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.
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.
As a high school student, I was always in search of opportunities to enrich my academic preparation outside of the structured four-year curriculum. During extended breaks, for example, I would take electives such as Physical Education at my school's summer session, or participate in Dual Enrollment programs at local universities that offered math and other core subjects at higher levels. I also enrolled in a few Advanced Placement courses at Florida Virtual School and realized that online learning was more accessible than I thought. I loved that I could study at my own pace. Also, course offerings were more varied and I enjoyed the flexibility provided by the Internet to present new material through fun multimedia like videos, presentations and interactive quizzes.
On top of all these resources, students nowadays can get ahead in their academics with the help of Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs are distance learning classes offered online through platforms such as edX, Coursera or Udacity. These online portals have emerged as universities and other institutions partner to make their professors and successful classes available to the whole world. The wide availability of MOOCs (many of which are free) makes it very easy to complement school learning and explore new interests. High school students should also know that colleges really value students’ initiatives to enrich their academic training through external resources such as online classes. Applicants should therefore communicate these experiences through their personal statements, curriculum vitae and interviews with college admissions representatives.
One of the most famous MOOCs, edX, recently launched a new set of courses specifically for students who want to take advantage of their summer to improve their academic credentials. According to the official website, "Summer Learning @ edX brings back our most popular courses, while launching brand new ones. EdX offers free online courses from the world’s best institutions and universities. Anyone, anywhere can take edX courses in a variety of subjects from computer science to psychology, engineering, languages, science and more."
To "learn more," visit the edX site.
Many students in their last year of high school wait until they are accepted to college to start considering scholarships and other types of external financial aid. However, the applications to some of the most generous awards close well before colleges send their admissions letters.
Here are three great scholarships seniors can apply for starting this summer:
1. Questbridge National College Match
"The QuestBridge National College Match is a college and scholarship application process that helps outstanding low-income high school seniors gain admission and full four-year scholarships to the nation's most selective colleges...QuestBridge's partner colleges offer generous financial aid packages that cover 100% of demonstrated financial need, making them very affordable for low-income students."
2. Coca-Cola Scholars Program Scholarship
"The Coca-Cola Scholars Program Scholarship is an achievement-based scholarship awarded to graduating high school seniors each year. Students are recognized for their capacity to lead and serve, and their commitment to making a significant impact on their schools and communities. With the 26th class in 2014, the Foundation has provided over 5,400 Coca-Cola Scholars with more than $54 million in educational support. 150 Coca-Cola Scholars are selected each year to receive this $20,000 scholarship."
3. Wendy’s High School Heisman
"Since 1994, Wendy’s High School Heisman has honored more than 395,000 of the nation’s most esteemed high school seniors...The leadership award-honorees are well-rounded young men and woman who excel in learning, performing, and leading in the class room, on the field and in the community...The culmination of this process takes place in December in conjunction with the National Heisman Memorial Trophy presentation during Heisman Weekend in New York City."