On December 1, 2011, I was notified that I had been matched to Princeton University through the QuestBridge program; this meant a full-ride! I was surprised and in a state of euphoria. My teachers were proud; some broke down in tears.
I came home shaking, excited. My dad knew that day was the day I would find out what colleges I got into.
“Where did you get in?”
“Where is that?”
My dad did not say another word. He turned around and left the room. Minutes later I overheard him tell my Grandmother, “Well, at least she is going to college.” I was so upset “at least”? I wasn’t going to some community college!
Both of my parents are immigrants from Mexico. Mexico, at least when they were growing up, did not have a free public education and because of this neither of my parents received any education; instead they worked. Fortunately my dad taught himself how to read and write decently in Spanish; he never learned English. My mother, on the other hand, is illiterate and knows no official language. She is deaf. She never learned sign language and was never taught how to read.
How do we communicate? Gestures. The downside? Not being able to explain what Princeton is and what this means for us.
For months, my dad tried to convince me to go to UCI (University of California, Irvine). He figured I could live at home and drive the 15 minute commute, but I had committed myself to Princeton the day I found out. To my dad, education was all the same, what mattered was what you did with it. To some extent, he was right, but he did not understand how many more doors Princeton could open up for me.
“Dad if you were given the choice between a Honda civic that you occasionally had to pay gas for and a free Ferrari with the gas paid for…which one would you choose?”
He still didn’t get it. He told me I was crazy if I thought he would pay for my living situation and food. I had to clarify that this was a full ride. Plus, it didn’t help that my dad had never heard of Princeton and neither had basically most of the parents in my city, Santa Ana, California. He knew Harvard and Yale, but not Princeton. Is Princeton better than Harvard and Yale? Yes, dad it is! Is it really that hard to get into? Yes! After seeing documentaries and realizing that several Mexican presidents had attended Princeton, he eventually came around. He even offered to buy me a bike to ride around campus.
Unfortunately, my mom still doesn’t know what Princeton is and probably never will, but most of the city also doesn’t know. About 50% of my city’s population is Latin American immigrants. Some learn English and some don’t. Most of the population falls under the poverty line. Most did not get past their high school education and more importantly they know very little about the college system in the United States and the social mobility that they can bring about. This makes it difficult for students in my city to get out of California. Understandably, our parents want us to stay near but it just takes some explanation of the opportunity to get the parents to change their mind. My dad wants what is best for me and eventually realized that Princeton was it.
I wasn’t fortunate enough to have a parent who could guide me through the academic struggles I faced, but I always had loving and caring teachers who encouraged me to push myself beyond my own limits and imagination. My teachers had a big impact in my life and pointed me in the right direction.
When I finally stepped on Princeton’s campus I realized how different and perhaps even uncomfortable my background was. I hadn’t realized it before because most of my friends fell well below the poverty line just as I did. Also, all of my friends were children of immigrants and spoke our parents’ native tongue. We all grew up translating and had similar struggles when it came to adjusting to our college life as first-generation students.
My background was so “uncomfortable” that I actually had a residential college advisor tell me that I needed to stop talking about my background because I was making people uncomfortable. He then went on to say, “At Princeton, we don’t talk about socioeconomic status; we don’t talk about politics; we don’t talk about religion; and we don’t talk about race.” I was extremely discouraged and furious. People asked me “innocent questions” that I felt I had to answer truthfully. When someone asks, “What do your parents do?” They really are looking to see what your socioeconomic status is. I never minded the question because I actually was excited to share my background. I wanted to teach people what it was like for someone like me to be here. I wanted them to know how I succeeded and mostly I wanted them to be proud just like my teachers had been. After all going from zero education to the best university in the country is an amazing feat.
Some people did not see it as such or maybe they simply focused on the fact that I was poor and this is why they felt uncomfortable. Maybe they assumed I was dumb or that I got in because of affirmative action. I had after all heard that some students on campus had expressed that they disliked the stupid QuestBridge students who were only admitted because they were poor. To those who have that mentally I tell you to ask yourself: if you were in my shoes, would you have succeeded? Would you be where I am now? Let’s be honest, probably not. People with my background have all odds against them and most don’t make it out of poverty much less to top universities. I may not have had the same preparation, but I am just as capable. My personality is part of why I got in. I am built to adapt and persevere. I have struggled with poverty, abuse, you name it, finding the resources to help me succeed is nothing compared to what I went through to get here. For those of you who feel sorry for me, and that is why you felt uncomfortable, I say don’t! I am not working at McDonalds! I am at Princeton! Be proud and happy for me.
Be proud of all of us, of all first-generation students who have all taken different paths to get to the top universities that they are in. Be proud of all the first-generation students who may not necessarily be at top universities but who are receiving their college education.
Some may think that all first generation students share a similar background. To some extent, they are right. But this undermines the uniqueness and diversity that can be found within first generation students. For instance, we come in all colors, shapes and sizes. Given the definition of first generation student in the United States, we can also come from different socioeconomic statuses even though the most common is low income or working class. Some of us grew up with supportive parents who constantly pushed us to our limits to ensure our academic success; others of us grew up with parents whose priority simply was not academics for one reason or another. Some of us have parents who went to college and dropped out, some of us have parents who went to high school and dropped out. More rarely, few have parents who did not go to high school. And, probably even more rare is my case where both parents received no formal education.
Before you categorize us all into one group, remember that we all have different walks. Some of us had obstacles thrown against us at every turn; some of us had people who helped us clear most obstacles. Some of us do struggle in college; others of us blossom and thrive in college. If we struggle, encourage us. Do not mock us and do not call us dumb! If we thrive, be excited! Before you assume and are quick to judge, just think about how diverse we are.
Ana Maldonado is a third-year student at Princeton studying psychology.