My parents moved to America from Ecuador in the 1990s, and have always worked hard to make ends meet. As I was growing up, there was no question that education was the most important thing to them. The expectations for my sister, brother and me were high. In some of my earliest memories, my parents were thrilled with the good grades on my report cards. “Keep up the good work! Then you can get a ‘beca’ and go to college!” my mom would say, in Spanish.
I didn’t know until later what a beca was — it’s Spanish for “scholarship.” My parents, and their values, helped me understand that education would be the bridge between the life I knew and the better life my parents wanted for me.
Back to school is a time of firsts, with fresh starts and a clean slate of hopes, dreams and possibilities. I’m one of 16 million American students headed to college this fall. And while I’m certainly not alone among the first-year students getting lost on campuses, as a first-generation college student and scholarship winner who is also the child of immigrant parents, my story is a little different.
Where I grew up in Orange, New Jersey, a small town near New York City, the population is mostly low-income and more than 80 percent non-white. Resources such as air-conditioned classrooms and working computers — things that some students in other neighborhoods take for granted — weren’t always available to us. My parents, and many of my friends’ parents, didn’t speak English. Many didn’t have a vote, and we didn’t know how to, or even that we could, use our voices to have a say in this wonderful democracy called America.
School was hard sometimes. My dad was a math whiz, so he could help me there, but with my parents not knowing English very well, other subjects were tougher. Thankfully, I had my older sister to lean on, and then I helped my brother, and my teachers were amazing.
Throughout my schooling, I always worked hard and aimed high — traits I see in many immigrant families. I found ways of helping others in my community, volunteering with church, and playing the role of tutor, translator and advocate for students who had experiences similar to mine. I knew I could help them in ways that my parents would have wanted to help me.
The day I won the National Honor Society Scholarship changed everything for my family.
I’d been rejected from one college and was heartbroken, but had a wonderful list of options to choose from. Just the day before, I was up most of the night, wanting to go to American University, but knowing that the cost would likely put my first choice out of reach. I woke up ready to make the decision for my second choice, knowing it would be less expensive for me and my family, who would have to work even harder no matter what choice I made.
I got to school that day and could tell something strange was happening. My teacher seemed normal, but there was a buzz in the air, and I couldn’t figure out what the fuss was. I saw a cake, and then I saw my mom crying. Out of thousands and thousands of applicants around the country, they told me that I, Jenny Rodriguez, was the national winner of the NHS Scholarship. It meant that I could afford the education I wanted. I accepted a place at American University, where I am now a freshman, studying politics.
The last few months have been a happy blur. I’ve been working and volunteering with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and took a church trip to Ecuador to volunteer there, bringing this Jersey girl a little closer to my extended family and my Ecuadorian heritage.
Here’s another way my college story is a little different. Move-in day was a family affair, and my extended family saw it as an opportunity for them to learn, too. Transportation is expensive, but we managed to borrow a van that could fit my mom, dad, sister, brother, aunt, uncle and me, and we made the trip from New Jersey to Washington, D.C.
After unpacking on that blazing-hot August day, my family set out to visit the museums and monuments of our nation’s capital. For them, it wasn’t about selfies — it was a chance to be a part of our nation’s story in a way that doesn’t happen in Orange. They seized it.
Only in America is my story even possible. But sometimes, it’s tough being a child of an immigrant family. We’re so proud to be American, but we’re not always welcomed or treated fairly. It’s important to remember that we’re all people who have hopes and fears, too. And we have dreams — like mine of studying and making the world a better place.
I’m so grateful for the opportunity to get a higher education. Without my beca from the National Honor Society, it might not have been possible.
This story on first-generation college students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Jenny Rodriguez is a freshman at American University.