I am a Creative Writing major at the University of Southern California, and a first-generation, low-income student trying to help other students have access to opportunities.
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I am an African-American/Black Higher Education Mother-Scholar, and an advocate for the historically marginalized doctoral experience.
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I am a Muslim-American woman born and raised in the U.S. who finds being a Hijabi in America a harmonious way of expressing her identity.
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I am a proud Black man, first‐generation college student, son of an incarcerated father, and child of God!
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I am a first-generation Master's student from South Central LA, daughter of immigrant parents.
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I am a young black male.
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Yo soy una mujer Latina, orgullosa de mis raíces y mi familia. First generation U.S. college graduate, educator and artist.
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I am a sophomore at UC Berkeley and intended Development Studies major.
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Inspired by the scholar-activist model taught in Africana Studies, I am a Native American scholar guided by the principle that knowledge is a tool of societal transformation.
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I am an AB540 student pursuing a higher education. I chose community college so that I could go to the school of my dreams and pursue my career in film production.
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I am a Thai-American PhD student.
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I am a Jewish-American, immigrant MD-PhD who loves nature, learns differently and has been cancer-free for over 20 years.
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I am black, queer, Islamic woman.
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I am a first-generation, African-American, lower-middle class, urban student attending an elite, predominantly white institution in rural, central Pennsylvania.
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I am a Xicana, first-generation in the US and first-generation college student.
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I am a queer Chicana, womyn of color, first-generation college student, and a PhD candidate.
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I am a Michigan born Arab American studying World Politics in hopes of becoming a human rights lawyer and activist.
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"I build relationships through self-expression and artistry. I’m a self-love activist. I champion for the love of self and others."
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I am an advocate for knowledge and family; a former foster youth destined for greatness.
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I am a first generation, Mayan, activist, scholar, educator, doctoral student, & artist
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I am a Black woman higher education scholar who is both a Womanist and a Christian.
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I am a first-generation Mexican college student pursing a STEM field degree.
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I am a Nigerian-American student.
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I am changing the world while undocumented.
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I am a first generation, queer, gender fluid, low SES, disabled student from a single parent household.
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I am a hard-working business major who has a dream of working for a great company in the US.
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I am a Latina, woman, DREAMer, Spanish major.
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I am a first-generation college graduate, immigrant, and advocate for greater college access and completion among underrserved students.
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It’s difficult going to college as a low-income, working student, especially when you’ve grown around poverty and are still trying to get out. You work hard and when you finally make it to college you think, “this is my chance to thrive”. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for every student.
Some students work 20, 30, or more hours a week to either: support their families back home, support themselves in college, pay off their student bills, or all three. Being one who does all three, it’s frustrating to be an environment where I’m supposed to be thriving. I work plenty of hours a week, but that money is spent on rent money to send back home, phone bill, credit bills, student balance, transportation, plane tickets, food, clothing, and miscellaneous items.
It kills me because I want to get involved and make the best out of my college experience. While applications for scholarships, honor societies, and opportunities ask for my Honors, Awards, Leadership Experience, Community Service, all I got is seven years of work experience. And as a student who works hard, I feel cheated and feel like I’m being overlooked and neglected. I feel like organizations want the student who’s heavily involved with extra-curricular activities and has leadership experience in organizations, but what about those students who are working part-time and full-time jobs just to survive? Schools love to celebrate student achievement and give opportunities to thriving students, but what about the working students, the first-generation students that are struggling to make ends meet? Who’s looking out for them?
This is the reason why I want to get involved in my upcoming last year at USC. I need to find a way to look out for these students. As a working student, I can tell you from experience – sometimes you lose sleep, fall behind classes to pick up hours at work, or drop a class because bills are piling and you need more hours of work. It’s difficult and frustrating, but students in this situation have to move forward. We cannot let our financial status hold us back.
Just recently, I got accepted into three programs to travel abroad. In one, I volunteered in Costa Rica for Spring Break; the other I plan to study the fashion industry in Milan and Florence, Italy for 10 days in May; and the last I plan to study at the University of Cambridge from July to August in England. I didn’t think these opportunities were possible as a working student, but I applied without thinking about the money, and found trips that were short-term. I still have to finance these trips by working and applying for scholarships.
I just hope I can one day be in a position where I can start a scholarship foundation for working students. I tried looking for scholarships for working students, and I don’t see them. That’s why I feel obligated to start my own one day and help working students feel connected to their college campus.
Audio version of Poem
My uncle died before I walked with my cap and gown
but I was blessed to have family on campus.
The administrators made me feel at home when there was no home to go back to.
I hid from my own shadows
but my professor saw me lingering
like mist from afar.
They fed me knowledge
and gave me a bar that I didn’t know I would ever reach.
They listened to the sounds of my imposters and
made me face my internal enemies.
I bled from low grades
I didn’t see esteemed-colleagues
that looked like me.
But my people were laying down on the streets with concrete pillows blinded by drugs, famine, and the false fallacy of the American dream.
My college days, left me with uncertainty.
How can this knowledge help anybody when it’s trapped in the mind of a young Barack Obama without a Harvard degree?
I’m done being the poster child for diversity!
My college failed me when it gave me grades for my creativity.
It failed me when it told me that remedial classes were mandatory.
My college failed me when it chose sports trophies over students’ dignity.
It failed to call me out on my misogyny,
but instead perpetuated it, to make me believe, that I’m better positioned and that women are somehow below me.
I don’t get it.
College has given me a lot of pride lately,
but I try to open my eyes daily to debunk the thoughts that I learn about myself in mainstream media.
I’m an aspired encyclopedia, a scholar, a brush,
molded by paint from around the world.
I’m a future policy maker;
a future professor.
I’m what happens when you mix Denzel Washington and Viola Davis,
but I’m not hiding behind no fences.
I’m standing up strong to tell my college that you don’t know what you’re missing when you don’t admit the ‘me’s’ of this world.
You’re missing out on planting diverse trees in this world,
that will make an impact beyond our imagination,
one leaf at a time.
Ya see, we’re one of a kind,
but we are losing to structural inequities,
withering away from metal toys that shoot out "we’re killing dreams"!
I’m frustrated that I have to persuade my brothers to consider an education,
I’m frustrated that I have to crush their hopes in becoming an all-American,
because what’s all-American is hidden in the books that are not taught in my college.
I’m frustrated because I know I will be somebody,
but the bodies that I step over to get to my dreams are in dire need of the opportunities, I was once afforded.
My college will continue to fail me,
until there’s equity.
A pivotal positive moment in my college journey at UCLA was when I became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated. This served as the perfect way to unite amongst a supportive and demanding brotherhood that would later develop my skillset to speak and remain confident in my abilities. The fraternity provided a platform to impact my community more intentionally and it helped me develop my “why” to serve and advocate for my community. Throughout the fraternity, I was able to secure leadership positions, summer opportunities, and connect with a global brotherhood that could keep me afloat to some of our world’s biggest issues and successes. At UCLA, I stimulated my community and found solace in ensuring that they had all of the necessary resources and support needed to make meaningful and impactful decisions.
