I sat across from the college administrator, poised and ready for his questions. It was my first interview with the University of Southern California, the school of my dreams, and I wanted so badly to impress. “You don’t need to be nervous,” he told me. “Just be yourself.”
I kept my composure, but I felt like shaking. I understood that the interview was important, but I had no idea what to say to convince this man that I was a good student. He went over my school credits and extracurriculars. “Tell me about your speech competitions,” he said.
I detailed my latest piece on unrequited love, the speech that took me to the national level of my high school speech and debate circuit. It consisted of two prose pieces and one song, but I completely blanked on the name of the song. “I’m so sorry,” I said, my resolve crumbling. “I honestly just can’t remember it.”
I pictured my mom standing behind me, her hands on my shoulders, telling me to breathe. Before the interview, she assured me I would do just fine. But I was a first-generation Latina with a single mom who never got her college degree; I was terrified I would let her down.
I wondered how many other students had sat in this chair with these same worries—and how many others would be surprised or angry to see me there. First-generation students of color get used to the remarks: “You got in because of affirmative action.” “You know, it’s unfair that you’re a person of color and that makes you more interesting than me.” No matter the words, the sentiment is the same: You probably got admitted because of some fluke, not your own hard work.
My journey wouldn’t have been possible without my mom’s determination. I grew up in South Los Angeles, where the median income is $29,000 a year and only 5.3 percent of residents aged twenty-five and older have a four-year degree. My mom enrolled me in a private high school in Rancho Park, where more than 50 percent of the community is white, the median annual income is $69,000, and 49.3 percent of residents twenty-five and older have a four-year degree . She paid a reduced tuition throughout those four years. My dad had died unexpectedly and didn’t leave behind a will, so she had to take on the daunting task of single parenting and managing the finances while raising a preteen.
While dealing with her grief, she still had to be my guide. Not once did I hear her complain about how she had to balance taking care of the house with working full-time and making sure I was fed and doing well in school. She had to help me navigate a world which she didn’t have experience with herself. She often sat hunched over at the dinner table, triple-checking each expense with a calculator nearby. “I don’t want you to worry about all this,” she said, whenever I asked about our finances. “I want you to focus on school.”
I threw myself into my schoolwork. With each good grade, I saw the future of my family materializing. I kept my mom’s journey in the back of my mind and pushed myself to perform so her efforts wouldn’t be wasted. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized how much my mom wanted my life to be different from her own.
My mom was born in a village in Guatemala. She wasn’t poor, but she wasn’t rich, either. Most people she knew spent their whole lives there; only a few of them ever left, usually for Guatemala City. That’s where Mom headed next.
At seventeen years old, she worked to pay rent for a room where she and my grandmother slept. When I was seventeen, I walked across the stage in a white gown and received my high school diploma, bursting with excitement because I was headed to the University of Southern California.
Sometimes I wondered what it would be like to go to college without feeling my family history weighing on my shoulders. More often than not, I would feel guilty even thinking about it. How could I complain about the pressure I felt at school when I was lucky just to be there? I was lucky enough to get my tuition waived since my mom worked for the university, doing administrative work at a university-owned laboratory.
No one in my family ever told me, “If you fail at school, you’ll let us all down.” They didn’t need to—I knew I would let myself down.
As an eighteen-year-old college student, I found myself getting home later and later on weeknights. I wanted to do it all—take as many classes as I could, volunteer, work at the school newspaper, write freelance. One evening, I told my boyfriend at the time that I was ready to drop out. I felt gutted, exhausted, and unsure how to handle the pressures of living up to my family’s expectations. But school was such an important part of my life. If I didn’t graduate, my mom’s efforts would be in vain.
At nineteen, unmarried and pregnant with her first child, my mom had assured my dad that he shouldn’t feel obligated to marry her—the Catholic, culturally appropriate choice—if he didn’t love her. She could raise her child alone, she said. But they were in love and got married, without an engagement ring or fancy proposal.
At nineteen, as a junior in college, I spent too many nights out, drunkenly stumbling back to my dorm alone or in the company of a complete stranger. I got caught up in the social scene; I didn’t understand how to balance the lure of a social life with the need to do well academically.
