When the New York Times reported that the current administration would begin to look at discrimination against white students in the college application process, I didn’t know if I could take it seriously. I couldn’t even finish the article.
Throughout my education, I had heard people say that one of the few reasons they believed minority students attended college is because there are quotas that apparently give us an upper hand. I knew that wasn’t true, but I wasn’t prepared to see the onslaught of comments claiming that minorities are treated better in education, despite the fact that many college campuses are overwhelmingly white.
A lot of the comments made me tear up.
There was no mention of the challenges many students of color face when applying to college. Few people brought up scenarios in which a person of color was a good student and deserved scholarships. I hated that they would look at someone like me — a Puerto Rican and Dominican student— and make assumptions about how I got to where I am because of my heritage.
I am a Latina with two degrees. In high school, I pulled all-nighters, woke up early to study more and spent weekends in my room poring over assignments. I attended Hunter College as an undergrad and later earned my master’s degree at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
I’m one of the few people I know who isn’t in some sort of debt for both of my degrees, and I wasn’t given a magical Latina scholarship. It took several grants, financial aid and scholarships to fund my education. None of that was based on my ethnicity.
The reason I was awarded those scholarships was due to my family’s finances, my grades, essays I tediously wrote and edited, and that I read application instructions so many times my head hurt. I applied to more than 10 scholarships during my pre-college panic. Before starting college, I had secured two of them and a grant.
And for every scholarship that I was awarded, there were at least 10 that I didn’t receive. Getting a scholarship isn’t an easy task, and watering down the reasons as to why I was given assistance feels like the erasure of all the hours spent scouring the Internet or asking college counselors for help.
I was a good student. From freshman year of high school on, I took honors classes and went on to take several AP courses. I worked as a tutor, volunteered for different events and was an editor for the school newspaper. I attended a high school in Long Island City, Queens and most of my fellow classmates were also minorities with families from all over the world. The majority of them went on to college as well. Many of us received letters of recommendation from teachers who saw how dedicated we were to school.
The recession began in December 2007, and it hit my family pretty hard. When my sister started college the year before me, I panicked and applied to every scholarship that my school’s college counselor suggested. Seeing bills for my sister’s private college worried me, especially after I saw how stressed her loans made my parents.
Only one scholarship that I applied to was based on ethnicity, and I didn’t get it. Classmates of mine who received money from organizations based on ethnicity had to meet GPA requirements and go through a lengthy application process as well.
Every scholarship I applied to and received was based on merit. And though both of my parents have college degrees, they went to school in the Caribbean and didn’t know much about the U.S. application process. They encouraged me to study, but they couldn’t offer much financial assistance at the time. We didn’t have any connections to admissions officers or people who awarded scholarships. It was up to me to figure everything out.
And even when I was given money, it didn’t make school entirely free. I did not receive a full ride to Hunter College or to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. I still had to pay for a monthly metro card in order to get to class. I had to buy textbooks or pay for photocopies of the books I couldn’t afford to buy. And like many other students, I worked and had paid summer internships so that I could afford supplies for class in the fall.
I was able to maintain my grades throughout college and eventually was awarded other scholarships and grants through Hunter. None of them were based on me being Puerto Rican and Dominican. I was given that money because, for several semesters, I maintained a GPA above 3.5. In order to receive the money, I had to write a thank you letter to the foundation that funded the scholarship, write a personal bio, sign a document and submit the paperwork before a specific deadline. When I went to drop off my materials at the office, I stood in line with students from all backgrounds. Not just other Latinos or people of color.
Ethnic and merit based scholarships are important. The playing field still isn’t level for many of us when it comes to education, but people like me aren’t simply quotas. We’ve carved a space out for ourselves in higher education. The scholarships we received made sure that our hard work paid off. I cried and powered through many sleepless nights for my diplomas, as did many fellow students of color. We know how hard we worked; it’s about time the country and the current administration acknowledged it too.