College let me down quite often when I felt a sense of loneliness and isolation from being one of few Black men in school. Yes, I just talked about the amazing experience being in a historically Black fraternity and I could mention all of the support, socially and culturally, that I received from my same-race peers in school, but the reality is that compared to the large majority we were only about 1000 in numbers including athletes. I joined a plethora of organizations seeking to address this issue and inspire the next generation of leaders and students, but at the end of the day I did not make the final admission decision. My hope, however, is that predominantly white colleges and universities can address this epidemic in the near future.
The government needs to realize that equity and equality are two distinct ideologies. They need to understand that supportive initiatives that support underrepresented communities are great, but far too often are underfunded and only reach a small percentage of the population. Colleges and universities must have more intentional and supportive outreach programs that create a college-going and college-completion pipeline to inspire our next leaders. Getting students into college and not providing them support is counterintuitive so the government and public figures must work closely with university administrators to construct practical and equitable policies and programs that invigorate students and set them up for success!
I had a bad concept about community colleges. While I was in high school, my counselors and teachers always spoke of community college as a place where all those who didn’t belong in a university end up. At first, when I came back from my university - I was enrolled for a short time, and although it is a great school, it was not a good fit for me- I was ashamed to say I was going to a community college because of the concept I had. But, boy, was I wrong. Community college has brought me many positive things that have helped me grow as a person. I have gotten help from different programs around campus, like the EOP program, which has help me with the payments of my books, snacks, and free counseling. Since I started school in fall 2015, I haven’t had to pay for anything, which has been amazing because my family wouldn’t be able to afford these payments. There are many students that are not able to study because they cannot afford to pay for tuition and books due to their and their parents’ income. The University needs to keep in mind that many of these people have other responsibilities, and even though they might report a considerable amount of money in their taxes that doesn’t mean they are actually able to pay for college.
I am glad I chose to withdraw and spend two years in community college because I have been able to explore my career in a better way than I would’ve been able to do at my university. I don’t regret my decision; I was able to save money and to get more involved in my career without having to move six hours away from home. One of the pivotal positive moments in my college journey was when I was able to work on short films for my major at the community college level. It was great to find classes that were able to provide me with the foundation to help me learn more about cinema. I was able to find help anywhere on campus, especially in the writing center, where tutors helped me with the revisions of my essays. At this moment, I know what classes I need to take, and I will try to maintain my 4.0 GPA so I can get into my dream school, USC. While, I have applied to other universities and I also kept in mind that I am able to get an A.A. in Film Production at my college. Always keep community college in mind because it can be one of the best alternatives for you to enter the school of your dream. Fight for what you want, don’t let anyone take it away from you.
During my undergraduate and graduate careers, there have been several times where I experienced great disappointments from the universities and faculty. I have two experiences that are similar to each other, each from different institutions. I will write of both as one due to their similarities. First year students are always intimidated by faculty due to their titles of professors and their doctorate degrees. This is even more so with first-generation students where we see higher education as the yellow brick road to a successful life. The last thing students need is for their fears of faculty to become reality. In each circumstance, I was working on a project and needed a faculty member to support it so that I could continue to develop them. Being someone without a research background, the fact that I was pursuing independent study for the projects was a huge deal to me. The last thing I would expect would be for each instructor to tell me, “I don’t see how your project will be successful and why you were successful at earning that award,” and “Don’t spend your time doing a master’s thesis. Just take the seminar.” When I think of a university, I think of a supportive learning environment where innovation, creativity, risks, and discoveries are made. I think of faculty and students working together to achieve great ideas and theories. This was not the case for me with these two faculty members. I was being discouraged and disregarded for my ideas not fitting their understanding and views of their respective fields. Disappointment does not explain the sentiment I felt each time. My experiences are not unique as I have met several colleagues, students, and peers that have had similar experiences. Each experience taught me that I had to worker hard at earning my degree than privileged students.
On a Thursday night in September of 2016, I sat in a room of 60+ black men for the very first, official general body meeting of Brothers Breaking B.R.E.A.D. (Barriers, Regrets, Egos, Animosity and Doubts), a newly campus recognized organization geared towards the advancement and comfort of USC’s black male students. After months of collaborative planning with alumni, graduate and undergraduate students, we had finally created the space: a community of men who had nothing in common but being black students, allowing us to grow through our similarities and our differences. As I sat there, listening attentively as each one of them lowered their barriers and vulnerably spoke to their experience at USC, I noticed a common theme in their responses. Each man was surprised, empowered and relieved to be surrounded by such a large group of people who understood and could resonate with them beyond the surface. I have been blessed to be in breathtaking places, meet legendary people, and do amazing things, but nothing has made me feel more complete than being able to take my influence and help create change in the lives of black men, in the same way my role models had influenced change in my life.
As beautiful as this space is, I wish it wasn’t such a necessity for black male students. USC, unfortunately, fosters an unwelcoming atmosphere for us, as it stands as the most discriminatory community I have ever been a part of (and I’m from Texas). For me, the micro-aggressions cut the deepest, and after a day of watching women clutch their purses, mothers protect their children, lab partners assume stupidity, classmates assume athleticism and professors ignore my culture, it feels amazing to watch a room of brothers accept and embrace my humanity. If anything, I would just like the university to consider a day in the life of all types of different student when making decisions on student affairs. Yes, there are students who live blissful, carefree college experiences, but there are also students who are in desperate need of the university’s support, and when they do not receive it, they take on the burden of servicing that need on their own.
A pivotal positive moment in my college journey was my participation in the G200 Youth Forum in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. I was sponsored by Michigan State University to represent not only MSU, but the USA as well. This forum hosted youth leaders from over 200 countries and allowed us to openly discuss global hot topics in an educational setting. I was placed in the “New Approaches to the Financial Sector and World Economy” theme and we were tasked with creating a communique of policy recommendations on what we felt were the most important topics. My group of 14 students had 11 countries represented which created an invaluable opportunity to interact with students who came from backgrounds different from my own. It was amazing to witness first-hand how a decision or policy can be the obvious choice for some countries or a complete failure for others. Through hours of rigorous debate, my team and I were able to produce a three page document outlining what we felt was important which was then distributed to various world leaders. Most importantly, we learned that while people from different countries have our differences, we truly do share many of the same values and that compromise is possible. This experience will no doubt help me as I embark on a career in the international sphere.
A moment when college let me down was in December of 2016 just before a controversial speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos, was set to come speak on campus. The iconic MSU Spartan statue was covered in posters full of hate speech such as, “Muslims Are Gay,” “Fat People Are Gross,” “Muslims Please Stop Killing People,” “Islamophobia is Common Sense,” and “Piss In My Ass.” As unfortunate as it is that we are often exposed to hateful speech in the media, this was the first time for me that it had come to my home. At MSU, I find myself surrounded by a caring and accepting community, however this was a painful reminder that hateful individuals do exist.