Finally I moved back home my senior year to get away from the party scene. At home, I didn’t have frat row around the corner; I kept my head down and focused on making it to graduation. At my graduation party, an uncle told me, “You’ve done a great thing, you know. You’re furthering the family name.”
“You don’t know how many times she called me crying,” I remember my mom chiming in. “She was ready to give up. And I just listened and told her to keep going.”
My mom came to the United States at the age of twenty-five. At twenty-six, she returned to Guatemala to bring my older brother and sister to the United States. The day she arrived, there was cake at the house for a celebration. My brother, then four years old, didn’t even recognize her. “Do you think the lady wants some cake?” he asked my grandma. Later that night, he asked, “Is the lady sleeping here tonight?”
I’m turning twenty-six this year. I’ve lived in the US my entire life, born seventeen years after my older sister. The American baby; the girl with one foot in two countries, thanks to her mom. Our timelines are completely different—and they were always supposed to be.
Many of my high school classmates had parents who went to college, alumni license plate covers on their cars. During college application season, one of my classmates asked me which schools I was applying to. Stanford, I told her. “Oh, you’ll get in,” she said. “You’re Hispanic.”
I remember it was exhausting to always feel like I was on the outside at school. There was a gym on campus; my mom never had a gym membership, and it was something I understood as an extra expense we couldn’t maintain. There was a car service that helped students get around within a certain distance around campus; every morning, my mom had to wake up early to take multiple buses to work. Even the small details jumped out at me: the plush chairs in the libraries, the access to laptops, the upscale catering at campus events. I tried to pretend I was used to all these things.
I wanted my family to have nice things. I wanted to help my mom pay off the house so she could retire. I felt guilty that I wasn’t able to financially support her; instead I was choosing classes and settling into my dorm room. At the same time, I knew I needed to do well in school so that our lives could be different one day.
“Don’t worry about all that,” my mom would say on the phone, when I would ask about money. “You just worry about school.”
During my time at USC., tuition cost $50,000 a year. The University of Southern California is located near South LA, in a neighborhood where the median annual income is $18,000 . I was living the private university dream, but going back home to one of the very neighborhoods my prestigious school wanted to improve. There were outreach programs and on-campus events for the neighboring schools, the university’s way of giving back to the local community.
When my neighbor, just a few years younger than me, first heard the news of my acceptance, he was elated. “Imagine that,” he said. “Someone from our block is going to U.S.C.!” Kids from our block rarely made it to a university. And when they did, people often chalked it up to luck, or connections, or affirmative action.
Sometimes I doubted that I deserved my place at my predominantly white university. But that struggle felt so insignificant compared to the ones my mom had; I didn’t need to support someone else, the way she supported my grandma. I didn’t have to raise children alone at a young age. I just needed to concentrate on an end goal: to take full advantage of the academic opportunities that came my way. I understood my mom had a strength in her to do what she did—a resilience I tried to call upon when it all got too hard.
Once, when I asked my mother about the way I grew up, so different from her own life, she simply responded, “It’s what I wanted.”
I looked back at her, a woman with such a small frame, with fingers so delicate yet gnarled from arthritis. How could a woman so small fight so hard for a future in a country she didn’t know? My heart broke a little. But I knew she was telling the truth. My mom was the reason I had always kept going.
It’s hard not to feel dejected when I consider how educational access is threatened, especially for immigrants and people of color. Recently, allies of the current administration introduced the RAISE bill , which includes a merit system for green cards. You get points for education, for the ability to speak English.
My parents wouldn’t have met the requirements of this system , a n d n e i t h e r w o u l d m a n y o t h e r s . If they had been denied, I wouldn’t have the life I do now.
I am my mother’s daughter. We are the women this administration doesn’t want. Women with roots in another country, with tongues that shape foreign words. Yet I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree and, later, a Master’s. My education and accomplishments are tributes to my mother’s determination, signals to my family that we can make a positive impact and pursue our dreams in this country—even when we feel unwelcome in it.