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.