In general, I feel college campuses need to keep two things in mind. One is to be generous with scholarships to disadvantaged students. All of the students I met at the G200 conference were incredibly intelligent with unique ideas. Students from countries plagued by wars and social turmoil should not be barred from reaching their full potential. Many students in countries such as Syria are missing out on educational opportunities through no fault of their own and I believe all able universities should be working to prevent these lost generations.
Second, no ideas should be silenced so long as they are not hateful. I have found that throughout this election, many students, both liberal and conservative, have felt targeted in their beliefs. A university should be a place where all ideas can be heard with equal respect. Hateful speech however, should not be condoned from any side.
Whether I’m binge-watching a period drama or re-watching 30 Rock for the umpteenth time, every time I turn on Netflix, I’m reminded of one particularly dispiriting college experience. I began senior year at Brown feeling lost. After three years of pre-med classes and internships all chosen to build the best application, I couldn’t get myself to follow through and apply. The longing to become a doctor just wasn’t there in the way it was supposed to be. I knew in my gut that it wasn’t for me.
Having no direction terrified me. Seeking guidance, I met with my academic advisor, who, due to frequent departmental shuffling, was my third advisor in three years. I was learning in some of my courses how data science could be applied to medicine, and so I told him I was considering graduate study in statistics. I admitted that I had only taken a few statistics courses, to which he replied, “You think that just because you have one class with a cool professor that you want to do statistics? It’s cute when freshmen don’t know what they want to do, but with seniors, it’s just sad.”
I was at a loss for words. I didn’t expect to be insulted to my face. I tried to talk about some current research areas I thought sounded interesting. He asked if I had ever heard of the “Netflix problem.”
The Netflix Problem was an open competition held by Netflix to develop an algorithm to predict user ratings for movies. It’s a complicated machine learning problem that has puzzled the best statisticians. Knowing none of this, I admitted that I hadn’t heard of it.
He laughed in my face.
“You want to do statistics, and you haven’t even heard of the Netflix problem?”
I didn’t know how to react. I was so used to being respectful to professors that I couldn’t even process his rudeness. I apologized (!) meekly and left questioning whether it really was too late in the game for me. Was going to grad school in a totally different field nothing more than a pipe dream?
I realize now that I should have never listened to him for a second. I had bought into the mindset that if you don’t have your life figured out by graduation, you’ve failed. I talked to my actual support group - friends, family, and my research advisor - all of whom encouraged me to pursue what I was genuinely passionate about. They trusted me to carve out my own path, guided by my intellectual curiosity and a hunger to learn.
Today I am a PhD student in biostatistics at Harvard. Armed with a support system I trust and a healthy sense of skepticism for folks who tell me I can’t reach my goals, I’m ready for whatever lies ahead. I may never single-handedly ‘solve’ the Netflix problem, but I look forward to when I can finally Netflix in peace. 30 Rock is waiting.
My college journey took a turn for the better during the spring semester of my sophomore year when I received an acceptance letter into a study abroad program that allowed me to travel to Brazil, India, and South Africa all in one semester. For quite awhile, I thought about transferring from my elite university for which I had received a full-tuition merit based scholarship to attend because I was very unhappy, unmotivated, and depressed. Upon receiving this letter, I found myself not only able to find the motivation and joy I needed to finish the semester, but I started to appreciate the opportunity that I had so much more because for the first time ever in my life, I would be leaving the country and traveling to three other continents all in one semester.
As a first-generation, African-American, lower-middle class, urban student attending an elite, predominantly white institution in rural, central Pennsylvania, I have had my fair share of let-downs throughout my college experience. However, I would have to say that I was the most disappointed in the university once I had been accepted into my study abroad program. I was told by the finance/bursar department at my university that my full-tuition scholarship would transfer in order to cover my abroad tuition expenses. The tuition at my university for one semester is about $23,000. The tuition for my abroad program was about $17,000. In order to accept my offer, I had to provide a deposit of $2500 within 2 weeks of receiving my offer. Unable to come up with $2500 in two weeks, I turned to my university for assistance. I figured, since the tuition for my abroad program was less than the tuition for my home university, a portion of the excess scholarship funding could be used to cover my deposit. I was sadly mistaken. I was told that because I decided to go out on my own and apply to a program that wasn’t on the list of approved programs (even though in order to study abroad you must have the program approved by the university) I was essentially on my own.
Often times, the discourse around people from underrepresented and underprivileged backgrounds being able to attend institutions of higher learning includes the opinion of the naysayers. These naysayers, I have found, often make the claim, ‘if people want to go to school, they need to work hard; I mean, there are so many scholarships nowadays, especially for minorities.. There isn’t an excuse anymore’. In many ways, this line of reasoning is true; there are in fact many scholarships available to blacks, and other underrepresented groups. However, many of these scholarships come with constraints and stipulations, that do not allow students of color to have a truly-enriching college experience.
When making decisions about access, financial aid, etc. the government and universities need to understand that while money is very important, it is not the end all be all. Students want to feel comfortable while they are attending their respective institutions. They should feel safe and comfortable. Granted, there is a limit to what universities can do but the first step is to actually be willing to listen to the questions and valid concerns that may come from students. Additionally, if the students have earned the financial assistance through merit, leadership, or whatever the qualifications may be, then the student should be able to use the funds for whatever educational endeavor they feel will be necessary for their personal, educational, and professional development without any hassle. In essence, do not hang the money from a string and then jerk it back when you feel the student is pursuit of something that you don’t deem necessary.
I am a first-generation college student who attended a poorly resourced high school. We did not have many AP courses, and the entire school had one academic advisor. I missed the fall round of college applications due to a lack of college preparation programs at my school. A friend, who had parents that went to college, encouraged me to apply for college admission during the 1999 spring semester. She helped me apply, and I was admitted in the spring. To my surprise, there were no orientation or welcome programs for students who started in the middle of the academic year. I also did not know these types of programs existed until the next academic year.
On my first day of classes, the same friend who helped me apply also helped me register and walked me to my first class. When I finally met with the college academic advisor, they handed me a yellow piece of paper with a list of the general education requirements for the bachelor’s degree, and that was it. It was the only time I went to an academic advisor. No one at the university helped me develop or outline an academic plan for my educational journey.
One of the greatest disappointments of my undergraduate experience is that I could have fallen through the cracks very easily. My personal friend is the only reason I got into college and learned what pathways to follow. I later received support and advising through campus involvement and leadership programs.
Student affairs and student services can greatly impact and transform students’ lives. The co-curriculum is just as important, if not more important, than the classroom experience. I barely recall classroom discussions and group homework assignments. What I do remember is the campus experience, leadership involvement, and student organizing.
Getting involved and staying involved saved my educational trajectory. Had I not stumbled upon the multicultural center and its caring staff members, my story would have been different. A staff member who was the director of the multicultural center at California State University, Fullerton changed my life. She recognized that my leadership capabilities, campus involvement, and student advocacy could become my career trajectory and pathway into student affairs. She advised and mentored me through the graduate application process and helped me get into a Master’s program with an emphasis in student development and higher education.
