During the fall of 2010, I applied to eighteen colleges and universities across the United States. As a first-generation, working-class, Latina applicant, college counselors prompted me to highlight my diversity in my college essays.
“You are different,” they would say. “Use that to your advantage,” their smiles would imply. Essay upon essay, I would highlight characteristics about my family, my school, and my community that seemed trivial and unimportant to my identity. Yes, my blood runs with 100% Mexican heritage. Yes, my mom raised my four sisters and me on her own under a housekeeper’s salary. Yes, I grew up living in the ghetto streets of communities like Watts and Compton. Yes, unemployment and food security were at the forefront of many family discussions. I would be praised by my mentors and counselors, who urged, add more details here, a little more pity there, and girl, you have yourself an award-winning essay.
I speculate that surrendering so many intimate moments of my life may have actually paid off because several of my top-choice colleges accepted me and gave me scholarships and grants. Since money was a major deciding factor for me, I narrowed my choices down to private out-of-state colleges because they offered me the most financial aid. In the end, I decided to attend Whitman College, a private liberal arts school in Walla Walla, Washington.
During my first year of college, I constantly felt behind, different and out of place. I had no idea how to navigate the new educational system, let alone interact with people on such a different cultural and social sphere. Emotional and mental dissatisfaction weighed on me and I felt like I was just brought to campus to add color to their brochures. When I see statistics indicating that first-generation and low-income students are at the highest risk of dropping out of college, I am not surprised. When we leave our homes, we abandon important parts of ourselves: we speak less of our native tongue(s), sever ties with family and seldom visit the communities that raised us so well. We are taken away from everything we know and expected to thrive in these foreign environments.
I cannot help but feel like if I stayed in Watts, I would be successful in my own ways. People in my neighborhood face daily struggles, but still somehow manage to make ends meet by working hard and applying their intellect in every aspect of their lives. They are entrepreneurs, business people and engineers. They sell homemade hot drinks and treats on street corners, hold yard sales every weekend, fix their own cars, build their own furniture, and exchange maintenance favors with friends. But they are not seen as successful people. People who sit in their comfortable cubicles with their framed college certificates on the walls are the people deemed successful.
As much as I critique institutions like Whitman and their recruitment processes, I am also extremely grateful for them. I recognize I would have never had the opportunity to be critical of these institutions if it were not for the education they have provided me. The $55K scholarship awarded to me every year allows me to further refine my ways of critically examining the world around me and the issues that impact me.
These feelings of resentment and gratitude are further complicated when I think about how my decision to stay in college and earn my college degree brings up a larger dilemma. I am fed up with the system, but I am still here. I critique the ins and outs of these institutions, but I still reap benefits from the education, the networks and the career opportunities. I see all the problematic factors of why I am on campus, but I walk around campus with a smile plastered on my face because I realize how fortunate I am.
As much as I want to throw my hands up in the air and permanently go back to my community in Watts, I know I cannot give up my college experience. So many people would kill to have what I have and many of my friends and family look up to me for enrolling in a prestigious four-year institution. I have no right to let them down.
I am definitely not advocating for the complete elimination of programs and funds that bring disadvantaged students to campuses filled with numerous resources and opportunities. I am making a call to colleges and universities to pause and take a step back to think about how they can implement effective and long-lasting support structures to help poor Black and Brown students navigate college.
One of the most important things I’ve learned in college is that bringing racially diverse and low-income students to college campuses does not make a tiny dent to the years of persisting inequality in the nation; it just adds to the problem. In order to begin to chip away at the gap between the powerful and the powerless, institutions need to provide safe and supportive spaces so that students can come to these campuses to graduate — not just to fail classes and flunk out.