Twin sisters from Oakland heading to Yale — together

Staff PhotojournalistI recently had the chance to sit down with Kim and Jack Mejia-Cuellar, twin sisters from Media Academy (Fremont campus) in East Oakland who have both been awarded full scholarships to Yale University. It was inspiring to hear their story — and how, as one of their teachers put it, they shaped their education into something rigorous and meaningful.

I was struck by something Kim said about feeling like outsiders, at times, for working so hard:

“No one said it outright, but our behavior was strange,” Kim said. “By setting goals for ourselves while other people were setting limits, we were always sort of the odd ones out. We felt pressured, but we didn’t let the pressure get to us.”

Both said that they doubted they’d be where they are if they didn’t have the other as a support system. What about the other bright minds who will show up to school tomorrow, but without an identical twin or best friend with the same drive, discipline and self-assurance? What can their families, friends and the school system do (or avoid doing) to help them set goals instead of limits?

Photo of Kim and Jack (left to right) by Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group


I asked Jack and Kim if they’d write some advice for younger students, and they managed to squeeze it into their hectic schedules. Here it is, just as it came in:

  • Get involved in as many extracurricular activities as you can. Your high school experience is what you make of it, so get involved with clubs about things you are truly passionate about. Not being involved can make coming to school a dull experience.
  • Always stay on top of your schoolwork. It may seem tedious now, but it will prepare you for college, and good grades will pay off in the end.
  • Don’t be afraid to dream big. You should always set high expectations for yourself even when others may not. Only you can challenge yourself.
  • Start the college search early. Snag those travel grants and visit colleges you are interested in. When you visit campuses, you’ll know whether the schools are a good fit.
  • Maintain good connections. Having a good relationship with your teachers and community leaders makes a world of a difference. Let them know your goals and aspirations so they can help you find internships/volunteer opportunities in whatever you want to pursue.
  • Don’t be afraid to tell your story. Your struggles have made you stronger, and your story can serve as an inspiration for others in your situation. This is the first step to being proud of who you are and where you come from.
  • Stay true and be you! There will be a lot of pressure from your family and your friends to be a certain way, but make sure to listen to your heart and pave your own path.


Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • makeitgoaway

    Beautiful story and great advice.

  • anon

    Amazing story! Congratulations ladies for your hard work, dedication and determination. Continue to share your story with others-it is an inspiration!

  • Nextset

    Nice story, but:

    The twins appear to think that future orientation is a thing that children can turn on and off. They’ve apparently been taught that such things are a matter of volition and not a reflection of what the person is.

    Actually they may painfully find that people are what they are and only a narrow band of people are physically able to change. For the most part, Alphas are Alphas and Betas are Betas – and they like what they are.

    The twins have expressed what it takes to make it into the class they are in – future orientation. They seem to get that.

    But at their age and with their training they still don’t understand what people are all about. I suspect they think people can be made to be what other people want them to be – perhaps if you just wish hard enough or give people more money. Common dogma in today’s education.

    People at this age operating this way have not been properly taught in my book. In my experience they have been put in a situtation where they have to learn by getting really hurt instead of learning from education and research.

    They refer to themselves in passing as the odd ones out. Of course they were in the school they came from. They were outliers there, and no one taught them how that was and how that works. I suspect they have constructed a thought process on their own to account for being outliers. I would rather they had the actual stats and explanations that construct a reality on their own.

    Because now they are most certainly not outliers. At Yale they will find they are matched and surpassed in every way and that is going to be a tremendous shock. They’re not going to be special at all anymore.

    And not because competition is making a heroic effort or choosing to be a champion, but rather because they just are. They may even find students competing with them that are (seemingly) lazy, drug using, emotionaly unstable – but still can top their best academically.

    All this can be a problem for them if they equate academic success with being “good”. And since they have (apparently) not been taught the facts of life they will experience emotional pain in not being able to take their frinds and family with them where they are going (socially, vocationally, economically). Nice people like this may equate growing distance between them and their former peers as abandonment – if they’ve not been taught what to expect and why. they will need to bond with new peers and let the others go.

    Anyway, it will not be boring. Congrats to them both. I hope they are flexible and durable, they will need it in these leagues!

  • Nextset

    Nice Op Piece in the Tribune by T Drummond:


    The additional bio helps. I especially was interested to hear about the girl’s mother. It appears they are immigrant strivers. Good for them! Seen this before. Too bad the home grown can’t do so well.

    However the more info, the more their risk factors come into focus. I hope somebody coaches them about surviving the risk factors. What they are proposing to do – take an Ivy League degree with all the attendant issues involved – is wrenching for girls like them. The path they have been set on affects who they will marry – when they will have children (and how many) – what occupations they and their spouses will have – where they will live, and in what society they will belong and not belong. They will find that their selections in all these things will be limited in a way – and expanded. And this is not always pleasant. And it’s not so simple as some want it to be.