I found my passion, purpose, and lifetime career trajectory in the multicultural center. I was given the room, space, and time to be myself, ask questions, open-up and be vulnerable about what I did not know. I was also supported, encouraged, uplifted, and nominated for committees, involvement opportunities and awards. I was often asked to speak and share my experience with other students and administrators. I was funded to attend conferences and network with professionals in various fields. I know firsthand that funding and support for co-curricular educational programs, support services, and cultural enrichment programs can make or break a student’s educational experience.
One of the most pivotal moments in my college journey occurred during my third year as an undergraduate. I was in my third year as a marketing major, with a minor in sociology, and was working at a multimedia and event production co-op. Now, in my second marketing co-op, I had realized I was not quite sure I wanted to work in the marketing field and was pretty lost. At this juncture, I attended a National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) event on campus featuring a guest speaker. During the talk, the speaker said, “Where your passion and your purpose meet, is what you should be doing in life.” I reflected on those words for days and really thought about where my passion and purpose met. I found myself thinking about how much I enjoyed issues in my sociology course around education, as well as my student job in enrollment management. Though I loved marketing and organizational behavior courses also, I could not fathom applying any of those things in the corporate world. This is when I decided that I wanted a career in higher education. From that day on, I took steps towards becoming a higher education professional, and here I am today as a higher education scholar who focuses on issues of leadership, governance, and administrative practices. That moment and those words literally changed my life.
A moment college let me down was during my undergrad years when I experience a financial hold on my account for $17,000 caused by a university administrative error. My financial aid had been withheld, and I was in danger of losing it altogether if I was unable to produce tax documents from my parents, who lived out of state. I met with an advisor regarding how I could navigate this situation while remaining in classes. The advisor’s response to my dilemma began with, “Can you pay it?” The idea I had $17,000 readily available to pay a bill, which I didn't create,seemed quite presumptuous and somewhat condescending as if I willingly was choosing not to pay the bill. The advisor’s next suggestion was that I drop out of school. In hindsight, I felt it was being communicated that if I couldn’t outright afford the school, then I shouldn’t be attending. I often wonder how many other students received this message and how it affected retention rates. Luckily, I eventually met with an advisor that was helpful, and my hold was resolved.
I think universities, in particular, need to keep in mind most college students want to be there. They want to be part of a campus and a community. However, that does not mean they want to be marginalized or tokenized. Universities must find ways to create inclusive environments that leave space for individual communities to co-exist and unashamedly so. This can’t be something practiced only in speech or in one office. This must be a formalized, consistent value and effort that finds itself threaded throughout the community, values, and practices of an institution. Leaders must take diversity and inclusion seriously and not just use them as buzzwords.
College let me down when I realized that even in an environment of educated people, there are some people who believe undocumented people are the source of most problems in America. It was in a Fiat Lux class my freshmen year, which was purely based on discussion, where everybody had to express their opinion on controversial issues. The day came when it was about the anti-establishment presidential candidate Donald Trump and his ideology. It went as expected, most people criticized him, but to my dismay, they justified him at the end. They proceeded to express their negative thoughts on immigration issues and undocumented people themselves. I was surprised to see how they viewed us. I immediately jumped in to defend us, but they seemed to have their views set, with no chance of change.
I had never felt ashamed of saying I was undocumented, I still don’t, but after hearing how fellow students saw us, I tend to keep it to myself. I won’t deny it if I’m asked, but I won’t come out and say it to just anybody. I never imagined I would ever have to do such thing. For all my years in America, I proudly stated I was undocumented, yet here some people see that as a negative thing. I thought college would render a different environment, where I could express myself freely. For me, being undocumented is an enormous part of who I am; sadly, I feel like I can’t comfortably share that side of me with people.
It has become harder recently, due to past events. I have been in situations where I am not directly attacked, but I overhear people talk negatively about undocumented people. A part of me wants to jump into their conversation and prove them wrong. Yet, I’ve seen how most people don’t change their opinion just by hearing other perspectives. Although they have only happened a few times, I don’t think they should have happened in the first place.
As a second year, I have learned that college does not just expose you to new academic knowledge, but also social attitudes from people of different background. This has given me the opportunity to comprehend where their views come from. In the end, though, I get disappointed that people maintain a mentality that condemns undocumented people. Being in a university that offers many courses where all these negative generalizations are deconstructed, I would expect it not to occur. I felt extremely let down because, before, when I thought of college, I thought of a positive change: it represented a community where people would be understanding and open to different ideas and people. For the most part it has been, but I guess one is bound to get a few not-so-pleasant experiences. I wish this wasn’t the case, but I stay hopeful that people will eventually learn at their own pace and improve the campus environment.
The moment college let me down was when I realized what a privilege it was to be in college. My first year of college I felt as if I was playing catch-up in my classes. That was when I realized that the people surrounding me did not receive the same education as I did. In fact, I felt as if they were exposed to more learning experiences. Confused by my observations, I asked every new college friend about their high school experiences. As each spoke, I noticed that I was deprived from a lot of learning experiences. Their knowledge also seemed to be far beyond mine. This was not because they were exceptionally smarter than me, but because I had not been introduced to such subjects. However, once introduced to a subject I made sure to study it and grasp the concept—once again playing catch-up. During holidays and vacations when I went back home, I noticed that I had very few people that I could talk to about my college experience. This was because only about 30 students from my high school’s graduating class went to a University. The few friends that did attend a University also happen to feel as if they were playing catch-up one way or another. The correlation I made was that students with higher socioeconomic backgrounds received exceptionally better education compared to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Suddenly, I was no longer proud to attend college. The reason I was in college was because, compared to other students in my school zone, I was one of the few to show legitimate interest in learning. Since Universities want the most diversity they can get for reputation purposes, they pick the “best” out of the “worst” according to their criteria.
Going back home and seeing childhood friends in jail, pregnant, or simply hanging with bad influences instead of living the luxurious college life upset me. Although, it’s understandable that their academic performance was poor compared to other students around California. The reason they failed in school was not their fault, but the government’s. The government failed to provide the proper tools and teachers failed to inspire and help these students achieve the goals they had as kids. Unlike other students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, these students often times don’t have parents that are around to give them attention, pay for tutors, or tell them to do their homework. In fact most of these students live without their parents around, trying to figure out how to make it through the day with the little resources they have. Therefore, school is often the last thing in their mind.
Overall, what the government needs to understand is that by making education an expensive luxury rather than an inalienable right, they create a cycle where people who can afford the proper education advance in life and the people who can’t afford the proper education fail to advance in life. Education should be affordable to everyone regardless of their social class.
In May of 2016, I graduated from Borough Manhattan Community College with an Associate in Applied Science in Business Management. Surprisingly, it wasn’t receiving my first college degree that made me proudest. It was the fact that I finished at all. In my third semester, my roommate’s brother, a Veteran with PTSD, tried to stab me with a knife. Subsequently, I fell into a depression and was evicted from our Brooklyn apartment. After unsuccessfully maintaining housing I was soon living in a homeless shelter. Even though it was a trying school year, I refused to allow my circumstances to interrupt my goals. In hindsight, it was that academic year that was the pivotal positive moment in my college journey.
