Culture

From Diapers To Dorms, I Worked Hard To Make Sure My Baby Sister Could Go To College

As a first generation college student, as well as the first person in my family to be born in the United States, there was many things I had to figure out on my own.

The author (left) and her sister. Photo credit: Betsy Aimee

When it came to college it always felt like there was an assumption that all parents knew a lot about the process and were heavily involved; That they were signing me up for SAT classes, flying across the country with me to look at colleges and had a vast network of friends that were ready to offer me internships.

They supported me in many other ways and cultivated in me a desire to pursue higher education, but for the most part I was their window into the mainstream “American” world, so their ability to help was limited.

It was a blessing to be so self-reliant at a young age but at the same time I carried many things in isolation and there was an emotional toll that took on me. I’m not complaining, as I have lived a life of privilege and opportunity that many people, my parents included, could only have dreamed of.

Because of this it always felt like I couldn’t burden my parents with my “problems” when they worked so hard to provide me with housing and transportation, and the occasional luxury. It’s not that my parents didn’t care, they just didn’t know what they didn’t know. It would have been great to have an adult, or older sibling to offer me support at that stage of my life.

My sister was born when I was 16 years old. I realized that life had given me a special opportunity. As the oldest daughter to our father who emigrated from rural Mexico to the United States decades before, I felt like I was her official guide to first-gen life.

The author’s sister. Photo credit: Betsy Aimee

When I was in college, in between class, work, friends and boys, I would pick her up in my shiny, red Mustang. I didn’t always have tons of money, but I tried to expose her to as many things as I could. I would take her to the Festival of Books at UCLA and we’d walk around local universities. On trips we would drive through schools and talk about what her life would be like when she was a young woman.

When she was in elementary school I read an essay she had written. In it she said that I was her role model. It was a stark reminder to be better, and do better. After all, my sister was watching.

When I graduated from college with honors she was 8 years old. My dad pulled her and my brother out of school to attend my commencement ceremony. I remember her sitting on the bleachers in her pink dress looking up at me proudly. She told me later that was the moment she knew she wanted to go to college too!

As she got older, we talked about the fact that so very few Latinx people actually graduate from college, and that while not everyone needs college to be successful, education is an important way to advance our entire community. I told her that seeking to be the best people we could be was a way to honor the sacrifices of our father and her mother (my stepmother).

As she went through middle school and the early years of high school, we talked about classes she could take that would put her on the “college track.” I am sure sometimes it felt more like I was an annoying helicopter mom than a cool older sister. I also made sure to be honest about mistakes I made, and things I didn’t know then that I wish I had known.

Last year, I helped her write her essays for her college applications. In the midst of my own crazy life, which now includes a child of my own, I always tried to set aside time to be there for her when she needed me.

When she started getting her acceptances, I cried. We went to look at colleges together earlier this year.

The author and her sister at her sister’s high school graduation. Photo credit: Betsy Aimee

After some debate, she decided on Mount Saint Mary’s College near home in Los Angeles. Then she announced she would be living in the dorms. I reassured my father that this was a tremendous opportunity for her to immerse herself in the culture of the university and be focused on her studies. When she needed to appeal her financial aid award, of course, I wrote it.

We went shopping for her dorm supplies together and part of me was super excited she was going to have the experience I never had. That is the thing about being a first generation big sister, like a parent, you want things for your siblings that you couldn’t have for yourself.

I also told her something that I wish someone had told me at her age. I told her that she is more than the sum of her accomplishments; that the determination and ethics that had gotten her to college would carry her through life no matter what happened.

I told her this because I also know that there is a particular type of guilt that plagues first-generation kids like us. We feel like we will never fully repay our parents for our sacrifices and we can punish ourselves harshly for any mistakes we make.

Recently, my family and I, including my father, brother and stepmother, moved her into her dorm. It was a bittersweet moment because, in my mind, she’s still a little girl looking up at me with wonder. But looking at me now is a bright, level-headed, hard-working young woman moving towards her future with the hopes of all her ancestors resting on her shoulders.

Photo credit: Betsy Aimee

As we walked back to the car my dad told me, “You should have more children. I would be having a much harder time letting go of your sister if I didn’t have you and your brother too.” I said, “Dad, what are you talking about? This one counts as one of mine too.”

While my sister has learned from me, being her big sister opened up a doorway to love and understanding the importance of mentorship for first generation kids.

After all, It is up to us who have paved the way to make sure we are leaving the door open for everyone coming behind us.


READ: While Homesickness During College Is Hard Enough As It Is, This Latino Student Explains Why It’s Been Even More Difficult For Him

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This Latino In His Sixties Spent Half Of His Life Behind Bars, Now He’s Graduating College With Honors

Things That Matter

This Latino In His Sixties Spent Half Of His Life Behind Bars, Now He’s Graduating College With Honors

Photo via Facebook/Miguel de la Rosa

Once in a while, a story comes along that makes you realize that the phrase “you can do anything you put your mind to”, isn’t just an old cliche. One California Latino man proved that the phrase has some truth behind it.

62-year-old Joseph Valadez just graduated with honors from Cal State Long Beach after spending the half of his adult life behind bars.

Valadez’s story went viral when one of his fellow students tweeted about the California Latino man’s incredible story. “This man accomplished something incredible AND took the coldest pic of 2021,” said that caption.