    I have a friend (black male) who could no longer set foot in his mother’s & sibling’s homes by the time he was 30. I had a law clerk – an Indian immigrant – who seriously was concerned about being murdered by her father (she got rid of the grad school classmate she was seeing to end the risk). While I’m not concerned that these girls face such particular issues there are others that are jarring.

    White Libs don’t see and don’t care about such things. They think it’s all about choice and it’ll all work out without much strife.

    These girls are outliers – and there is a price to pay for being that. It can work out great if you are flexible and durable.

    There is a reason for the high minority drop rates in these academic programs. I really hope they find a good coach.

    Brave New World.

  • J.R.

    That is indeed a great piece from Drummond. These girls have been steeled and tempered by the fact that they had to climb a mountain just to get to the foot of the ladder. That very same ladder that certain people are placed at the top of simply by virtue of birth. It is about expecting more, committing to more, and doing more by both parents and children. I do nut have to wish these girls success, because they will strive relentlessly until they attain it. These kids were raised right, and they listened and learned well.

  • Peach

    Congratulations to Jack and Kim Mejia-Cuellar. I wish you every success in college and beyond, knowing that you have the knowledge and skills to make dreams come true. (What awesome advice you offered.) You earned these opportunities and the Oakland community is confident that you will take full advantage of them. Special kudos to your parents, family, teachers and friends who have supported you as you grew to this place.

    To those who use the amazing story of these sisters to denigrate others, please stop. Adults in OUSD owe a commitment to all of our students. There are numerous examples of both male and female students from a diversity of social, family, and economic situations who are graduating this year with honors and a bright future before them. They too have support systems and they have made good decisions. Maybe community groups, high schools and the district will highlight the many accomplishments of the class of 2012. The immigrant story of the Mejia-Cuellar sisters is indeed an inspiring one.

    In her new book, “Multiplication is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit states “… what we need to know at a very deep level is that African American children do not come into this world at a deficit…If we do not recognize the brilliance before us, we cannot help but carry on the stereotypic societal views that these children are somehow damaged goods and that they cannot be expected to succeed.”

    One can substitute the name of any demographic group, including that of African American males from low income families, and this remains a true statement.

    While you’re working the academics, ladies, break out some warm wool coats and leather boots and have a blast!

  • Nextset

    JR: Of course I know nothing about any personal detail about the twins. I do know that high school experiences do not specifically prepare minority students for many of the sociological issues that precede failure in college. There is a reason why the failure rates are what they are – and even those that don’t fail have plenty of wear marks.

    My point is that such students wear better if they are coached from the moment high school is over if not before, on what to expect from life at college especially the competitive colleges. They will get precious little warning and preparation from their HS – that’s just not what HS is all about.

    Minority students male and female do not have the up front preparation for either life at Ivy League or the attendant social issues that will come from making the jump from the society they grew up with to the society of s super-competitive college.

    Or maybe you haven’t experienced suicidal or near suicidal college kids and college dropouts. I have, and I don’t think I have dealt with nearly as much as other professionals who work at or near such a major college.

    You cannot pat them on the head and wave them good-bye and ignore the stats. Exactly what is the drop rate for such students at even our UC system? And they’re going to Yale… Well at least they aren’t black males.

    It’s great they are going. But surviving this requires flexibility and durability beyond that needed in HS. They certainly have my permission to do what is required to make it at Yale – and thereafter. I hope they can do so with tolerable stress.

    And as to your last paragraph – what must be done is often not what the families of the minority students have taught them. To make it they may have to change their value systems away from that of their families to that of the new society they are joining. That’s the problem here with such candidates.

    These twins did not grow up the children and grandchildren of Yale grads. They are proposing to change their society from what they went to school with to Ivy League. Do you think it’s just a matter of “study hard” and all will be well? Right. For the sake of the discussion it’s not the “study hard” part that I’m concerned about.

    In the Brave New World you do not change your society. Society is enforced in many ways from language to personal habits to grooming, dress, interests, family and associations. I know those who have “changed”. It’s not easy. The twins have to complete college, maybe grad school. Choose and join an occupation with all the attendant pre-requisites, manage their finances, and get happy, avoid problems.

    The are embarked on a daunting mission far from family and friends. Oh, to be young again. I’m not minimizing their job. I hope others don’t. I’m afraid others (in their old society) will, they usually do. I’ll bet it’s starting already.