I did eventually obtain work, in addition to a scholarship to study Social Entrepreneurship in Mumbai, India. The months leading up to my departure were the hardest of all. Between juggling employment, school, and homelessness, my workload was strained with scholarship and study abroad applications. Those critical moments shaped my character. Despite my circumstances, my GPA increased from 2.0 to 2.8 the same academic year (my current GPA is 3.9). My story illustrates how my resourcefulness coupled with supportive adults created my ideal campus climate.
I’ve felt neglected in school most of my life (though I was also negligent of some of the resources provided for me). In 2011, I attended an orientation at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), but felt lost in the crowd of 100+ students. Although FIT’s tuition was affordable, I was intimidated by the class size. I was looking for a personal college experience and I believed being a first-generation college student put me at a disadvantage, ultimately creating a learning curve. I believed I needed personalized advisement that I wouldn’t receive at FIT.
Shortly after attending FIT’s orientation, I visited The Art Institute of New York’s (AI) Tribeca campus for an open house. From the small hallways, to the programs offered, I was floored. The advisor who interviewed me was incredibly sweet and I felt AI was the right fit for me. I had little guidance and didn’t receive formal advisement about the college entry process. I was a low-income, underachieving high school graduate with big goals and little direction. The ramifications of student loan repayment while in school hadn’t occurred to me when I was accepted into AI. Even though I wasn’t working at the time, I’d already accrued my first bill, before my first class began.
I don’t blame AI for my $20,000 in student loans or the fact that I couldn’t afford to attend classes anymore. I don’t even blame them for shutting down the school preventing me from finishing if I wanted to. I blame the for-profit structure. I blame waste, fraud, and abuse. I kind of want to blame capitalism as well, but that is for another narrative.
I had a blindfold on when I came to study in the U.S., a vision of the education system that was unrealistic and uninformed. I didn’t know how complex it would be to navigate it on my own.
I was born in the U.S., but I grew up in Mexico until 17. I never imagined I would ever pursue my higher education here.
I was raised in a loving home; although my parents were divorced, I was fortunate to have them both in my life. I attended private school and learned to speak a second language (English) since second grade. I was fortunate and privileged to have such an education. My parents are hardworking and did not have the same advantages I did, which is why education was such a big part of the daily conversations in our home and why they prioritized providing me with the best tools and resources they had. My dad is a Dentist; he went to college in Mexico and got his Ph.D. at the same time I was in high school. My mom was a kindergarten teacher, and she got her certificate in Mexico. Once she emigrated to the U.S., she attended community college and received her A.A. in Child Development. I’m proud of both of them.
My first U.S. school was a public high school in San Diego. The blindfold began peeling off when I met my counselor. I was placed in ESL classes without being evaluated on my English Language skills; they assumed I didn’t know the language well enough. That was the only time I remember meeting my counselor. She didn’t share any information about the different type of colleges. I didn’t even know what the SAT and ACT tests were. My parents couldn’t advocate for me, and I had not learned yet how to advocate for myself. This is a big reason why I decided to get into the Education field: work with students to learn self-advocacy and provide accurate resources to access, attend, and graduate from college.
Another eye-opener was my first day at community college. I was charged non-resident tuition because my parents lived in Mexico, and I had no bills in my name to prove I already lived here for a year. The advice I got was go and contribute, get a job, and register to vote. That’s what I did: I worked 20 to 30 hours a week – sometimes overnights – and went to school full-time.
At times I felt I wasn’t going to make it; I struggled to get resources and meet people that would actually help me graduate with B.A. and M.A. degrees. My parents knew nothing of the U.S. education system, but they talked about college at he dinner table and encouraged me to pursue education. I always come back to this image; I’m not sure I would have had the motivation to graduate from college after all the hoops I had to jump through just to get there.
Attending college was never a questionable matter in my family; I was to attend and that was that. However, no one advised me about the arduous path I was about to take on due to my legal status. The moment I transferred into a 4-year university made a tremendous impact on my life. It was an “I made it!” moment for me, especially since as a first-generation student, I had to learn how to navigate the system on my own. However, there was a moment in my life where college was not my best friend. As I transitioned, or attempted to, from community college to a 4-year institution, I encountered a counselor that thought I was not worth the effort. This person said to me “you are undocumented, you cannot afford college. Let’s not waste my time and yours here by figuring out a path to a place you won’t reach.” I remember it clearly because that moment helped mold me into who I am today.
Pushing to achieve what is thought to be impossible has always been something I have aimed to do. However, this became more difficult when a support system was not available. Regardless, I continued to pursue higher education because I knew what I was capable of and now I will be graduating with my Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice.
This incident has become a critical part of my life and is something I keep in mind while I work among higher education professionals. Fortunately for me, my resilience and passion kept me going, but I am well aware that not all undocumented students fall under my same category. What if an undocumented student sought advice from an unsupportive counselor, which resulted in them giving up? My experience reminds me to constantly advocate that each undocumented student has their own story. We are not all DACAmented, we are not all DREAMers, we are not all Undocumented and we are not a label. We are human beings with stories and varied backgrounds. We have different needs but very similar goals. My professional and educational future holds my passion to make sure these students’ voices are heard. I did not have a written guide to help me through college, nor did I have someone to help me every step of the way. I became that person for myself even after many thought it was too tough of a task to achieve. I educated those around me as to what it is like to be undocumented. I broke down my routine for them and they began to understand that there were not loopholes for me; no cutting corners. Now I am a support system for other undocumented students who remind me that we are all worth the effort and that each of us will bring something enriching to our communities if society would just give us a chance.
I have struggled with my gender my whole life. Growing up, I was taunted for being too much like a boy. And sometimes, I did want to be a boy.
In undergrad at UC San Diego, I found the LGBT Resource Center and started to see new possibilities for my gender. I found people who saw me as a person beyond how society labeled me. So when I walked into the Center after cutting off all my hair, the people there complimented my new boyish look. On the outside, everyone would question why I cut my hair so short, ask when I would grow it back. Inside of the LGBT Resource Center, I was a person that made a style choice. The support I received allowed me to explore my gender identity with confidence. It wasn’t an act of defiance or rebellion—it was purely self-exploration. I felt free. This feeling was immediately followed by terror, but, for a brief moment…I felt free.
I grew out my hair after I graduated. I missed being able to braid it and as someone who is gender fluid, I change my gender expression whenever I feel like it. When I started my graduate program at USC I immediately connected with the LGBT Resource Center because I knew I would need the extra support. At USC, I struggle to find gender-neutral restrooms and with how to navigate pronouns with my professors. While these daily struggles are inconvenient, there is something more important I would like to highlight: I feel unsafe here. I was harassed when I entered an all gender restroom on campus last semester. A man waited outside the restroom and yelled at me through the door for a solid five minutes. Sometimes I wonder if my long hair makes me too feminine for the all gender restroom but then I remember the definition of all gender. My harasser did not share this definition. While the university initially responded to this incident with support, the number of offices that wanted to directly speak with me quickly overwhelmed me. I was dealing with the trauma and too many phone calls. I think this is the moment I was most let down by my university. I needed space to breathe.
