’s degree May 7 from the University of Tennessee at Martin was a notable accomplishment for the 22-year-old from Somerville, but she celebrated the achievement as much for others as for herself.
“I think I was lucky to start learning (English) at a young age when it was easier,” she said. “I know it gets harder to learn a new language as you get older.”
Carrizales’ journey to earning a college degree literally began when her mother and father brought her to Arkansas from Mexico in 2004 at the age of four to provide better opportunities for their daughter. The family then moved to Somerville in 2006 to live closer to her aunt. She began learning English before she entered school and helped her parents through her own English-speaking skills as she grew older. “I think I was lucky to start learning (English) at a young age when it was easier,” she said. “I know it gets harder to learn a new language as you get older.”
Carrizales focused on school involvement while attending Fayette-Ware High School as a way of finding assistance to attend college. She was active in the Family Career Community Leaders of America and won the FCCLA’s state speaking contest – no small feat for someone who once didn’t speak English. She also was a member of the yearbook staff, president of the library club, vice president of her junior and senior classes, and she found time to take dual-enrollment English classes at the UT Martin Somerville Center. “I think college was like my main thing that I was thinking about in high school and how I was going to get there,” she remembered.
UT Martin first surfaced as a college option when she attended the Young Scholars Academy her junior and senior years. The YSA is a non-credit, weeklong summer residential program for underrepresented West Tennessee high school students. Those selected to participate experience the college campus atmosphere through academic-success and skills classes and leadership-development activities. Dr. Robert Nanney, professor and chair for the Department of Mass Media and Strategic Communication, was one of her YSA instructors, and his class showed her how a communications degree can offer options in the job market.
“I taught in YSA for more than 15 years. I can honestly say that I remember Sinahi most vividly from among the many hundred whom I mentored,” Nanney said. “She had that smile and enthusiastic, positive spirit that truly lit up the classroom.
“I was overjoyed a few years later to learn that she had chosen UTM and our major for her college home. During these last four years I have seen her skills – and her confidence – grow in impressive ways. I’m certain that she will make a real difference in the world.”
Carrizales’ experiences with the summer YSA program proved especially helpful when she arrived at UT Martin in fall 2018 pretty much on her own. “I started my freshman experience being just really introverted, really quiet, and being like really shy and just scared, I think, of lots of things,” she said. “I think just transitioning from being under my parents’ roof and to being by myself on my own was just a big difference.”
As in high school, involvement again made a difference and this time provided a path to adjusting to college life. Participating in the Latin Hispanic Student Association connected her with other Hispanic students, which made her aware that students with similar backgrounds shared her experiences. From there she became involved in the Flight Crew, the Office of Student Life and Multicultural Affairs’ programming arm, and she worked in the Paul Meek Library and the Office of University Relations in a social media position. Her busy schedule made focusing on academics even more important. “I think time management has been my biggest thing (for success) when it comes to academics,” she said. “I think just being able to handle everything and also have time for my schoolwork.”
“I think what’s kept me motivated is my siblings,” she said. “I don’t think I could have gone here (to UT Martin) if it weren’t for them. I always think about them, and what I can do for them, and how I can help them.”
With her bachelor’s degree in hand, Carrizales currently plans to pursue a graduate degree in UTM’s strategic communication master’s degree program and eventually work in broadcast news and public relations. High on her priority list is motivating her siblings – two younger brothers, Jose Carrizales Jr. and Ramses, ages 17 and 12 respectively, and an 11-year-old sister, Ivy – to attend college and provide support along the way that she didn’t have. “I think what’s kept me motivated is my siblings,” she said. “I don’t think I could have gone here (to UT Martin) if it weren’t for them. I always think about them, and what I can do for them, and how I can help them.”
She also wants to help her parents who work hard to support the family. Her father, Jose, works at a sawmill and does landscaping while her mother, Mayra, does housekeeping and works at a butcher shop. “My parents are not citizens, and so I think I wanted to come here so I could gain more knowledge and be a professional and be someone and hopefully help them and everyone else that I can help (who experience her challenges). … I think that’s just motivated me, just being able to do things for others,” she said.
Carrizales, a citizen of both Mexico and the U.S., returned to Mexico at Christmas in 2020 to visit her grandmother whom she lived with for a time after her parents came to the U.S. She visited Tampico where she was born and traveled by bus to five Mexican states visiting family members. Carrizales hasn’t forgotten her roots as she looks toward a promising future. Her journey came full circle on the commencement stage in May, and as she had hoped, a sibling took notice.
“To me, it (Sinahi graduating) inspires me. … I mean at first, I didn’t feel like going to college, but now I mean seeing as my sister was able to get through four years of college, then I guess that means I can do it, too,” said Jose, who wants to pursue a career in criminal justice.
Sinahi Carrizales’ story reminds everyone that a life’s journey is never about one person. The difference she has made for herself is already making a positive difference for others.