#RealCollege: Reflections on Being the Only Latina in the Classroom

My first language is Spanish. I started elementary school not being able to communicate with other students or teachers. I went through a silent period when I wouldn’t talk during class. My mom told me that when I would arrive home, I would complain about how terribly I wished I could understand those around me. 

In first grade, I was placed in ESL (English as a Second Language) and finally began gaining confidence outside the classroom with my peers. Even so, instead of participating or raising my hand, I would doubt myself.

Skepticism outweighed my confidence when it came down to my English pronunciation. My parents encouragement, my motivation and drive was what propelled me to eventually be fluent in the English language. Furthermore, I knew I had control over my academic performance. Complacency was not an option, and I made it a goal of mine to be a top performing student. This attitude along with achieving fluency in English allowed me to be studious and academically gifted. Over time, I was accepted into the honors program and took Advanced Placement courses. The majority of students in those programs were white and came from privileged backgrounds. Nevertheless, I was persistent and didn’t allow their privilege to discourage me. Starting in middle school and throughout high school, I began to notice how I had two separate groups of friends – one inside the classroom and one outside the classroom. The first group was based in the honors program, where we would collaborate on assignments and compete for the highest grades. I had similar interests as my classmates – high grades, attending a prestigious university and rigorous academic coursework. My second group of friends were those outside the classroom, where my identity was validated, we shared common experiences at home, and where I felt I could be my true authentic self.

In college, dealing with sublte racism, microaggressions and discrimination was no stranger to me. I was a woman pursuing a degree in finance at Cal Poly, SLO. Not just a woman, but a woman of color. In a place where less than 15% of the entire campus was Hispanic/Latino and only 20% of finance majors at my university were women, I was part of two minority groups. All my finance professors were male, and the vast majority were white. At the start of a new quarter, I would scan the classroom only to reconfirm that I was the only Latina present. 

It was tough not having a professor role model within my major or someone who I could relate to and who understood my unique struggles. Not only was I a first-generation college student, but I also came from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. This was something I was constantly reminded of through small everyday interactions which made me question whether my identity would be a burden in reaching my goals. 

When I was in that classroom setting, I preferred doing individual project work rather than group work. When I was assigned to a group project (usually consisted of all white men) and had team meetings, I would feel alienated from the conversation. I was often on the receiving end of statements such as “you should focus on creating the powerpoint while we run the numbers.” When I suggested we approach a project a certain way and they would sometimes brush it off by saying “it’s okay, I am pretty sure we have it handled.” Those are all implicit messages that I was incapable of adding value. The differential treatment made me uncomfortable and pushed me away. I constantly felt like I had to prove to others that I did belong on that campus and in the classroom.

Despite all the struggles, I look back and I am proud to embrace the intersections of my identity as a Latina woman in the finance industry. My experiences have shaped my character and work ethic. For anyone in a similar situation, know that you are not alone.  Don’t allow stereotypes or anybody place a limit on your capabilities. 

Be confident, be vocal, and remain authentic.

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Melisa Zarate

Melisa Zarate

Melisa Zarate is currently an analyst at Goldman Sachs. She grew up in a small town on the Central Coast and attended public schools K-12. As a first-generation college graduate, Melisa attended California Polytechnic State University - San Luis Obispo and earned a degree in Business Administration with a concentration in finance. She is passionate about community, equity and education.

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