I am so grateful to everyone who was able to join me last Tuesday for the official launch of my book, Achieve the College Dream at Books and Books in Miami, FL. It was so special to share this moment with my family, friends from all walks of life, former teachers and students and counselors from the community. Here is a link to the website where you can access the presentation: http://livestream.com/uastreaming/mariacarlachicuen. Thank you for all your support!
Earlier this year I had the privilege to co-lead a series of college readiness workshops at Miami Dade College as part of the Say Yes to the Prom initiative of Discovery Communications. It was wonderful to meet outstanding young women from several high schools in Miami and discuss important topics such as the importance of role models, goal-setting and self-esteem. Below is a video summary of this special day, produced by MDC TV.
When I first moved to Miami in 2002, I quickly came to the conclusion that this city had little to offer beyond shopping, beach, movies and ice skating (if you are wondering, I lived in Kendall, where the Ice Arena is a local pride and joy). One of my cousins used to call Miami la ciudad de mármol, the marble city. Its appeal, he’d tell me, was reduced to mar and mall.
Once I graduated from high school, still unable to drive (in the pre Uber and Lyft era), and banned from Miami’s glamorous nightlife until I turned 21, I made my way out of state and spent the next ten years hopping around the globe--truly immersing in what I thought were real cities. Cambridge. Santiago. New York City. London. Madrid. Washington DC. Panama. I almost could not envision returning to Miami and settling here once again.
That was until I visited for a few days last year. As always, I stayed with my parents, who had embraced their newly acquired empty-nesting status and left their home in the suburbs for an apartment in the downtown area. I couldn’t recognize them. Once happy with a weekend routine in which the highlight was a movie rental from Blockbuster, my parents had become experts in everything fun. Happy hours. Local concerts. Staycations. “Miami is changing,” they would tell me. I’d look at them with skepticism, convinced this was just part of their relentless campaign to bring me back home.
During that visit, however, I decided to explore this changed Miami I was hearing so much about. I met with old high school friends who’d also left and decided to return. I reconnected with people I had met abroad, who had somehow made it to a city that promised good weather, a growing job industry and cheaper rent than the usual suspects up north and west. And I went to a few events ranging from professional networking sessions to a reception for finalists of a public space design challenge. The more people I met, the more I sensed a vibe of excitement and optimism I had never seen here before. I encountered youth from everywhere, with talent and ideas in abundance. I discovered new dynamic areas like Midtown and Wynwood that reflected a modern vision for the city. There was no doubt Miami was onto something.
When, a couple of months later, I packed my bags and returned, I reclaimed a 305 phone number and decided to give Miami a second chance. This time, I wouldn’t just live in Miami. I was determined to live it.
Since I arrived and continued my quest for the new awesome in town, I’ve become one of Miami’s fiercest ambassadors. I’ve gone from convincing people they need to leave to finding reasons everyone, and especially young people, should consider bringing their passions here. Through these conversations I have noticed the general lack of awareness about the exciting developments in Miami’s professional and cultural scene. If you don’t make an active effort to engage with the city, or have local friends who can plug you in, it’s usually difficult to cultivate that sense of belonging and fulfillment that’s so important to develop and maintain a vibrant community.
That’s why I decided to put together a list of “spaces” (loosely defined by their unique social, cultural and professional appeal) that provide a gateway to the new Miami. Although my recommendations are mainly for young professionals, people from all ages might be drawn to at least some. Enjoy and, if you will, please let me know what I missed and should try next. Thanks!
