This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
Every day at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign I strive for excellence. I am proud to be where I am now, especially considering from where I came, and I know that my family and friends are proud of me as well. What I did was not easy at all considering my situation. I was not raised in a normal, safe, happy and secure home. I was the first of six children, born to first-generation Mexican immigrants: my father was born in Mexico City and my mother was born in Guanajuato. They both knew the importance of education in America and would always tell me that school is important. Neither of my parents, nor most members of my extended family, went to a university. They didn’t have much advice to give me on how to get to college. My dad worked hard, but the economy was not always kind and he would sometimes be out of work. My mom started to work in a factory and would come home tired, only to have to make dinner and take care of her younger children. Money was always tight and although everyone said that college was important, pursuing higher education seemed less of an option when transitioning to a full-time job after high school appeared to be a more helpful thing to do.
Keeping Busy in a Dangerous Neighborhood
The neighborhood in which I grew up in was not a very safe one. Many nights, gunshots could be heard not too far away. The neighborhood gang, the Latin Kings, made their presence known with constant graffiti depicting five-point crowns and other symbols painted prominently in black and yellow, their gang colors. Gang members would often be “posted up” (standing) on street corners by stores and on my route to school. The high school I went to, Bloom High School, was not an average high school, either. Fights constantly broke out in the hallways; you could get illegal substances easily; and more than one student always had with them a weapon of some sort. Where I came from, education was not on many people’s minds. Where I lived it wasn’t expected that you would get into a good college; it wasn’t even a big deal if you dropped out of high school to work. Regardless, I focused on school as best I could; I did my homework after helping around the house, found time to study even though I had to help take care of my siblings, kept going to school and stayed out of trouble.
Getting good grades at school wasn’t all that difficult. At an early age I developed a competitive spirit, and having a brother who was just one year younger than me kept me on my toes. I constantly tried to prove I was in charge by being faster and stronger, although he would find his strengths and often one-up me. This mutual competitiveness with him also manifested in school: getting anything less than an A was out of the question. I managed to earn very good grades, although I often ended up having to study the day of a test. Being busy with school and helping out in my family kept me busy; my mom encouraged me to join organizations, so I joined my church’s youth group and played some sports in school. That helped a lot because I ended up being too busy to get in any kind of trouble. I stayed away from negative situations and stayed on track.
Adapting to the Uncontrollable
Although I tried my best to focus on my education, many things were out of my control. My parents were divorced and my mom had to find work. The combination of the language barrier and having no formal education past elementary school made finding a job very difficult for her; she was paid very little and was always stressed. She had to work and take care of the family and in turn, she put a lot of responsibilities on me. I helped as much as I could while still trying to make school my main priority; but the strain I was under was great and inevitably caused my grades to waver. Nonetheless, I stayed on track and adapted to my situation, ultimately becoming better at time management and getting things done effectively. I was set on overcoming any disadvantages I had and doing what I had to do to get ahead in life, and I decided I would do that by going to college.
Refusing to Give Up
My senior year came, and I started to get ready to apply to colleges. I really only wanted to get into one, however: the University of Illinois (U of I). It was the same college that my uncle, the only person in my family who has a bachelor’s degree, went to. It was also the same college that my godmother, who was my first grade teacher and a role model who played a key part in instilling in me the value of education, had attended. I applied to U of I and two other colleges, but was rejected by U of I. It was devastating, I considered going into the workforce as I saw the rejection letter as a sign that I would fail in college, but after thinking of all the work that I had put into school–I had been involved in a few extracurricular activities, played some sports, took part in community service, had a high GPA and was among the top 10 of my class–I saw that giving up was not an option. So, I sent a letter of appeal and, with the help of my guidance counselor, the decision was overturned and I was admitted into U of I.
The Rewards of Hard Work
Every day I am here at U of I, I wake up proudly, knowing that all my hard work paid off. I am in a great school that constantly challenges me and keeps me growing as a person and a student. I also know that I still have many more years of working harder than I ever have to make my dreams a reality.
I know that you can do what I did by trying your hardest. I was not dealt the best hand in the world, but I made do with what I had and succeeded. I do not consider myself gifted. I know that I am just an average guy, but I work hard for what I want and that helped me get to where I am today. I know that anyone can do the same, and that if you want something badly enough there will always be a way you can get it. No obstacle is big enough to stop you from attaining a college education.
It is becoming more and more of a given that you need to have a bachelor’s degree, and not having one is a huge disadvantage. If you are facing any problems with making a college education a reality, but you truly want it, you can find a vast array of resources that will help you, from financial aid websites, to forums on how apply to schools, to your high school guidance counselor who wants to see you succeed. Always strive for excellence and work hard, because your hard work will pay off in the future.