I was the first one in my family to go to a four year university and was beyond excited when I received my acceptance letter to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). I had worked very hard in high school to keep my grades up, pestering my high school counselor about information on deadlines and financial aid. From a young age, I was very proactive about my schooling knowing that my parents couldn’t help me due to the language barrier, their many hours at work, and a lack of understanding the school system in the United States.
Preparing to go to a university was a big deal for me and more than once my mother told me that it was too expensive and better for me to attend a community college. However, my dad would reassure me that it would be okay to go; only recently did I find out the financial hardship they endured so that I could have that opportunity.
Both my parents worked to make sure we had everything we needed and taught us to value what we had. At the time, it felt like we never had much because we were three teenage girls sharing a room and only one bathroom for the whole family. It would get chaotic, but we made it work. The best my parents could do to help me on my journey to university was to drive me to places I needed to be and work as hard as possible so that I could have the tools I needed. It was important for me to be able to afford school, especially since I had decided to attend a university.
One of my regrets was not applying for more scholarships and wishing I had made that a priority. I did apply to a few of the big name scholarships but it seemed that most of them went to the usual suspects, the valedictorians and uber achievers. I had worked hard, but it felt like I didn’t have the necessary qualifications to get the full rides or big money. Feeling discouraged, I decided to rely on working and applied for financial aid to pay for my degree. Although I made it through with loans, work, and my parent’s help (they took out loans to help me pay for school), I wish that I applied to all the smaller and local scholarships instead of hoping to land the big ones. Although there is more information now more than ever on free money it seems it is still an area that more students could benefit from. Here are some tips that I have learned:
- Start at your school counseling office or website.
- Get prepared and know it will take many hours of real work.
- Use a scholarship directory like http://www.fastweb.com.
- Search LOCAL city and county scholarships (ie, https://www.sdfoundation.org/students/local-scholarships/)
- Go to the college website and check for incoming student scholarships.
- Use your time wisely! Apply to scholarships in which you can REUSE your essays and recommendation letters.
- Better to apply to many scholarships for smaller amounts than to a few with larger amounts.
Another key to my success was my participation in the UCSD Summer Bridge Program for first year students. This program provided a sneak peek into what college was going to be like, including living on campus with roommates for over a month before freshman year started. We had college level classes and coursework, but it became clear that my high school had not done the best job in preparing me for a university when I received a written assignment with so much red in the margin that my heart sank. Writing had supposedly been my strongest subject. I spent most of the summer learning to write a thesis statement. One of the most valuable resources Summer Bridge offered was meeting other students before the school year started. Since this program prioritized diversity, the first few weeks I was under the impression that UCSD was way more diverse than it actually was. In a school as large as UCSD having a support network became crucial and having friends with shared experiences was invaluable. I made lifelong friends that summer.
Three years later I was about to become a senior in college, and my younger sister, Rubi, was an incoming freshman. She was accepted into UCSD and because of my experience, I was able to guide her through the application process and through her first year. I even made sure she applied to the college within UCSD that I knew she would thrive in, UCSD is broken down into colleges with different emphasises in course curriculum. Rubi attended Summer Bridge, and during welcome week, I shared with her the best and worst spots to study. We were able to build a great schedule for her that allowed for studying and travel time between classes. Because she had always been a social butterfly, I also introduced her to a sorority for Latinas that I knew she would love. Some of the best memories we have are of the classes we took together and our visits, which helped her feel connected and secure in her new environment. I didn’t realize how important this had been to her until only a month ago when she mentioned how it had been a lifesaver that I had gone through college first and had been able to help her.
It was an honor, to do for her what I wish I would have had for myself. My advice to incoming freshmen is:
- As a high school senior, apply to as many scholarships as you can, even if you feel it’s a waste of time. Your goal should be to keep your debt as low as possible.
- Research and apply for an incoming freshman summer program, such as UCSD Summer Bridge.
- Take advantage of all the programs the school has to offer for low income students and/or first-generation college students (i.e, https://trio.ucsd.edu).
- Make time to build a network of friends. Everyone needs a community, so even if you aren’t living on campus, get in a school club, sorority, study group, sports team, dance group, whatever.
- Find a mentor, and don’t miss office hours with professors. Navigating the post high school world is hard so ASK FOR HELP!
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