Growing up, I always knew that I needed to go to college. As a low-income, first-generation Black woman with immigrant parents, I figured it was my best chance. However, it wasn’t until I began my senior year that I’d seriously thought about where I would end up after I got my high school diploma. Following graduation, students from my high school usually went straight into the workforce or to a nearby college. Faculty rarely discussed out-of-state options.
I can pinpoint the exact moment attending an Ivy League institution ever crossed my mind. My school’s college advisor set up a meeting with the top ten of the senior class to talk about college plans. She invited a college admissions counselor to discuss what elite institutions each of us had a chance of getting into. One by one, he asked us our academic standing, GPA, and test scores. At my turn, he suggested that I apply to some Ivy League schools and that I would have a good chance of getting into Cornell.
I honestly did not know much about the Ivy League at all but I listened and applied. I didn’t think much would come from it. When I received my acceptance letter early and an all-expenses-paid trip to visit Cornell for their diversity hosting month I had to call to confirm. It almost seemed too good to be true.
My first trip to Cornell during diversity hosting served as a preview to my next few years at the institution. Being from South Florida, I had become accustomed to a wide variety of cultures and identities, and I knew my experience at a primarily white institution like Cornell would be drastically different. However, I was taken aback when I discovered I was the only Black student in my diversity hosting group and most of the activities we attended. I brushed it off.
This university was top 20 in the country, would cost me virtually nothing to attend and was close to extended family, it would change my life for the better, and I had to stay positive. I accepted my offer and looked forward to matriculating in the fall of 2016.
First few years were tough…
My first couple of years at Cornell were certainly the most challenging both socially and academically. I was constantly reminded of how I differed from my peers and how isolating the campus could be for Black students. Daily, I would overhear my classmates bond over their Westchester private school educations and experiences backpacking across Europe before college. They hardly acknowledged me in these conversations, it must’ve been clear to them that I did not relate. It was not uncommon for white peers to ignore my existence completely in most settings. Experiences such as these began to take a toll on my mental health and I spent most of those years being as reserved as possible.
Those first two years I also struggled significantly in my classes. The workload was overwhelming. The auditorium sized lecture halls with hundreds of students packed in made me feel so insignificant. I had not grown accustomed to speaking up in academic settings and challenging figures of authority. I wasn’t aware that students regularly attended office hours for assistance, asked professors for assignment regrades when they felt their work was marked unfairly, and requested extensions when they were overwhelmed. And for a long time I was too proud (and fearful) to admit that I was struggling, so I suffered in silence.
Finally found my space
It wasn’t until the end of my sophomore year that I finally began to find my place at Cornell. I started to use the resources around me to understand why I was feeling so excluded. I began opening up to my peers and advisors in the Black community and got more involved on campus. My experiences were not unique. Nearly everyone was struggling in some capacity and felt ostracized. I found comfort in the safe spaces created for students like me who endured similar obstacles and Cornell’s campus.
I learned how to better manage my workload, and confidently advocate for myself in the classroom and the professional world. I’m not sure how I would have finished without the support system I acquired. These friends, connections, and University resources helped me to find a way to navigate through this new and tumultuous world.
Today, as an almost 22-year-old woman at the end of my undergraduate journey, I can fondly reflect on my Ivy League experience despite its significant challenges and I am grateful for all I have gained. I’m about to graduate from Cornell with a GPA above a 3.0 and a job at a top consulting firm. I could have never imagined this four years ago as a shy, first-generation, Black high school senior from South Florida.
I wholeheartedly believe that I made the right decision going to Cornell.