More Than Access

I remember having a conversation with my mother when I was first considering college as a young teen. She urged, “Yo quiero lo mejor para ti. I want you to have the best education–to have a better life than I could ever make for myself. I want to be there to see mi hijo (my son) graduate college.” To this day, my mother’s words have stayed close to my heart, but in the moment, her words were bittersweet. I wanted to go to college, but I was unsure of how to get there. I had burning doubts and questions. What if I was never meant to go to college? What if I was unsuccessful? What if I started but had to drop out to support my family? As I write this in reflection, I am a month away from graduating from Georgetown University and it feels surreal. Even if I wasn’t sure that I’d make it to this moment, I’m excited to cross that stage, diploma in hand, with my mother and father watching, knowing, in my heart, that their years of labor as immigrant plant workers have paid off. I’m proud that my younger siblings will get to witness this moment as I exemplify that they too can walk that stage someday.

As graduation approaches, I reflect on what attending this institution has meant to me. My college experience has been more than a struggle to access education; it has been an uncharted adventure of discovering new hopes and opportunities–and a chance to build a better life. I have had the opportunity to develop my sense of self and define my understanding of the world around me by connecting with the global community of students and vast opportunities available to me at Georgetown. I have engaged with politics at the heart of our nation’s capital. I’ve protested the offenses of discrimination against immigrants, organized locally with campaigns on public transportation, and supported national organizations around LGBTQ advocacy. I have sat in lectures delivered by the world’s leaders. For heaven’s sake, who can say they got to hear the Pope address a joint session of Congress as a first-year college student? My experience at Georgetown has truly been transformative, both academically and socially, but it did not come without challenges.

The first challenge was getting to college. I was born and raised in Nebraska and my immediate family members are the only relatives I have in the U.S. If I was going to make the most of my parents’ immigrant dreams, then I knew I had to make it to and through a top-tier college. But, no one in my family could help me. Applying to colleges was all new territory and I was alone in my journey. To get some support in the process during my junior year of high school, I applied to a program called Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA). LEDA is a national nonprofit that empowers a community of exceptional young leaders from under-resourced backgrounds by supporting their higher education and professional success in order to create a more inclusive and equitable country. During LEDA’s 7-week summer institute, I developed my academic writing and critical thinking skills, prepared for the SAT/ACT exams, came to understand my financial aid options, and planned a balanced application list of colleges that best suited my interests and goals. Because of their guidance, I learned about Georgetown University. I also learned that Georgetown provides need-based financial aid for the cost of attendance, which my family could not have afforded otherwise. Even though LEDA helped me navigate the application process, it was still challenging as a first-generation student because of how much information colleges require from parents, especially for financial aid. Since my parents were unfamiliar with the process, I had to fill out my financial aid applications on their behalf and attempt to make sense of the tax forms that I was required to submit, which I had never seen before. Although my parents were not able to help with the application, I did have their emotional support. Their personal resilience and encouragement urged me on.

Once I was accepted and my financial aid forms were complete, my family and I were ecstatic to learn that Georgetown provided a generous financial aid package that covered my full cost of attendance. What I would later learn was that there are hidden costs that aren’t accounted for in the cost of attendance that made it extraordinarily challenging to make it through college. I struggled to cover all my living expenses, and, often, I was left with only pennies in my bank account. I dreaded the moments where I had to buy numerous books and supplies for my classes, professional clothes, or the countless household supplies I needed. Each new purchase stretched my limited funds thinner and thinner, and they regularly brought me stress. At times, I had to regretfully borrow money from friends so I could immediately pay off my negative balances when simply buying food. Because of this, I limited my expenses by eating once a day or any other means, trying to save up a comfortable sum of money for potential personal or family emergencies. As an example, my computer screen had broken beyond use early the second semester of my first year, and, even with my forced limitation of expenses, I barely had enough for the immediate repair costs. I recognize, now, that I am fortunate because I will make it to the finish line. For many low-income students, hidden costs of college can interfere with their ability to perform academically and ultimately cause them to take a leave of absence. First-generation and low-income students are some of the hardest working peers I’ve ever known. We should have access to college and its benefits, but any hidden costs shouldn’t keep us from walking that graduation stage, like I will, and confidently say, “I knew I could do this. Mama, I made it for you.”