My background made them “uncomfortable” at Princeton

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?”
“New Jersey.”
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.

2 Responses

  1. Alan Harrison

    Doesn’t Paul Willis now work at Princeton? Might be worth having a chat with him. He was my Ph.D. supervisor when I was an ageing mature student at Wolverhampton. Paul is pretty approachable.

  2. Hi Ana,
    I’m proud of you and glad you posted this, I’m sorry it has taken me half a year to read it. I say I am proud of you because I am a working-class, woman of Color and a U.S. daughter of an immigrant. My being proud and in awe of your achievements despite the hardships you faced (which out number mine)–comes in opposition to Miranda Cunningham’s response; although I understand where she is coming from in that we working-class, low-income and working-poor may be using language that agrees with institutionalized Classism. Where I disagree with her is in seeing your positionality as propping up the system of class hierarchy: what supports the system of institutionalized classism is not the belief held by kids at the bottom and that inspires us to work ourselves to the bone to earn a spot at a institution like Princeton, but it is those at Princeton like your RA and his supervisor and their boss that uphold a system that silences and perpetuates classism. The institutions that are already in existence perpetuate the inequality; but the understanding “that people like us” don’t often get a foot in the door is not the problem. As Bev Tatum stated in defining racism, prejudice+power is a factor in what moves ideas of discrimination into implemented practices that affect multiple members of a target group. Long story short, I am proud of you because I know what going to Princeton is going to mean for the economic stability of your family once you graduate (and move on to Graduate Studies probably) with those Princeton contacts; what it will mean for your resume and your life chances. It takes us and our parents who immigrated to this country to believe in a “American Dream” and the Myth of Meritocracy to drive us to study hard and bet everything, EVERYTHING (blood, sweat, tears, loans) on this, THIS “Dream”. I cannot give up. Even though I know it is a myth and that I want to resist a system of Classist thoughts and actions (Ferrari Statement) how else could you put into words something as valuable as basically a shot at a “good life?” Who in poverty actually WANTS to work at a low-wage, un-unionized job that is devalued in our country (ie. McDonalds)? People don’t choose it, the economic inequality in this country sets up a system where people have no choice but to work there. The “second-rate” institutions that have become the only option for the majority of Americans, and disproportionately for students of Color, don’t have to be second-rate: it is the system of inequality, and socioeconomic deprivation and capitalism that perpetuated the poor quality and lack of options available to the majority of us who seek a affordable education. It’s easy to reconcile your happiness and the happiness of your teachers who cried because I know that you are aware of class inequality now as a Princeton student and that maybe, you will be a part of the struggle to dismantle the very system that we have benefited from for the sake of better opportunity for more students of color, working-class white students, etc. I know that I would do that.

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