When I was in high school, I was an all-around student. I ran cross-country and track & field. I held leadership positions in student government and campus organizations. I actively participated in campus extracurricular activities such as mock trial, and I frequently volunteered in the community. I was in the top 10% of my class.
My family and I had moved around a bit when I was growing up, but we mostly stayed in Central and Southern California. When I applied to colleges, I applied to mostly East Coast schools. My parents could not understand why I wanted to leave California. It caused my mother to cry on more than one occasion. However, I was determined to apply to the best schools. There was a part of me that doubted whether I would get into them, but it didn't stop me.
When my Cornell University acceptance letter arrived, I was in shock. Cornell had been my first choice. I immediately made my decision. My parents were happy, but they didn't support my desire to move across the country for two main reasons—they didn’t want me to be alone and they worried about the cost. I explained financial aid to them, but they were both immigrants of Guatemala and they didn't understand the U.S. school system. My stepdad had graduated college, but even he was concerned about my decision. In the end, I held off on going to Cornell as soon as I graduated high school because I wanted to save myself and my parents money. I knew by talking to the Cornell counselors that I could take general education classes at the local community college and they would transfer without delaying my college graduation.
A year later, despite my parents resistance, I chose to lean in and take the leap to upstate New York, where Cornell was located. I was scared. I booked my own flights and flew there alone. I didn't know anyone. I had never lived on my own and here I was flying 3000 miles away from my family, my boyfriend and my friends. I remember calling my parents from the public phones in the dorms when I arrived and keeping the tears from my voice. I wanted to be strong and I didn't want them to worry. I also wanted to prove to myself that I had made the right decision.
The weather was awful in the winter. I missed the California sunshine and instead, trekked to class in snow that came up to my knees. I felt overwhelmed by the school work. I attended the college within Cornell that was called I.L.R., which everyone referred to as "I love reading." They were right. I was assigned 11 books in one class my first semester. I.L.R. actually stands for Industrial and Labor Relations, which is the degree I received. I was surrounded by people that I thought were smarter than me. I felt lost and unsure until I made friends—friends I cherish to this day and call frequently. I became involved in campus organizations and activities I loved that helped me when I was in doubt, and when I wanted to fly home and hide. There were days I wanted to call my parents to ask them for a plane ticket home, and, there were days I could not imagine leaving. Graduation day came and I cried and I laughed. It was a special day. My family came to my graduation, they hugged me for all the hopes and dreams I carried in their name when I walked up to receive my diploma.
I was the first person in my family to finish college and I'm still the first person in my family to have graduated from an Ivy League university. Looking back at those years, I think about the challenges I overcame and my perseverance in spite of my loved ones' requests to come home. I think about all the friends I made and the degree that to this day is framed in my Father's house. I reflect on the strength I must have had on that day I flew away from my family and stepped on the Cornell campus for the first time. I reflect on the strength I carry with me today when I lean in to tackle a new challenge.
In writing this story, I had the sudden urge to hug the young woman that followed her dreams. I want to tell her how proud I am of her. “You did it."