After her parents fled a war-torn country to make a better life for their children, Amanda Castro set out to become a first-generation college graduate.
Amanda Castro lost her mother in 2012, but not before promising her she would earn a college degree.
A native Californian, Castro attended community college in Long Beach and worked at the local Hilton hotel as a bartender. But one day her life turned upside down when a sailor in uniform walked into the hotel.
“A unit of sailors from the U.S. Naval Base in San Diego were convoyed in Long Beach for a mission,” Castro said. “Victor needed to stay close to the ship, so he ended up spending most of his time at the hotel.”
The two spent the time talking and sharing their quick wit and proclivity for dry humor.
“We became enamored with each other,” Castro said. “We wanted to continue seeing each other, so Victor made the commute from San Diego to Long Beach, pretty much every day just to see me.”
It wasn't long before the couple knew they were meant to be together. After getting married, Castro decided to move to San Diego, leaving behind her life in Long Beach. Even though Victor was willing to commute, she didn't want to put that burden on him.
Castro found a new community college in San Diego but managing both work and classes became a challenge when the couple welcomed their first child in 2010. Suddenly, Castro was home with their infant son and her husband was on a 7-month deployment. Even then, she kept going to class.
“When I got pregnant with our second child, I realized I couldn't keep up that pace.”
Castro decided to leave school at that point, but knew she'd eventually finish what she started.
“The most important thing to me is my children,” Castro said. “I wasn't thriving in any of my roles because I was doing too much. I wanted my kids to see a better version of me.”
Castro and her husband had two more children while moving around the country for Victor's job. Unlike other branches of the military where one can be stationed in one location for many years, the Navy relocates its employees every three years.
A costly sacrifice
During this time, Castro suffered a loss that shifted her priorities.
“I am Cambodian, and my parents came to the U.S. in 1980 after fleeing a dictatorship regime,” Castro said. “As a result of that time, my mother was very sick.
“My parents went through a very traumatic ordeal coming to the U.S.,” Castro said.
In the late 1970s, Cambodia was terrorized by the Khmer Rouge regime. Its leader, Pol Pot was a Marxist dictator who sought to create a “master race” of Cambodians and killed more than 2 million people in the process.
“My father worked in the Cambodian Royal Army leading up to the Khmer Rouge,” Castro said. “When he realized he and his family would not be spared, he quickly made plans to escape.”
Between the two of them, Castro's parents had nine children at the time and were pregnant with their tenth.
“Some of my siblings were older and already independent and my parents couldn't find them,” Castro said.
Her parents were faced with the gut-wrenching choice to stay and continue to search for all nine children or ensure the safety of the ones in their care, including their unborn child.
Ultimately, in 1979 they fled to Thailand and sought asylum before coming to California a year later. Once in California, Castro's parents had two more children – Castro and her older sister. They were also raised with their brother, who was born in Thailand.
“After what my parents endured to provide for me and my siblings, I wanted to make them proud,” Castro said.
Castro had always envisioned her parents seeing her graduate college. That dream was now slipping away.
Castro's mother was blind and paralyzed in more than half her body and was suffering complications due to diabetes. She never got to see Victor or her grandchildren. But she would take their hands and listen to their voices
“Ultimately, she lost her fight with diabetes in 2012,” Castro said. “Before she passed away, I promised her that I would finish college and earn my bachelor's degree. That was important to us both; a way to honor the sacrifices my parents had made.”
In 2016, the family found themselves in Oklahoma. Castro, determined to move forward in her education, found some margin to take courses. In May of 2019, Castro earned her associate degree from Oklahoma City Community College.
“I was excited to earn my associates in pre-education, but my ultimate goal was still a bachelor's,” Castro said.
Castro began to look at universities that would offer her the flexibility she needed. But around that time, the family was informed they'd be relocated to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
“We were supposed to move in April of 2020, but I was worried about pulling the kids out of school before the end of their year.”
So instead, the couple made the decision to move early.