I am a first generation, queer, gender fluid, low SES, disabled student from a single parent household. College was not built for me and I think sometimes administrators forget the historical systems that work against many students. I think the most important thing for universities, administrators, and governments to remember is that students are individuals with unique histories and unique needs. One-size-fits-all does not apply here. As I move towards pursuing a PhD in higher education, I remind myself that there will always be students struggling to succeed in the world of academia. As I rise, I strive to tear down the barriers that make education inaccessible.
A pivotal, positive moment during my college journey occurred when I developed a connection with a professor that challenged my impression of traditional teacher- students relationships. It was my second semester of community college and around week five, I had reoccurring thoughts of suicide. I was nineteen-years- old and the trauma caused by years of abuse made it nearly impossible to break out of isolation. A professor whose course kept me engaged noticed my agony, extended her support, and directed me to psychological services. I learned that one of the many practical things postsecondary setting offered was empathy. Her course material fostered compassion by helping me recognize that my struggle is deeply intertwined with the struggle of other people, and her deep sense of care was my first experience with the idea of a safe space. The connection beyond the student-professor binary showed me that educators could provide support that encourages bravery.
A major disappointment during my time in college occurred shortly after the 2016 presidential elections. On November 9, 2016, the President of our California State University campus sent out an email to the school community in an attempt to address post-election sentiments. In the email, he reminded us that the university can function as a “safe space for the exchange of ideas” and encouraged us to “strive for what you believe in while seeking common ground.” The deep sense of uneasiness triggered by the email compelled me to analyze my feelings a little further. For me, the message transferred responsibility from the institution to the individual students. Instead of denouncing the anti-intellectualism exemplified by the incoming administration, our president encouraged the campus to seek a common ground based on false premises. As an undocumented student this compromised school as a safe space.
With the rising number of students that are homeless and in need of food, it is time for institutions to stand firm in support of policies that address poverty. A fear with this presidential administration is that tuition will continue to soar, making it more difficult for economically marginalized people to pursue a higher education. As a human right, education should be more accessible to people in poverty, and institutions of higher learning should stay committed to this idea.
As I begin the last semester of my undergraduate career, I look back at my journey in awe. Although my future seems unclear, I embrace it knowing that I am resilient. I am deeply thankful for the people that encouraged me to keep going, and hope to extend this kind of support to scholars once I am a professor.
During my junior year of college I had the luxury to study abroad for almost six months in the incredible country of Nepal. I had the chance to pick between a European country and Nepal—I chose Nepal. After all, I’d always have a reason to visit Italy or Spain.
Nobody ever talked about countries like Nepal on TV. I did not know much about this country, but I was excited. Studying abroad in Nepal was one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of my life. It is a luxury that my parents haven’t yet had the pleasure of taking advantage of due to financial responsibilities at home, but one that I hope to help make happen for myself.
In my final year at Pitzer, the college let go of one of my greatest mentors. He was a Spanish professor with an Anthropology background. Originally from El Salvador, I looked up to him because he was an immigrant with a doctoral degree teaching in a prestigious liberal arts college.
It was through him that I was afforded the opportunity to carry out research in Costa Rica during the summer. He believed in my abilities and wanted to help me get started on having research experience as an undergraduate. At Pitzer, he was a father-like figure for me. Unfortunately, there were some issues between him and another professor when he was about to be reviewed for tenure.
As much as many of us went to speak to the President and wrote her letters, I felt that my voice wasn’t heard. I think it was then that I realized how bureaucratic everything could be.
Pitzer is a school that prides itself on social justice, but I didn’t see much of it during my time there. It is absurd to have staff that cannot identify with the experiences of their diverse group of students.
You need a diverse set of faculty and staff who can challenge students, but also empathize with their hardships. From my experience as a college adviser helping current seniors get into college, there are an incredible amount of hurdles in place for first-generation students to get through, just to enter an institution.
Things that like filling out a FAFSA or Dream Act application don’t come easy for first-generation college students. Having someone who can assist them with all this might not be readily available as it is for continuing-generation college students. That is not to say that the latter group doesn’t experience difficulties. Certainly, they must, but they also have a lot of support available to them; support and resources that aren’t easily accessible for first-generation, low-income, underrepresented students.
The first two years of college were a huge transition for me. While it’s normal for college to come with natural ups and downs, my first two years had a lot of downs. From transitioning to public to private school, west coast to east coast, being a Black woman surrounded by a sea of white faces, struggling academically, to personal struggles, my mental health took a harsh toll on me. I sought help from my school’s mental health services and was severely disappointed on multiple occasions. A specialist once told me that my bad mood was probably just due to menstruation. Another would just stare blankly and nod as I shared my pains and fears—a clear look of discomfort in his eyes as I talked about my Black experience. It pained me to see a resource that was supposed to support me, fail me in many ways. We need more people of color in these spaces to support students who look like me. We also need cultural sensitivity training, so students feel supported and not threatened in these spaces.
I’d say it took me about 2 - 2.5 years to actually understand "how to Harvard." I came from a public school in Southern California. I applied to Harvard because my mom told me to, not because I knew what it meant to be at an institution of Harvard’s caliber. To be honest, I didn’t even know what the "Ivy League" was, or what it was comprised of. These schools need to do a better job of helping students who may not have legacy status, been to private schools all their life, or have immense wealth, navigate these spaces. We need to teach students how to navigate the school network. Students need to be guided in how to feel comfortable talking to professors, for example, because for a lot of us, this is the first time we’ve had to do it.
I study History & Science (Mind, Brain, and Behavior Track) with a focus on Brain Disorders, Psychopathology, and Global Health & Health Policy. While I am keenly aware it is a mouthful, the day I declared my major was one of the happiest days of my college career. My freshman year I struggled with pre-med classes I hated, desperately looking for classes that would peak my interest and create a spark in my heart and mind every time I entered a classroom. Through the support of academic advisors, encouragement from faculty, and an AMAZING department, I’ve been able to explore my interests in history, public health, and policy, and I am currently working on a thesis that explores how governmental bodies attempted to integrate the medicalization of rioting behavior into policy efforts. I’m grateful to Harvard for helping me fall in love with learning again.
Back in the days, my mom used to work as a maid and my dad worked at his boss’ ranch. I truly love my parents but I’m particularly close to my mom. My mom has always worked very hard. Even though she was sick, she kept telling me that she would sell everything at her house so I could have a better education. For example, in 2011 she sold her jewelry to make sure that I could study accounting and get my diploma. In 2012, my dad’s boss told me I would take me to the best country in the world so I could keep studying and get my MBA. I studied business at a Cal State University. I am very grateful for the opportunity to study in the United States. To earn money for school, I work in four farmers’ markets a week selling hummus and other middle eastern products.
I have not seen my parents since February 2012 and I miss them so much, but always I keep hope in my head. When I talk to my mom on the phone, she keeps telling me that she wants to see me before she dies. My mom tried to travel here from Tunisia for my wedding but she was denied a visa. My wife had a baby boy early in January and my mom’s visa was denied again.