The post is a screenshot of a Facebook post Valadez wrote, accompanied by some stunning graduation photos of the 62-year-old.

“I finished my last two semester at Long Beach on the ‘President’s Honor List’ for making straight As,” wrote Valadez on the CSULB alumni Facebook group. “Was also on the Dean’s List with a GPA of 3.67. Not bad for someone who spent half his adult life in prison.”

“There’s a misconception about guys like me that I want to break,” he added. “If I can do it, anyone can.”

Since the picture went viral, Valadez opened up about the journey that took him from rock bottom to where he is now.

Like many people in the prison system, addiction fueled Valadez’s life of crime. In an interview with Long Beach Post, he revealed that he began using heroine when he first joined the army at the age of 18.

“All the crimes I did were related to trying to get drugs, selling drugs,” the California Latino man told the Long Beach Post. He would spend 38 years of his life battling addiction.

After that, his life spiraled into a cycle of addiction, homelessness, violence, and crime. In total, Valadez has been to prison 40 times. He has spent more than 30 years behind bars.

Valadez finally decided to change his life in his 50s, when he realized that if he kept living this way, he would die soon.

In 2013, Valadez checked into an adult rehab facility. He stayed there for a year while he got clean. Soon after, he enrolled in Orange Coast Community College before ultimately transferring to Cal State Long Beach. In total, it took six years of challenging coursework for him to graduate. But from the look of pride in Valadez’s face, it was worth it.

Throughout his journey in the educational system, however, Valadez has discovered all the ways that the system failed him. Despite getting good grades in high school, teachers didn’t suggest college as an option for him. Instead, they suggested he pursue landscaping or construction. Similarly, when Valadez bounced in and out of jail due to his addiction, no one ever suggested rehab as a way for him to break the cycle.

Now, Valadez wants to take the lessons he learned and give back to his community.

At CSULB, Valadez excelled in sociology, and was interested in exploring how the criminal justice system is set up to target people of color. “I know a little bit about that subject because I lived it,” he said. “I wanted to understand the ‘why?’.” As of now, he is waiting to see if he gets accepted into CSULB’s Social Work masters program.

Valadez wants to use his new degree to help young kids who are at-risk of being failed by the system, like he was. “I’m going to inspire somebody, I’m going to motivate somebody, I’m going to give somebody hope,” he said. “That’s what I’m supposed to do.”

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Strangers Raise Over $175k For a Latina Student Who Used Her College Savings Towards Her Mom’s Rent

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Strangers Raise Over $175k For a Latina Student Who Used Her College Savings Towards Her Mom’s Rent

Photo via GoFundMe

So many of us have parents who have had to overcome impossible obstacles to give us the chance at a better life. The older we get, the more we recognize the amount of sacrifice it took our parents to give us a better future than they have. But sometimes, things don’t go according to plan–like for Alondra Carmona.

18-year-old Alondra Carmona gave her mother her entire college savings when she discovered that they were two months behind on rent.

And Alondra hadn’t been planning to go to just any school, but Barnard–an all-girls Ivy League school in New York City. Barnard had been Alondra’s dream since she was 15-years-old. She worked hard throughout her four years at high school and, luckily, all that hard work paid off. In December, she found out she was accepted, and she felt like all of her dreams had come true.

Barnard had offered to cover $60,000 of her tuition each year, and Alondra had planned on covering the rest of the costs with her own money–which amounted to about $2,000 that Alondra had saved from her high school jobs and internships.

But earlier this month, Alondra was hit with a blow: her mother had secretly been unemployed for the last 3 months and now they were facing eviction.

Photo via Alondra Carmona/Facebook

According to Alondra, she had no clue her mother was having financial problems. Her mother had hid it from her family because she didn’t want to worry them.

“When she told me that, I wanted to cry,” Alondra told local news station KHOU.”I knew I had to accept I couldn’t go to Barnard.”

Without hesitating, Alondra offered up her own personal college savings to help her mom cover their rent. “I knew I wanted to help her,” Alondra said. “I really didn’t think twice about it. I told her I’m going to give you my savings and make a GoFundMe page to see if I can get enough to replace the money in my savings.”

And so she did. Alondra posted a heartfelt GoFundMe page that kindly asked strangers to help chip in to cover her college tuition costs.

Photo via Alondra Carmona/Facebook

Alondra laid out her hopes and dreams on the GoFundMe page, explaining that she hoped to study the STEM field at Barnard and, ultimately, pursue an M.D./PhD in medicine.

“I have worked tirelessly to look for programs and opportunities that my small school could not provide,” she wrote. “All of my college savings will go to paying the rent that we are behind on. As much as I dream of going to Barnard College, it is not looking promising right now. I am turning to this as a last resort because Barnard will not be able to change my financial aid package.”

Within days, Alondra had raised $171,000–far more than her original $10,000 goal.

Alondra, for her part, is blown away by the kindness and generosity that complete strangers have shown her. “I am incredibly thankful and crying right now,” she wrote, shortly after her GoFundMe page took off. “I can’t even describe how grateful I am. I have no words. Everyone is so supportive and loving, thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

But above all, Alondra Carmona is grateful to her mother–the person in her life who gave her everything. “I love my mom so much,” Alondra told KHOU. “She really has done so much for us just coming from El Salvador to give us a better chance at a good education. I’m so grateful to her.”

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