    As far as their odds, lots of immigrants have made it (breakthroughs) at this level. Not sure of the stats for Hispanic girls. Blacks have the worst stats. Properly coached the twins have what it takes I think. They need a coach on the ground at Yale who understands their situation by experience.

    But this is not a walk in the park.

    Peach: If you want to compare books about Black college performance in the US, try “Losing the Race” by McWhorter.

  • Peach

    Thanks Nextset.

    Last I heard John McWhorter was a linguist, not an educational researcher. Though I often disagree with his POV, he also professes to believe in the inherent potential of African American young people.

  • Jesse James

    Thanks Katy! This is awesome news! Good luck young scholars! Make Oakland proud!!! Use every opportunity given to you!!! Hurray!!!

  • Cranky Teacher

    Nextset is right about one thing: Roughly half of our college-goers from OUSD don’t complete a 4-year-degree. Graduation is only the beginning, and the social challenges are greater than the academic ones.

    However, the Mejias have each other, which will help enormously in preventing isolation.

    In reading this story with my classes, I am struck by how it really is — I’m sure unintentionally — well-meaning “Horatio Alger” propaganda: The implication is clear that if you just follow the Mejia’s steps, you too can be a success in this country, economic system, society.

    Yet right off the bat we see how many exceptions there were to the “at risk” model: The mom who enriched their education from birth and demanded extra homework, the fact they were twins and could support each other, landing at a poor public school that offered newspaper and debate (definitely not the norm anymore), earning scholarships that are by definition limited in number.

    Many of our attempts to make social change seem predicated on hope exceptions become the rule, which is just not logical. For example, if all teachers would be great, we could overcome deep structural inequities in resources, nutrition, background, etc. But what system of scale ever could find success by finding only exceptional parts?

    Hell, even the NFL can’t find 32 great quarterbacks, but America is supposed to find millions of great teachers?

    In the end, I loved this story because of happiness for the Mejias, who I have had the privilege to know, but deep sadness that so many things have to fall into place for even our smartest poor and non-white kids to succeed in this society.

    Katy has done the other side of the story today:

  • Nextset

    Sorry Cranky – the twins going as twins to college carries risk factors of their own.

    Remember, the problem with minorities trying to change caste is the problem of change. When and whether to change, how to change, family and homies telling you not to change, change costing money, change costing you old “friends”, change estranging you from family. Twins together at college can gum up the works here just as it could become a support for each other in making change. It is not an automatic plus.

    Either way this is not going to be a walk in the park. That’s the problem with the black and brown family and friends in the old caste – they are normally unable to perceive what the student is going through or assess properly the decisions that must be made. Then we have the added problem of well meaning (or not) white liberals who cannot understand what is going on at all (watch what happens with a white liberal when you are ever in the way of something they want).

    Now in this case I rather think the mother may have had awareness that her daughters were outliers before in high school and will have to become stronger outliers to survive college. And then we have dear old Dad who’s role in all this is minimized in the article. His attitude towards his children changing caste will have a big affect on all this and most such men are not at all happy with their daughters changing into what Yale is known to produce. Understand, if they complete this path they will no longer be “traditional”. A whole lot of people don’t like that – even if they don’t articulate their feelings in newspaper interviews.

    Having said this – the USA and it’s standards of living are going down and this move puts the twins in higher society. It’s clearly a good thing. It’s also a power shift within their family. And then there’s the issue of marriage – seriously important to immigrants in a way not seen in the locals.

    I’m glad the twins are going for it. I don’t want anyone to minimize the monumental thing this choice of theirs really is. This is not just like some daughter of a local doctor or judge going to Yale. The social aspect of the jump they are making is huge. I hope they get unconditional support for what they decide they have to do in their academic, social and occupational careers.

    And that is rare in minority cases like this. Sure they all make nice at the graduation – but when the Twins start “deciding” things in the future, those left behind (in the extended family and friend network) may not like it. Differences start to become larger.

    I would prefer if the high school classwork for such students included material on Caste, Caste rules, historical biographies with emphasis on those who have changed Caste and how it was done. Cultural Anthropology in general. Instead we see HS grads which no clue or concept of how anyone operates but themselves/their caste. They do not wear well for this lack of preparation.

    Brave New World!

  • Nextset

    Peach: Both McWhorter and Thomas Sowell have written of their negative (no other way to put it) experiences with black college students. I believe they both have re-published some of the pretty dismal stats – one of the most interesting is that the SAT over-predicts success in blacks. Sowell is known as a researcher, I’m not as familiar with McWhorter.

    They are both black academics of note. I’ve known of others – Oakland resident Jewell Taylor (of UC Berkeley?) wrote:


    She’s an academic also. I’ve met her – she’s interested in black academic issues.