We now live in a nightmare everyday. I hope everything will work out and all the protests going on now will help all the immigrants. My wife gets very worried that maybe this president will deport us. I told her that there are nice people out there standing up with us. I really love the people at the farmers’ markets because they treat me like one of them and they really care about me. Just today one of my customers was crying told me she doesn’t want anything bad to happen to my family. I always ask myself the question : What is going to be my future for my wife and my son?
Having the chance to engage in research while at university has had a lasting impact on my career, first at Caltech and then at the University of Michigan Medical School. My research experiences allowed me to better understand how the skills I was learning in the classroom translated to real world problem-solving. I also loved the opportunity to think creatively about interesting questions and contribute to the expanding frontier of science.
Another positive moment was when I visited my school’s financial office after my family’s finances took a turn for the worse. I was incredibly fortunate to be provided interest free loans for my tuition so that I could focus on my studies without worrying about the burden schooling would place on my parents.
As a junior, I had cancer. Fortunately treatment went well. In many ways the hardest part of school was returning after treatment. My peers did not understand how the need to face my own mortality had changed my perspective on my life and my career.
Also, in medical school I was known to be the guy who always skipped classes and turned in assignments late. I had assumed at the time that I was just lazier than others. However, I later learned that I had a significant learning disability that makes it difficult for me to absorb material from lectures. If I had known about this distinction earlier in my training, I think I could have made better use of my school’s educational resources.
The college experience is a unique opportunity to develop as an individual and as a community. I think it’s imperative that students be given the freedom to discover their passions, as well as acquire fundamental skills in communication, scientific investigation and entrepreneurship. Simultaneously, college is an opportunity to broaden one’s understanding of the synergistic power of community and how empathetic respect can bring about collaborative change.
To allow this vision of collegiate scholarship to materialize, I think financial barriers to collegiate education need to be minimized and the collegiate culture needs to be one in which inclusion and cooperation drowns out intolerance of people who look, act, or think differently.
As a Muslim woman who wears the headscarf, the 2016 presidential election was a palpably important day in my college career. The day after the election I arrived to campus prepared for the worst; I was ready to boldly face any hostility I encountered with dignity and respect. What I experienced was surprising, but not in the way I anticipated. Friends, professors, and a few complete strangers stopped and asked if I was doing alright and some even offered to walk with me on campus if I felt scared or concerned. The empathy and sincerity I received from all around me that day gave me hope that Americans, despite the hateful speech that dominates our current political climate, would see beyond all of the hate and refuse to demonize one another.
During my freshman year one of the Muslim holidays, Eid ul-Fitr, fell on a Wednesday. This meant that in order to attend the Eid sermon, I would have to miss one of my professor’s classes. I approached the professor to ask about missing the day to accommodate the sermon, and was shocked by his response. Not only was he very unwilling to accommodate my request, he was also antagonistic toward my religious beliefs and expressed that they should not interfere with my education. I felt uncomfortable and disappointed with his response; this was the first time I saw someone on campus who preached open-mindedness be so unwilling to listen to a perspective other than their own.
Although my university is considerate of most faiths and ethnic backgrounds, the application process still lacks a categorization for Middle Eastern students. In terms of campus climate, it is necessary for institutions to create accessible mechanisms so that the student body can voice any concerns of faculty, staff, and student bias in order to hold those with discriminatory behavior accountable.
Currently I am studying International Relations with a focus on the Middle East. In the future I hope to work in policy-making in order to advocate for Muslim-Americans domestically or to address immigration and foreign policy concerns in the Middle East.
A moment that college let me down was when administrators tried to shut down the Ethnic Studies department. It was disappointing to me because they knew very well that my university is the first school to have this department and that it means everything to many students even if we are not majoring or minoring in that area. Everyone that takes an ethnic studies class get to learn about their own culture and other cultures. Even though the department didn’t get shut down, it worries me that they could try and do it again, if not to the Ethnic Studies department, to any other one. The trust with the college has been broken and it is going to be hard to get the trust back from the students after they did that.
The government and University need to keep in mind that the decisions they make will affect the students. The public will not stand down or be quiet until they put a stop to bad decisions. As for college students, if the university increases tuition every year, it becomes difficult for students to attend college, or to pay the amount of money that they have to pay the following year. What will happen to the students in the end is that they may leave college because is too expensive for their families to pay.
If tuition gets higher I will not be able to do my Master’s in the future because I will be working too much in order to pay for tuition. I will not have any time to focus in my studies. As for my professional future it may be harder for me to say what will happen because things are not clear for me right now, with everything that has happened.
A positive moment in my college journey was the first semester of my sophomore year. I had just completed my finals and I finished meeting with a career counselor. I came into her office worried about my major and how to make my parents happy, and most of all, how to make myself happy with my academic decisions. I told her about my hopes and dreams and how I wanted to help my country, Yemen. I also wanted to become a surgeon one day, but my heart was also set on the public health sector. I aspired to dabble in internationals affairs with dreams about working for UNICEF, WHO, and many other NGOs and nonprofits that were on the ground actually helping the people of Yemen. My heart belonged to the Middle East and my life's work would have to find a home there. I didn't know what I wanted and I didn't know what to do. My head was ready to explode.
After talking to her, I realized the one thing that I have going for me in the midst of this confusion and uncertainty is a fire inside that wanted to give back. I was going to dive into whatever I realized was my path. I found this in the major Development Studies because with that major I would be able to focus on the Middle East and I could also focus on women's health care. With that major, I could also perfect my Arabic. With the Global Public Health minor available this summer I would be able to pursue public health.
Success is not always constrained to the “typical path.” I realized that my college journey truly meant that I would be able to mix and match my interests. This would allow me to go back and help my homeland earlier than I thought in ways that I would actually enjoy and in environments in which I would thrive. I am fascinated with the history of why my homeland is the poorest country in the Middle East and how I can help in a sustainable way. I realized that whatever changes I make in my life, I was making them because they fit what I need and what I want. These choices are mine, because after all it was my life and my career.
There have also been times where college has also let me down. When I received an email from UC Berkeley about how students needed to pay 20% of their tuition or face getting dropped from all their classes, I felt betrayed by the school. Let's be real, the students who are severely impacted by this are usually students of color who come from low-income families, not able to pay 20% of their tuition as soon as they received the email. Many of my friends panicked and rightfully so. To be dropped from classes that always had a waitlist could mean that that they would be at risk for not graduating on time.
The government needs to keep in mind that when they make budget cuts, they are hindering the success of students who will eventually give back to their communities. The fact that the state only provides 10% of our budget here at Cal is unacceptable for a public university Threatening majors and departments and programs that have successfully allowed for students to gain the help that they need to pursue career that aren't necessary “lucrative,” but serve the greater good. Getting a college degree from UC Berkeley will allow me go back to Yemen and help in anyway that I can.