“We spent the 2019 Christmas break moving to Texas,” Castro said. “That way our kids could start school at the beginning of a new semester.”
Once they got settled, Castro began looking at her options for higher education in Texas.
“I like attending classes in person, but with Victor's schedule and four children, I knew that was unrealistic,” Castro said. “Then COVID-19 became a factor, so I exclusively started looking at online degree programs.
“While a lot of people assumed I'd choose University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) or Texas A&M, I wanted to keep my options open. After a lot of research, Texas Tech University was my number one choice. I was very impressed with their high graduation rate and emphasis on diversity.
“I hoped that I had a good chance of getting accepted, but I was nervous,” Castro said. “I really wanted to go to Texas Tech.”
A new focus
Castro nervously awaited her acceptance letter.
“There was a lot riding on that letter,” Castro said. “I wanted to keep the promise I had made to my mother, and I wanted to prove to myself I could finish what I started a decade before.”
Not to mention, Texas Tech was one of few online options. Castro needed to be accepted and then finish her degree within three years before her family would be moved again.
“Waiting to hear was hard. It was a mental game. I tried to keep my confidence up and trust that God had a plan.”
She vividly recalls the day her letter of acceptance came in the mail.
“For someone who doesn't get emotional often, it was a very emotional experience,” Castro recalled.
Castro became a Red Raider in the fall of 2020. When she started classes, she was envisioning being a math teacher.
“I had always been good at math and teaching, so I thought I'd combine those two,” Castro said. “I also was good with children, as one would hope from having four of them. So, I kind of pieced together this career plan from what I thought I was good at. But I hadn't explored any other options.”
“She told me about a Bachelor of Science in human sciences that would allow me to customize my own degree plan with three areas of focus,” Castro said.
And best of all, it was offered completely online.
Castro ended up focusing on three areas: human sciences, human development and family sciences and psychology – a departure from what she thought she might study.
“After we moved to Texas, our son started to struggle socially at school,” Castro said. “We recognize that constantly moving is not ideal for kids, especially as they're getting older. Our son is 12 years-old now and we're in new territory with him.
“He has been bullied at school and started to have suicidal ideations. As a parent, that's really scary.”
Castro imagines this is something many families in the military struggle with, but don't always give voice to.
“There are some wonderful benefits to the life we live,” Castro said. “But we know that our lifestyle also lacks stability, and that's unfortunate for our kids.”
Victor will retire in four years, giving their family more freedom to put down roots.
“But until that time, we have to figure out how to help our kids succeed,” Castro said. “It was around this time that I became interested in adding that psychology focus to my degree. Not only am I passionate about helping my son, but I see a huge need for increased mental health resources for the kids and families in our Armed Forces.
“I wouldn't have imagined taking this route for a bachelor's degree,” Castro said. “But I appreciate the people at Texas Tech who helped me imagine more possibilities. Now I feel I'm doing what I'm meant to do.”
A promise fulfilled
Today, Castro will fulfill her promise to her mother as she graduates from Texas Tech.
Not only is she a first-generation college graduate, she also was part of the very first Asian Pacific Islander Desi Arab (APIDA) convocation at Texas Tech and will be the College of Human Sciences banner bearer at the ceremony.
Castro has pioneered new territory not only for her family, but for herself.
“I'm now planning on pursuing a master's degree in counseling,” Castro said. “I've kept my promise to my mother, now I will follow through on my promise to my son and other kids like him.”
As excited as Castro is for the commencement celebration, there is a trace of bittersweetness surrounding the event.
“I wish my mom was here to see me graduate this weekend, but luckily my dad is still with us, and he'll be livestreaming the ceremony from California.”
Castro's father, Chet Sany, couldn't be prouder to see his daughter graduate from college.
“My daughter is a very strong person,” Sany said. “When she puts her mind to something, she follows through. I came to the U.S. so my family would have these opportunities. I'm so happy to see Amanda make the most of that.”