BELOIT - Stephanie Hernandez-Barrales didn't want to get her hopes up, so she didn't tell anybody about mailing off the application.
Though the Beloit Memorial High School senior was saying a little prayer, she really didn't expect to hear good news from Washington University.
"It was my favorite school that I applied to, but I was terrified to apply because my ACT score wasn't up to their usual standards," Hernandez-Barrales said.
She waited for over a month. Finally, an email came. Hernandez-Barrales held her breath, watched the message slowly load, and let out a cry: "You're in."
"That moment is when I knew that I had made the right decision about everything," Hernandez-Barrales said.
Getting in to the St. Louis school - which has only a 17% acceptance rate - was a momentous moment in a long journey.
"I've known my entire life that I want to go to college, but I had no clue where to start," she said. "That's why I applied for Upward Bound."
Upward Bound is a federally-funded TRIO program that helps high school students who are low income and first-generation students navigate the path towards going to a four-year school.
The program has been facilitated through Beloit College for more than two decades. Right now there are 78 students from Beloit and South Beloit who are receiving guidance and resources.
"We're really looking for students who have leadership potential and have the willingness to put in the work and go to college," said Upward Bound Director Vanessa Beckham.
The daughter of Beloit farmers, Isidoro Hernandez and Eufrosina Barrales, and big sister to Alex Hernandez, Hernandez-Barrales has been working for years to become the first person in her family to go to college.
Good grades always have been important to her, and continue to be a major focus. She started learning English in kindergarten and has always done the best she can - in absolutely everything.
Once she reached high school, Hernandez-Barrales said she knew it was time to turn her GPA and extensive list of extracurricular activities into a platform to reach her potential.
"I felt like Upward Bound would be a really good resource to help me get to college," she said. "My dream has always been to become a lawyer, but I just didn't know what to do."
Hernandez-Barrales was accepted into the Upward Bound program as a sophomore. Since then, she has participated in tutoring, learned college readiness and financial literacy, and traveled for college visits.
In addition, she's served as co-president of the Latino Club, is a member of the National Honor Society and Key Club, works as track and cross country manager, volunteers at her church - and more - while remaining a 4.0 student.
"We think Stephanie is the perfect example of what an Upward Bound student needs to be, because she herself puts in as much work as we (the program coordinators) do for our students," Beckham said.
Hernandez-Barrales said that being a part of Upward Bound is what put her in the right direction for getting where she wants to go in life.
She plans to major in political science and psychology when she heads to school this fall. She might also squeeze in a Spanish minor.
"Upward Bound taught me the statistics I'm up against, but also showed me that my dreams are still possible," she said. "I'm really excited."