Yesenia Aguilar - CCA Alum, Individualized 2019
When I was in the 6th grade my mom told me I wasn’t going to the middle school that all of my classmates were going to. I would be attending the middle school across town, the school that was “better”.
I pouted and I cried, and I didn’t understand what could be so much better about a school where I knew no one. It was the ritzy part of town, full of a demographic I didn’t identify with or understand much. I didn’t know how to put words to it at the time, but I felt like an outsider since then.
My mom knew that going to that “better” middle school would get me into the “better” high school. My mom knew she was protecting the goals she and my dad risked their lives for. They came to the United States with nothing but a dream for me. She fought for my spot at those schools. They were not my schools based on our address, but she told the district I had the right to the best education our little town could offer.
Middle school droned on, as the awkward years often do. High school flew by, the anxiety building as every year passed. A high school education was a right, but a college education was a mysterious void I had to venture through all on my own. In addition to the stress and pressure to do well, I had to figure out what to do well on. I didn’t know what an SAT or ACT test was. No one I knew had ever taken it before. I didn’t know I had to pay to take them. No one talks about your parents needing social security numbers to apply to the FAFSA and no one knows the look on their faces when you ask them what our assets are and they have to answer “none”. I didn’t know you had to pay to apply for college, I didn’t know what made a college a good one besides the raved about Ivy Leagues. They ask you what adversities you face to get in, and how do you tell them your entire existence has been a struggle of identity and belonging. You can’t tell them your “sob story” because to you, it isn’t one.
But I could only think about my mom and dad. This dream they had for me and my two little brothers. The dream they supported with bleach soaked hands and concrete covered boots. I owed it to them to try and work as hard at it as they did.
AND THEN you get into college and you get ready to move out and it feels like you’re abandoning them in this situation that was always good enough, but all of a sudden you need to fight like hell to get out of and be better for it. I still struggle with the idea of this “better” life I’m striving for. My parents worked honest jobs, and had a roof over our heads. If I had a job and a roof, what else would I need? I didn’t know, but my parents sure did.
I worked full time, on top of being a full time student. We didn’t qualify for private loans, and they could not accept parent loans on my behalf. My parents helped with my tuition payments, but all my living fees were up to me. They would call to check in, making sure I didn’t need for anything. For fear of sounding like I was complaining I would explain I was just busy with it all. And my beautiful father, wanting to offer me advice about a world he didn’t know and couldn’t help me with, would just say, “Echale ganas.” There is no translation that could accurately convey that sentiment, but it roughly means to keep at it, or try your best.
I don’t think being an art school grad was what my parents had in mind for me. I’m sure they would have loved if I pursued law school, or political science like I said I would in high school. Art was the only place I could put the imposter syndrome, and the anxiety and depression. It is where I fueled my passion to help other people.
I am very proud that I was able to guide my younger brothers through the process. They had options I didn’t know about when it was my time. My brother Oscar chose to take some time at community college to see what he was drawn to, something I didn’t consider because I didn’t know the difference. I am excited to see where they are next fall.
As for me, I might just be crazy enough to do it all over again for grad school.
Words of Encouragement for First-Gen College Students
You are divinely unique in the experience it took to get here. We see you!