Yennifer Rodriguez

Yennifer Coca | Courtesy the International Congress of Youth Voices

This is Part 2 of a two-part series that covers Louisville youth in the International Congress of Youth Voices, a summit that brings accomplished young students together with successful writers, advocates and politicians. Part 1 was published Wednesday, June 12.

When Yennifer Coca came to America, she struggled so much with the English language that she failed the eighth grade. Now, she’s a published author who has received an invite to the International Congress of Youth Voices in Puerto Rico this August.

Coca, an 18-year-old Cuban immigrant, said she spent most of her childhood in her native country before coming to America after a long wait to achieve citizenship status. She then had to overcome the obstacles of learning English.

“At first I was upset I had to repeat eighth grade, but I am glad I did because that extra year of English really helped me transition into high school,” Coca told Insider. “I did not let my English skills hold me down. Since I came to the United States, I always had a clear goal in mind. I wanted to go to college and obtain a bachelor’s degree.”

Coca is now on track to do that, as she’s set to attend Berea College where she plans to study international relations and political science.

Growing up in Cuba

Coca was once far from having a college lined up and a major in mind. She said she grew up poor in Cuba, and that was the main reason her family came to America.

“One of the primary reasons my dad immigrated to the United States when I was 7 was to financially support me and my family,” she said. “But my family was not the only one that faced poverty. Under the communist system, the majority of Cubans are very poor and barely have enough money to get by.”

Coca also said she didn’t have the same freedoms she has in America, and that was something she didn’t realize until she got to the United States.

“I was not allowed to speak up and stand up for what I believed in,” she said. “Since I did not know what having freedom of speech was until I came to the United States, as a child I was often unaware of my rights.”

Getting to America

The process for Coca to get to the U.S. took about four years. She and her father filled out a lot of paperwork and made a lot of trips to the Cuban Embassy. Once her father obtained his green card, he had to petition to bring her with him.

Once she was approved, she had to leave her mother and the rest of her family behind.

“It was very difficult for me to leave my family, especially my mother,” said Coca. “However, I knew it was necessary for me to come to the U.S. if I wanted to provide a better future for my mother and assure her financial wellbeing.”

Once she was in America, she attended the Newcomer Academy in Louisville, a school designed for English as a second language students. Her struggles with the new language forced her to repeat the eighth grade, but once she got a grasp on it, she had educational success again.

From failing to thriving

Coca’s efforts to succeed in America weren’t thwarted by her early struggles. She later attended Iroquois High School, where she became a National Honor Society member and was awarded the Governor’s Scholars Program. In addition to that, she was an ambassador for the Kentucky United Nations Assembly and an author for the Louisville Story Program.

In working for the Louisville Story Program, Coca helped publish a book titled “No Single Sparrow Makes a Summer.” In her chapter, “This is the Coca-Cola That Will Make You Forget Us,” she recounted her experience growing up in Cuba. She also talked about her dad’s immigration process and Fidel Castro’s rule in Cuba.

She spoke to Cuban immigrants from her community for the chapter and was amazed by what she heard and learned from them.

“Talking to Hergues (Diaz) was one of the most enriching and thrilling conversations I have ever had,” she said. “I was captivated by his accounts of life in Cuba — from being a political prisoner to accusations of sabotage to collaborative opposition — and by the courage he demonstrated when standing up against the communist Cuban government.”

What’s next?

Coca will attend the summit of the International Congress of Youth Voices in August, where she’ll be connected with other influential students, as well as authors, activists and political leaders. She is seen as a great candidate for the organization.

“Yennifer … and the other youth delegates were chosen because they’ve shown a clear vision about making the world a better and stronger place, and they’ve backed up their vision with hard work to make that change happen,” said Amanda Uhle, co-founder of the Congress of Youth and CEO of the Hawkins Project. “These students, in particular, were chosen in collaboration with the Louisville Story Program, whose work we deeply admire.”

As far as her educational plans, she is planning to study international relations and political science at Berea.

“I feel like my past experiences growing up in a communist nation where, as a citizen, I was deprived of many rights helped me realize politics and international affairs is the field I want to go into,” she said.

After she gets a bachelor’s degree from Berea, she is planning to go to graduate school and get a law degree.

Correction: This story has been edited to correct Yennifer Coca’s last name.