Born and raised in the Bronx, I was always surrounded by other students of similar backgrounds to mine. Low-income areas of the northmost borough in New York City. Skin tone of darker complexion living in confined apartments, none of us with any clue of what to do with our lives. That was all I’ve ever known until coming to Morningside Heights, Columbia University in the City of New York. The type of people I’ve known all my life soon became a significant minority. Students from all over the world from all sorts of backgrounds come to study at this university of rich history and regard, and for the first time in my academic career, I felt alone.
It was all a culture shock and a half, on move-in day I realized my entire floor was of white skin complexion. I was the only student of color on that floor. Everyone was talking about their adventurous summer vacations to different countries, the high schools they came from, the accelerated courses they took, and the small-town neighborhoods they grew up in. Then there was me; that summer I’d spent days preparing for what I wholly expected to be a rigorous 4 years, working alongside my father to start saving up for college. I found it difficult to relate to everyone else, and it isn’t to say it’s their fault either. Coming from a first-generation low-income family I, alongside the help of BUILD, had to spend my time preparing for college in ways my high school couldn’t.
Taking college-level courses that were never offered to me, researching financial aid and support, trying to understand Columbia’s major system, and almost blindly picking my major based simply on my interests. My parents hardly attended school so I couldn’t go to them for advice, and major requirements vary across schools, so it was difficult to find a student or alumni to accurately consult.
The family I have who work in the city all tell me of the immense amount of wealth here, my cab driver uncles telling me of the clients they’ve driven to campus, all the renowned engineers, doctors, and lawyers they’ve driven. My neighbors in my apartment are asking me when I’m off to college, people who’ve watched me grow up ever since I was a child telling me how proud they are, and what a standard I’m setting for my sisters. It was all so intimidating and I still couldn’t imagine that I, a son of immigrant farmers and street vendors, now go to such a renowned school. I feared it would be difficult to make friends, I began to fear this was all some sort of mistake, as if I don’t belong, and the seeds of self-doubt were sowed deep.
The first semester at Columbia was one of the most stressful, eventful, and unforgiving times of my life. Everything I thought I ever knew about myself was challenged, and I will more than gladly admit that to any incoming first-generation student. The workload was intense as I imagined, my laptop breaking down mid-semester setting me back on my already hefty workload, and a near second wave of the pandemic, so much packed into one semester making it feel like an eternity. But a grand part of Latino culture is being family oriented. I met an amazing group of friends who felt similar to me, who were put into an entirely new environment than they were used to, some flying from across the country, and we quickly clicked together coming from similar backgrounds. A collective group of people feeling alone and with no one to turn to suddenly found each other and created a powerful bond that has carried to this day. Helping one another both emotionally and academically, putting together pieces that each of us brings into an entire picture. We’ve put together social events to keep up our Hispanic traditions. Clubs around campus embrace our culture, gathering more students from similar backgrounds to remind us we are not alone.
I am eternally grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given, and the help I’ve received along the way. As small of a percentage as my peers and I may be, it’s our heritage that unites us and reminds us to help each other through thick and thin, that’s what it means for me to be Latino. No matter where you are, you can always turn to your friends and family to support one another and help each other succeed. To this day my friend group aids one another in and out of class, encouraging one another every day to do our best and make our families back home proud. The same perseverance and effort that got us here is the same one that will get us out.