With about 33,000 residents, Dalton, Georgia’s claim to fame is carpet. The workforce for this industry is primarily supplied by recent immigrant Latino workers. As a result, almost 50% of the city is Hispanic. In my high school, nearly 70% identify as Hispanic. However, when considering college readiness, this wasn’t reflected. As a student, I noticed which of my peers were ultimately going—or not—to college. This firsthand exposure to educational inequities set off my lifelong passion to advance the college access, retention, and persistence of historically underrepresented students, and in turn, informed by decision to pursue a masters of higher education.
When I applied to be a Gates Millennium Scholar as a high school senior, a recurring theme in my essays was that I was seeking to go to college to help others go to college, particularly students of underserved backgrounds. In one my Gates essays, there was one particular paragraph that reaffirmed my decision to pursue graduate study and a career in higher education:
I would want to do my part in helping students, with special emphasis on minorities, realize that going to college is possible…I want to help get rid of the misconception amongst students, those minorities and rising first-generation college students, that they can’t go to college because of cost or because a higher education is not for them. I would work on policies to better the resource distribution to students in the area regarding graduating, college, and scholarships.
Early on, my interests were in higher education equity. As a first-generation college, low-income, child of immigrants, and Latina student, I faced many challenges and obstacles when navigating the college-going process. I visited college campuses on my own. I filled out the FAFSA form on my own. I paid the housing deposit on my own. When your parents have an elementary education, don’t speak English, and don’t understand the American educational system, you’re left to do all this alone. While I am resourceful and eventually successfully navigated this process, it was hard, confusing, and lonely.
However, the challenges faced by students like me don’t just end with matriculation. Remaining on a college campus and persisting through graduation is a different story. Despite my academic successes, I still battled with the stereotype threat and imposter syndrome that many students of color experience while at predominantly white institutions (PWI). Given that the faculty, staff, and students didn’t look like me, it was easy to feel like I didn’t belong or shouldn’t be at my school. The feelings of alienation, inadequacy, and inferiority quickly set in. The daily microaggressions of other students and college personnel slowly perpetuate an unwelcoming environment for students of diverse backgrounds. During these times, I knew that to make this easier for students like myself in the future, there needed to be students of underrepresented backgrounds staying, graduating, and then ultimately working on college campuses. Like many other areas of American society, more representation of various demographic backgrounds is needed in higher education at the institutional, state, and federal levels. Only then can higher education professionals and those creating policies make informed decisions and affect changes against systems and policies that were historically not made for students like me.
By growing as a scholar through my master’s program, I hope to leverage my academic and professional experiences as a stepping stone to a life-long career in education equity at the postsecondary level. Ultimately, after my masters, I seek to pursue a doctorate degree related to educational leadership and policy. In the long run, I see myself working in the public sector and influencing policies that affect systems for the advancement of college access and practices that promote an increase in people of color with degrees. At the end of the day, per one of my Gates Millennium Scholarship essays:
Whether by getting a political office…to affect policies or…on a board of education, all my goals, in everything I do, I will work to help students go to college. That is what I want to dedicate my life to.
Monica Maldonado is a graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park. She was a spring 2019 intern with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.