Regine Francois overcomes family hardships and plans to attend Columbia University in the fall

By Jessica Fecteau
Updated May 04, 2015 10:15 AM
Credit: Megan McCarthy/The Guadalupe Center

Growing up as a Haitian emigree in Immokalee, Florida – one of the poorest communities in Florida – Regine Francois was determined to make a life for herself through her education.

Her parents – who are now both housekeepers – had to leave elementary school early to work for their families and wanted their children to have more opportunities than they did.

“My parents really conveyed the importance to me when I was really, really young that an education is what is going to get you anywhere you want to go,” Francois, 18, tells PEOPLE.

“They were sacrificing a lot to move us from their home country to take us to America for us to get an education,” she says.

Francois, the eldest of six siblings, succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

She was accepted to 11 colleges including the prestigious Ivy Leagues Brown University, Columbia University and Cornell University.

When she found out she says she shouted for joy.

“I think the neighbors thought there was something wrong in our house,” she says. “I was like, ‘Mom! I’m going to college!’ ”

On Friday, May 1 she made her decision: Columbia.

“I got to visit Columbia in April and felt at home,” she says. “I fell in love with it.”

Francois says she owes much of her success to the Guadalupe Center, a non-profit educational center designed to prepare low-income students for college, which receives funding from the Naples Children and Education Foundation.

She joined the center her sophomore year as a tutor for younger children and has been earning bi-weekly paychecks to help with her family’s necessities.

Francois plans to study international business, and would like to eventually go back to Immokalee to help a community that has helped her reach her dreams.

“Organizations like the Guadalupe Center and NCEF, they bring hope to us,” she says.

“I don t know if I would’ve been able to apply to all of these colleges by myself,” she says. “They’re a catalyst for bringing people together and helping the community grow.”

The center’s president, Barbara Oppenheim, says Francois is an amazing young woman.

“She really made the decision that she was going to turn really adverse conditions into motivations to be something more,” Oppenheim tells PEOPLE.

Through the after-school program, Francois also received intensive college prep, guidance and support to help her with applying to college. Francois even earned 60 college hours at the Florida Gulf Coast University through dual-enrollment.

She hopes her five younger siblings follow in her footsteps.

“I just really think they’re going to look at this and say, ‘I can do it, too,’ ” she says. “I think my success is not just my success, it’s a success for Immokalee and for Haiti.”

The next step for the Florida resident?

Buying a coat.

“I’ve never even seen a coat in Florida!” she says. “I need to get one of those.”