Connect with Amazing People
How was there ever a Miami without the Knight Foundation? The organization’s blog and Biscayne Boulevard headquarters should be the first stop for anybody wishing to engage with the city. With funding available to support small and large-scale projects across the arts, community development, journalism and media innovation, it’s safe to say the Knight Foundation is one of Miami’s VIP players. Make sure you attend the Foundation’s free community breakfasts, a twice-a-month opportunity to hear about its latest projects and meet very interesting fellow residents. Nearby, at the LiveNinja offices in Wynwood, the tech community gathers weekly for Waffle Wednesdays, a free event with, yes, waffles, and startup presentations. Also in Wynwood, a local branch of the international Toastmasters organization meets every month to help art, technology, design and entrepreneurship professionals master leadership and public speaking skills. Besides these regular meet-ups, The LAB Miami, Refresh Miami, UP Miami, and the Idea Center at Miami Dade College host constant exciting events attracting the spirited and innovative at heart.
Join Groups that Make a Difference
Miami is also home to several organizations that provide young professionals a structured, long-term space to acquire leadership skills, a network of accomplished peers and plenty of opportunities for service to the community. The New Leaders Council, for example, selects a group of fellows annually and trains them to become civic leaders. Through the Miami Foundation, people 5 to 15 years into their professional career can also apply to become Miami Fellows, a 15-month leadership program. I am a member of the Miami Hub of the Global Shapers, an international network affiliated with the World Economic Forum that groups people between 20 and 30 years of age who want to make a positive difference in their local community. Women’s Movement Now is another grassroots initiative grouping young professional women “who seek to create and maintain a space for engagement and activism.” The Young Leaders group of the local United Way also engages in a variety of volunteer projects and social events while enjoying personal and professional development opportunities. Last but not least, Habitat Young Professionals provides a platform for the “socially conscious” in support of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Miami.
Explore Another Kind of Fun
Miami has long held a worldwide reputation for entertainment. People from all over flock to its beaches and clubs year-round, and the recent hype around the mega-famous Art Basel fair has added an extra, sophisticated touch to the city’s cultural image. For years, however, it seemed there were virtually no options for recreation outside of the beach and clubbing scene, or the affluent art world. Young professionals looking to have fun in other, accessible ways need not worry. The new Miami also has plenty to offer in this department.
I am proud to work at Miami Dade College, to be thanked for leading Miami’s culture in the right direction. It is host to the annual Miami Book Fair and the Miami International Film Festival, which crown a packed cultural agenda throughout the year. Some of the College’s fantastic programming, which includes creative writing courses and author events, is coordinated by The Center for Writing and Literature. The literary crowd might also enjoy the events regularly hosted by The Betsy Hotel and Books and Books, a bookstore with locations in Coral Gables, Miami Beach and the downtown area. Art lovers will enjoy the Wynwood Art Walk the second Saturday of each month, when galleries in this hipster neighborhood welcome the public at night and restaurants, food trucks and music make for the liveliest evening in town. In a little quieter environment, the recently inaugurated Pérez Art Museum also hosts events for the entire family.
If music and dancing is your thing, you might be interested in these exciting, relative newcomers. The booming Arts & Entertainment District now offers recreation spaces such as Canvas, which hosts dance lessons, concerts, movies under the stars and everything in between. Fans of contemporary Cuban artists (think Kelvis Ochoa, Descemer Bueno, Raúl Paz) might prefer the programming of the refreshing Vedado Social Club, an instrumental project bridging the arts scenes of Miami and Havana. The more fitness conscious might want to check out free yoga sessions at Bayfront Park, or the Critical Mass cycling event held the last Friday of each month. Keep in mind that many social and cultural opportunities are offered at discounted prices through applications such as Groupon, TravelZoo and Living Social. Foodies can also take advantage of great deals at some of Miami’s top restaurants during the annual Miami Spice.
Stay Updated About [Cool] Local News and Happenings
If you are thinking there is, in fact, a lot going on in Miami, and you want to stay on top of all these cool opportunities, here’s some advice. Most of the groups and spaces I mentioned above have their own newsletters; look for them on the websites and subscribe. The New Tropic is another great resource to find ways to “live like you live here.” You can also review the arts scene through Infraculture and get a taste for the “authentic” Miami through the publication Miami Nice.
I also hope to keep sharing the local gems I find. Be on the lookout.