    And then we have 100 years of black experience in industry and commerce…

    The worst thing we can do is to cut standards and baby the candidates.

    As a black lawyer I’m familiar with the disaster of cutting standards in order to fill AA quotas. I lived that in school. The vast majority of my black classmates never passed the bar and should have not been in the that school at that time in the first place. They were admitted knowing they could not do the work in order to fill a quota.

    Back then the tuition was nominal. Now such AA admits get handed $100k plus in non-dischargable student loans to carry for all their lives – if they fail to see what’s being done and enter under these circumstances. It appears many won’t because the black admits are dropping like a rock as the tuition subsidies end.

    Things would get better if at every level of academics standards were maintained and truth (especially unpleasant) were told. But that is not politically correct. At some point I’m sure the democratic controlled state legislature will simply eliminate the Ca Bar Exam for it’s University Students – it’s been done in other states. It’s all PC now.

    Of course then you have the problem of the background investigation of the candidates.

    Back to the thread. Ivy league non-asian minority candidates are Outliers. It would be nice if our public schools located, identified and promoted such Outliers. SF does it with Lowell High. What does OUSD do exactly – to get these candidates promoted and to protect them from the dangers they face from their own Caste?

    Brave New World.

  • J.R.

    Not one administrator, parent or student ever asks the most important question “what is the root cause of the problems that we face”. If you want to find solutions to problems, you need to ask the right questions in order to find the answer. I’ll give you a hint, jobs is not the root cause. When you have thirty something aged grandparents who were at best HS graduates(more likely GED recipients),and are mostly single and unmarried you have the “real” genesis of the problem.

  • Nextset

    An old memory just returned to me of a student I knew, an east Indian girl, telling me her parents (shopkeepers who were once poor) opposed her law school application because it would create problems with accomplishing an arranged marriage for her. She explained she would become less desirable a bride with a law degree (the undergrad degree was bad enough!). I suppose they’d have to pay more on her dowry or something. At the time she claimed she’d refuse an arranged marriage anyway.

    The parents were quite serious and she defied them by completing application and accepting a law school offer – I encouraged that defiance (I was younger then and didn’t consider the parents’ point of view for a minute). I met her as a college student. The family grudgingly came around when they couldn’t persuade her to drop it. She finished school with minor social bumps in the road, passed the CA Bar and did well as far as I’m concerned. She had an early career better than mine, I think.

    After saying for some years at work she would not accept an arranged marriage, she eventually did so after some time in practice. They found her a nice Doctor but went outside the US to get him. As far as I know she started a family and was happy. She has lived in and out of the US since married. I once asked her about her earlier statement she would never… She smiled and said that it just made sense in the end and worked out better for everyone. But she still has her Bar Membership. And she is gifted in a courtroom battle. I wonder what her children will become.

    It is more than a notion for immigrant girls to start telling people that they are going to go Ivy League no matter what the extended family thinks. Even if the family helps pay for it, that doesn’t mean they are all about to go along with the chain of things that come with the Caste change. There may be endless disputes about big and small things. In the end the girls have to decide how much interference they will tolerate and what relationships they wish to keep.

    And in some of the communities I have seen, they kill girls who don’t stay in line.

    This is the reality the CA public schools and their teachers have to deal with every day with our precious diversity. The diverse students have Caste expectations of behavior and sometimes those who don’t obey are beaten or worse. Maybe the girls have greater problems. The boys have problems too.

    So I love seeing an outlier get out of Dodge and make it in this Brave New World. You don’t see this all the time.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Congratulations to Jack and Kim and their parents, and also to the teachers and staff at the Media Academy at Fremont High and to the teachers at the middle and elementary schools the girls attended. You all helped support these extraordinary young ladies.
    The Gates Scholarships offer wonderful opportunities for the winners, but in a country where the commitment to equity was real, and not just rhetorical, upward mobility would not have to depend on private philanthropy.

  • Nextset

    Katy: I hope we hear some progress reports on the twins and students like them.

    I was thinking of them recently and wondering what would they do with the Yale Degrees if they complete them? Where would they go, what would they do then?

    I doubt they would go “home”. They’d more likely go off on careers – or if they marry fellow students they’d likely go where their husbands go for work.

    I wonder what the stats are on OUSD students who graduate with a take 4 year degree for migration out of CA or across CA.

    Changes of Caste are dramatic changes. Everything changes. It seems to me that the students are never coached about what to expect, and prepared to handle the issues & stress. I believe (having been there) this is significant part of the college failure rates we see with minority students (and perhaps why the SAT over-predicts college success in minorities). I wish the secondary schools would work on that for the minority AP kids.