Giving background, I was a first generation college student from a mixed heritage low-income household. Neither of my parents attended a four-year university or college, but instead opted to attend trade schools. Growing up in East Oakland, California was a challenge; I attended three high schools in four years, struggled with dyslexia and was the child of functioning addicts. However I still managed to academically excel in the face of adversity and gained acceptance to the University of California at Davis.
A pivotal moment in my college journey was my first job of undergrad, which lasted for three years. I was the Administrative Director the African-Diaspora Cultivating Education, ACE. ACE is one of several components comprising the Student Recruitment and Retention Center; a student-initiated, student-run center that worked to recruit and keep students of marginalized identities at UC Davis. This center was the direct action of students combatting the end of affirmative action in higher education. There was an immediate need to advocate for several marginalized student populations that lose access to higher education.
The three years I spent with the SRRC were my gateway into social justice, advocacy, and administrative work. Without the center, the work of Chicano/a, Southeast Asian, Filipino or Native American students would have remained unknown to me. I would not have had the same education on the plight of the LGBT community or further been introduced to alternative narratives that counter mainstream Western Feminism. I would have continued to hold an ignorant perspective on immigration. Most importantly I would not have become an ally to these communities. Additionally, this was the first time I was able to find a community and home within my peers. Before attending college I did not have healthy social friendships in high school. I did not “fit in.” I was a socially awkward overachieving Black girl living in poverty. I did not feel like I could relate to my peers or instructors. Entering the SRRC allowed me to form relationships with Black students, faculty and professional staff who looked like me and had experienced similar upbringings. Employment at the SRRC was my turning point for the best, immersed in community I found a home to help keep myself at a university that never felt like a safe space.
There were, however, moments that let me down. The lack of response, follow-up, and all over concern experienced by the African-Diaspora after a hate crime on campus was my greatest letdown in college. I was a third year student and watching the Occupy Wall Street Movement unfold across the United States. As campus climate became more and more hostile, an increase in hate crimes or “incidents of bias” occurred. A group of students targeting the African-Diaspora, by leaving a napkin fashioned like a Ku Klux Klan hood in the common area of the African and African-American themed residential hall.
University administration tried its hardest to cover up the incident, by not making space for students to voice their legitimate concerns of fear and safety on campus. Additionally the campus failed to find and penalize the perpetrators of the crime. Even though I no longer was a part of the residential hall program, the action left a lasting impact. I retreated into a severe depression that was the accumulation of several factors, with this incident being the tipping point. For the first and only time I was on academic probation and had to uphold an academic contract to continue my enrollment. This was an unfair penalty; the university failed to sustain a safe campus climate, then placed me on academic probation because my mental health deteriorated due to unsafe campus climate.
If universities and colleges do not mandate instruction that covers the history of discrimination, oppression, power and privilege in America a safe or healthy campus climate will not prosper. Additionally universities have to create the proper channels for reporting incidents of biases and teach restorative practices to undo harm caused.
As a student who majored in urban development and African studies, I studied these concepts at great depth. I worked in student life centers where the center of my work was to combat the aftermath of discontinuing affirmative action in higher education. I lived, breathed and dedicated my college experiences to promoting an agenda of equity not only for myself, but also for communities that needed me. However, the same cannot be said for most students. Without being intentional and deliberate about decolonizing institutionalized systems of discrimination, nothing will improve for the descendants of colonized and marginalized people. If I had not taken classes Ethnic Studies I would not be an ally to those communities. The same for taking classes in gender, sexuality, and ability, I would not be able to further be a part of liberating these communities.
I now work as a Youth Program Coordinator for the Bay Area’s leading affordable housing nonprofit. Daily, I direct Expanded Learning designed to combat the adverse childhood experiences of youth ages 5-12 who live in affordable housing. Keeping up with the need to serve the growing number of youth and families living in affordable housing, I want to pursue a Masters in Social Work and Public Policy through a dual enrollment program at a college or university in the Northern California region. Focusing on children and family services, I want to increase my skill set for working with these populations by better designing, implementing, and evaluating the delivery of services. It is my greatest goal to reach a level of influence over policy at local and state levels for these populations.
I completed my first two years of college at a community college and then transferred for my junior and senior years to a university several hours away from my hometown. I quickly realized that as a transfer student in a very unfamiliar setting, I would need to make new connections and navigate an unfamiliar and complex campus in order to succeed as an undergraduate. A pivotal experience that made a significant difference for me came in the form of encountering dedicated professors and teaching assistants who took the time and found the best ways to convey to me the importance of developing my own critical voice, bringing my ull self to my college experience and learning to be an advocate for myself and others. That invaluable advice served me well during my undergraduate years and beyond.
There were many well-intentioned staff, administrators and faculty who showed genuine concern for the success of first generation and underrepresented students like myself. However, there were others who didn’t seem to understand nor value the contributions made by students with backgrounds such as mine. The lack of concern from those staff and administrators often translated into limited opportunities and resources for students who needed those resources most.
There is a perception among some folks in our field that access to college for low-income, first generation students does not constitute the same barrier that it once did. The argument is that there is ample space in a wide network of postsecondary institutions that can meet the educational needs of an academically diverse student population. While space in a postsecondary program may seem to not be as limited as it once was, students from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds continue to be steered away from best-fit programs in colleges where they could increase their likelihood for success. As educators, our goal ought to be to help students imagine and pursue their highest aspirations, not only those that seem immediately within reach.
A pivotal positive moment of my college journey was going to college for the first time. My ability to attend my undergraduate institution, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES), was largely due to support from my late aunt and uncle, Tracy and Quillian Pierce. Without their support I would have likely taken a very different pathway in my life journey. My aunt and uncle took on the responsibility of raising me and my brother after my mother became ill. When I arrived to college I believed that it was by the Grace of God I had the opportunity to attend UMES. I knew that my aunt and uncle did not have to send me to college but they did this anyway because they knew it would help me to succeed in life. I knew they loved me. This makes me think about so many other first-generation students whose families (nuclear or non-nuclear) see college as a pathway to greater social and economic stability and personal/professional success.
There were very few moments when my undergraduate experience let me down. Overall, I had a positive experience. But there were a few moments when a faculty member misunderstood my life goals and their connection to my academic experience and pathway. Some of these conversations were contextualized to be helpful, yet supported stereotypical visions of failure and statistics about degree completion for students who looked like me. These conversations were disappointing but served as reminders to stay focused on the goal of degree attainment. Also, there were many other faculty members who shared very positive visions of success for me. Their support was very helpful.
When making decisions about access and campus climate, the government and university need to keep in mind the unique stories that each student brings to campus. There must be a unifying goal to institutionally recognize the value and excellence in racial and cultural awareness and understanding. This is paramount to the future success of our colleges and university communities and essential to the skills we must foster in the generations of institutional communities to come.
I will continue to think about how my educational journey informs my work as a faculty member/researcher/mentor in an effort to develop strategies of institutional support for historically marginalized students. The issues I experienced as an undergraduate student continue to be critical areas of support for undergraduate students; especially those who are interested in pursuing graduate and/or professional degrees.