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By Shane Gilreath
The Cold War was still very much in play. Bombs had rocked Moscow in January 1977 and brought the Soviet city to standstill. On the other side of the world, a small town governor from Plains, Georgia, Jimmy Carter, had just become president of the United States, ushering in a season of newfound hope. As the decade’s global turmoils were coming to a close, an inspiring story was just springing to life, born in a Mexican town, nestled along the Rio Grande, somewhere in between the elite global powers.
Just across the US border is the town of Matamoros, a bustling metropolis that’s a part of the Brownsville, Texas, Metropolitan area. Known for its international trade, Matamoros celebrates Charro Days and Sombrero Festivals to commemorate US-Mexican relations. In the duality of this culture was an ideal start for a woman, who, by her nature, would come to epitomize the spirit of both: Sol Branscum. From her birth in 1977, Branscum’s story would take many turns, but, in it, she continued to possess the cherished traditions of her home country, coupled with the conventional drive and progressivism of the world across the border, where one of its better known leaders, Teddy Roosevelt, had said, “believe you can and you’re halfway there.” Branscum’s own attitude very much mimicked that of the nation’s youngest president, who, age 42, had skyrocketed to the presidency, but never doubted his own aptitude and drive. Neither did the little girl born in Matamoros. Her approach to life, her husband, Roger, has said, is “never quit.”
According to Roger Branscum, Sol was a standout student throughout her years of secondary education, and, so, the story goes, her parents encouraged their daughter to set her sights on university, a feat that’s far from common in Mexico, a country where, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, post-secondary education hovers under a quarter of the Mexican population. Sol’s determination did not waiver. Committed to her studies, she was accepted into technical university, studying industrial engineering, before fate struck her blow: her mother was diagnosed with colon cancer and the family’s finances no longer allotted Sol the freedom to study.
With the same determination and work ethic that took her to college, Branscum got a job to help support her family: at a local mall, as a receptionist, and, ultimately, at McDonald’s. In her off-time, she helped her father nurse her mother to recovery. Nearing 30, Sol attempted to return to university, but, much to her disappointment, was told she’d need to repeat several courses. Not one to be defeated, Sol leveraged her language skills to get job at a manufacturing plant as an translator, translating important documents from English to Spanish for the American Bag Corporation – Mexico, a once major employer and company well-known to McCreary County. It’s there that she met her husband, Roger, a Stearns native, who was working in Mexico.
After marrying, Sol left her job with ABC to become a full-time housewife with aspirations to soon start a family. With that in mind, she applied for a visa and moved across the Texas border to Brownsville. In the Lone Star State, the Branscums welcomed their first child, a daughter, Natalie, in 2006, but it wasn’t until Natalie was 3 months old that her mother was granted a permanent visa and able to take Natalie to Mexico to visit the family she had left behind, not knowing, then, that her husband’s company was about to relocate, moving 600 miles to the Chihuahuan Desert of Torreon; the range of desert that occupies much of West Texas.
Despite Torreon’s reputation for being an economic and industrial center, desert life required some modifications for the young family. Studies conducted by the National Autonomous University of Mexico show only 58% of the country’s population has daily access to running water, an adjustment Roger Branscum remembered.
“Water was supplied to residential areas only a few hours each day,” he recalled, a far cry from his hometown of Stearns, where the water tower – bearing the name of the founding family – hovers over the horizon.
With utilities seemingly futile, Sol Branscum resurrected her childhood dream of attending college, enrolling at the Technological Institute of the Valley of Mexico, seeking a degree in quality control engineering, before finding out she was expecting the couple’s second child. With a new barrier in the way of her education, Sol, along with her young daughter, Natalie, left her husband, her college studies, and her family in Mexico to move to Stearns, Kentucky. She wanted, her husband recalls, for their son to be born in Kentucky.
To demonstrate her own brand of determination, a mere seven days after giving birth, Sol loaded up an SUV and traveled back to Mexico; a 1,600 mile journey, with a 4-year old, a newborn, her husband, and her dreams in tow.
Resettled, knowing the importance of education and the longevity of her own dream, Sol, placing her daughter’s education ahead of her own, turned her attention to Natalie, to assure that her daughter would receive the best education Torreon would allow: Colegio Americano de Torreon, a bilingual institute and the leading school in the Laguna region of the country.
“She lived in the desert for two years,” Roger says, “sending our daughter to school and being a full-time housewife, mom, tutor, and general husband manager.”
After 24 months, Roger’s corporation sold its Mexican holdings. With his job eliminated, Sol, again, packed her family, their belongings, her hopes, her dreams, and moved them to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, where Roger grew up.
“A city girl would live the rural life,” Roger recalled, as the Branscums set up housekeeping in South Whitley City, where populations were considerably fewer than their previous homes. While still unpacking belongings, in 2013, the Branscums discovered that they were, again, expecting.
Settling into small-town, southern life, Sol worked on her English and poured her passions into becoming an American citizen, being a fulltime housewife and mother, with her eye on the ultimate goal of pursuing her own dream of education.
If, as the saying goes, every good citizen adds to the nation, Sol Branscum began adding to the United States when she took the Naturalization Oath in 2018. Like any determined American, she walked out of the ceremony and registered to vote. She also began making her own plans to return to school at Somerset Community College. Though none of her classes from Mexico transferred to her new campus, she became a full-time student in Fall 2018, studying education, along with English and Spanish, and taught English as a second language for four semesters at SCC. The little girl, who dreamed of education in Matamoros, soon was receiving recognition for her long-awaited studies, making both the Dean’s and President’s Lists, and being recognized as Student of the Year in 2021.
Thanks to her good marks, Sol was awarded a partial scholarship to attend Eastern Kentucky University, where she continued to accumulate accolades, being invited to the Spanish Honors Society, Sigma-Delta Pi, and nominated by both the English and Spanish Departments to speak at her college commencement, which took place on December 2, 2023. Sol was decked in an Honors Stole, Magna Cum Laude, the college’s distinction to those who receive their diploma with notable distinction.
Many things are taken for granted in our fast-paced world. Sometimes, it takes extraordinary vision and drive to overcome that breakneck speed, never losing sight of our own dreams. The famed actress, Audrey Hepburn, delivered a line that might well describe Sol Branscum. “Nothing is impossible,” the actress said. “The word itself says, ‘I’m possible.”’ And so it is. When Sol Branscum walked across the stage at her college commencement ceremony, she took with her the lessons and struggles to get there: 1,600 miles, 28 years, a husband, three children, a different language, a new country, and an embodiment of the American dream.