Sae Saito said she was prepared to face challenges when she learned her family would move from her native Japan to Austin. She said she did not expect, however, for her new school – Eastside Memorial Early College High School – to give her the sense of acceptance and belonging that it did.
“Eastside was like my home,” said Sae, who arrived in Austin in 2009 when she was 15 years old.
Eastside is where she made lifelong friends; where teachers looked past her imperfect English and encouraged her to excel. And she did. Sae graduated in 2012 as salutatorian of her class.
“(At Eastside) I learned not to be afraid of new challenges,” she said. “The teachers and staff members always encouraged me to go beyond my safe zone.”
Challenges were aplenty at Eastside.
During Sae’s time at the school, Eastside faced the possibility of closure and was being considered for management by an outside charter organization. The Eastside community, including Sae, puled together and campaigned to keep the school open and under AISD’s leadership.
Like many students from other countries entering AISD, Sae began her studies at International High School, which shares a campus with Eastside. After improving her English, Sae was cleared to attend Bowie High School, her neighborhood school.
Sae insisted on attending Eastside instead. Eastside, she felt, was where she belonged.
She said that her support system of friends and teachers, and the surrounding community’s commitment to the school, were key in her decision to stay.
“Every morning I had to take a one-hour bus ride, but it was worth it,” said Sae, who earned bachelor's and master of science degrees from the University of Texas at Austin. “I was so impressed by everyone’s passion to keep the school alive. I wanted to help.”
To help, Sae participated in an after-school program where she tutored other students in math.
“I helped them with math and they helped me with my English,” she said. “Perhaps sometimes kids thought it was awkward, but they also accepted and respected me.”
Today, Sae lives in Austin and works as a transit data analyst at Apple, a role she said she feels was possible thanks to the Eastside teachers who encouraged her, an immigrant, to dream for a life here.