As a recent immigrant with limited resources and English skills, attending a top college in the United States seemed impossible. Yet, four years after my arrival from Cuba, five Ivy League schools had filled my mailbox with acceptance letters. A few months later I was leaving South Florida to become a student at Harvard University.
Looking back, I realize that gaining admission to these colleges was not the hardest part of the process. Of course, the acceptance rates were intimidating. The year I got into Harvard, 2,109 students were admitted from an applicant pool of 22,753, and similar statistics applied to other top schools.
For a student like me, however, there were two greater challenges in my journey to college: 1) finding the resources that would prepare me to become a competitive applicant and 2) believing that I could actually aspire to a spot at a selective institution. Research has revealed that students from low-income backgrounds, or from households with no U.S. college graduates, are unlikely to submit an application to top schools without this combination of awareness and resource accessibility.
It was in my local community that I found the resources and information I needed to convince myself that I was “Harvard material.” It all began with an article by the Miami Herald, where I read that Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard at the time, had just visited a nearby public high school in Miami to announce the University’s groundbreaking financial aid initiative. Most students at this high school were low-income, recent immigrants just like me. And yet, the school had sent four to Harvard the previous year. Two graduating students were also headed to Cambridge in the fall.
I often wonder what would have happened if the school hadn’t hosted this college forum. If the incoming Harvard students, both Cuban, hadn’t stood there as role models, confirming that the journey from a Miami public high school to a top university was possible. If the local newspaper hadn’t published this story. Would I still have been persuaded to consider Harvard and similar institutions for undergraduate studies?
The visit from Harvard ignited in me the first spark of inspiration to prepare for college, but I still had two more years of high school to craft a strong academic and extracurricular profile. Once again, my local community delivered.
At school, I benefited from honors and Advanced Placement courses, as well as opportunities to take classes during the summer session. The presence of local chapters of Interact, Key Club and other international organizations allowed me to develop leadership and expand my personal network. Local higher education institutions such as Miami Dade College and Florida International University provided dual enrollment programs. Public libraries offered a quiet space to study and free materials to prepare for standardized exams. The Florida Virtual School allowed me to complement my school’s academic curriculum through online classes. Local organizations such as Univision, Miami Herald, Mas Family Scholarships, Ford’s Salute to Education and BrandsMartUSA provided generous funds to help me afford university studies. I took advantage of every resource, including the timely advice from older students and Ms. Collins, a college counselor from a neighboring school who took me under her wing.
As a vulnerable student with no family ties to a prestigious school, I would not have made it to Harvard without my community’s support and encouragement. At every step of the way I found a class, a program, a teacher, a mentor or an organization directly invested in my path to success. It did not really feel like I had a communal cheerleading squad, because individual initiatives were not usually concerted. Some of these community players probably even ignored just how much they were helping me advance towards the most ambitious college goals. Without a doubt, each was essential.
News headlines could change drastically if our communities realized what they are doing, and can do together, to support college access in public school systems and low-income environments. Let’s join forces and complement practices. It takes a united village to maximize the potential of every student in the country.
I am very excited to share the release of my very first book,
As I high school student, I always thought that the Ivy League and other top universities like MIT and Stanford were reserved for the very rich or the true geniuses. In the book I explain how I came to learn about these universities´accessibility and generous financial aid initiatives, and the steps I took afterwards to prepare myself to be a strong applicant.
My preparation for college involved choosing academic subjects strategically, complementing the high school curriculum with online learning and courses at local colleges, building leadership in extracurricular activities, and finding the role models and expert mentors who could advise me throughout the college application process. The book outlines all these strategies and includes resources to help all students succeed regardless of their family's economic status.
When I moved to the United States at the beginning of my high school journey, I never thought that I would be admitted to five Ivy League universities and ultimately attend Harvard after securing over $200,000 in financial aid. I hope my story, and the tips I have collected after a decade of college admissions work, help many other students achieve their own possible college dreams.
To pre-order the book, visit this page.