You always seem to see and hear about the great things surrounding college: yes, you meet new people, you get to experience new opportunities, and you are finally an adult! It’s all so amazing and exciting, and even if college classes are difficult how bad could it get, right? Adjusting to college life and to new responsibilities, however, is something people don’t really talk about because of shame or discomfort. Change is really hard, and nobody talks in detail about all the personal obstacles and about those moments where you really doubt if you even belong in college.
Talking about their own experiences in college and what they wish they would have known are Ana Espaderos and Maria Mendoza, current undergrad students at Texas A&M and Harvard University, respectively. Their stories are not only inspiring but also refreshing reminders that success never comes easy.
Can you tell us your name, age, and what you identify as.
Ana: My name is Ana Aylin Espaderos, I am a nineteen year old Latina.
Maria: My name is Maria Mendoza, I’m 20, and I’m Cuban-American.
What school do you go to? What year are you in?
A: I currently attend Texas A&M University. This is my second year at A&M, but I will be graduating next spring so I am considered a junior.
M: I’m a sophomore at Harvard University and I live in Quincy House on-campus.
Are you a first generation student?
M: Yes, but I didn’t actually know until I was applying to college. My dad studied fine arts in Havana and my mom studied music, but as I explained this to my guidance counselor in high school, she explained that many school systems abroad, including in Cuba, are run very differently and that I would still be a first generation college student in the U.S. and be starting a very new experience. All this to say, I recommend having an open discussion with your parents and guidance counselor early on to find out what this term means and when it applies and doesn’t apply.
Was the college you’re currently in your first choice? If so, how did you feel when you got accepted? If this was not your first choice, why did you pick it? If you got rejected from your first choice, how did you feel when you found out about the rejection?
A: I’ve dreamed of attending Texas A&M ever since I was in third grade. I was looking at college shirts at HEB and I liked the color maroon so my mom bought me the shirt. At that time, I didn’t really know what college was, but when I got older it kind of just stuck with me and I made it my goal to attend this university.
In high school, I was one of the Posse Finalists and when they asked me to withdraw my application from Texas A&M, I honestly couldn’t do it. It was January and I hadn’t heard back from A&M yet, so I was starting to get worried. I was accepted into all my other universities and I was throwing away a really good scholarship for a school that hadn’t accepted me yet. Some people may think it was crazy, but deep down I knew that I was meant to be an Aggie.
Being at Kerr High school, where it is so competitive to stay in the top percent had caused me so much anxiety. I thought that I had made a huge mistake of choosing Kerr over a traditional high school, where I would be considered in the top 5%. Three weeks after I walked away from a full-tuition scholarship, I FINALLY got my acceptance letter from Texas A&M!! I was crying so much and I still couldn’t believe it. It felt so surreal and I was in denial for a little bit.. I hadn’t received my financial aid packet yet, but I was so quick to accept my spot at A&M. The moment I was waiting for for 17 years had finally comed true. Rejecting school specific scholarships, staying up until midnight when the Apply Texas application opened, and crying about my poor SAT/ACT scores finally paid off. Nothing compares to that moment when I finally got accepted into my dream school.
M: Harvard was my first choice, and after getting in early action, I didn’t apply anywhere else. It felt unreal when I got in, not only because it was my first (and ultimately only) college acceptance, but because of how my entire family reacted. It felt like something that only works out on TV or in the movies, but it was really happening.
Before going into college, what was your impression of it? What did you expect?
A: As a first generation college student, I didn’t really know what to expect out of college. I honestly thought that it was going to be like in the movies where everyone is always partying, drinking, and doing drugs. During one of my first college visits, I actually attended a frat party that looked straight out of a movie. I remember calling my best friend and saying that maybe college wasn’t for me. I was never really the “party” type of person, so I was scared that I wasn’t going to fit in. In some ways, college does feel like a big cliche movie. But as you discover during exam week, college is kind of like high school except you’re broke, in debt, exhausted, and always hungry.
Since Kerr runs like a “college” I thought that I was going to be academically prepared for it. In some ways I was and in other ways I wasn’t. At Kerr, I was so used to figuring things out on my own and not having to go to class. That’s something that I loved about Kerr. When I got to college, it was so different, I actually had to attend lecture. I was forced to sit in a lecture for an hour and a half with people who weren’t even paying attention. All I wanted was to get my assignment, do it, and leave. For four years I managed to escape a traditional lecture because of the way that Kerr ran. So, I had to teach myself how to take notes all over again and focus on what the professor was saying. It may sound easy because all you have to do is sit, listen, and scribble what the professor is saying, but that was not how my brain was structured to think anymore. I was accustomed to looking for the material and interpreting my own way.It was torture for me because I thought that I was back in middle school where information is simplified so all students understand. There were a lot of things that didn’t turn out exactly like I thought.
M: Honestly, I was pretty unrealistic. I thought everything would be perfect when I moved in on my first day, and I expected to feel the way I always did in school––that as long as I worked hard, everything would fall in place.
What was the biggest shock you had once you stepped foot on campus? Was there a moment you felt let down based off of your expectations? Did you ever feel the need to transfer?
A: The biggest shock, for me, was that there are so many white people. In Alief [district], you are exposed to so much diversity. The sad reality is that there aren’t a lot of places like Alief. I also had to take into consideration that I was attending a conservative PWI. Nevertheless, the first couple of months, I was on cloud nine. I was so blinded by my love for A&M, that I didn’t really pick up on some things that made me unhappy.
Around January-March, I started to open my eyes a little and that’s when disappointment hit me. In movies, you always see how someone goes off to college and they become best friends with their roommate. They end up being bridesmaids for one another and are friends forever (LITERALLY). That wasn’t the case for me. That was truly my biggest let down my freshman year. My secret expectation was that I was going to become best friends with my roommate, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. My roommate and I were friends for the first part of the semester, but we were always together that we eventually got tired of one another. My roommate was Mexican and was very proud of her heritage. My family is from Guatemala and I love/embrace that. However, my family has been in the United States for more time than my roommate’s family so she always put that over my head as if it was a negative thing. I love being American, but I never forget where I came from. She always claimed that I was whitewashed and made me feel like I wasn’t “Hispanic enough.” The fact that my family spoke English with one another instead of just Spanish was seen as a negative quality to my roommate. I saw it as a sign of progress. Even though my family spoke English, we were all bilingual and could speak Spanish fluently whenever we needed to. When my family came to the United States, they were ridiculed for not having perfect English,that’s why it was important for me to be good at English. I still don’t think that being bilingual is anything to be ashamed about. I even faced this same problem with my white friends. Whenever I get super excited about anything, I start speaking Spanglish and I can feel the white people getting triggered by it. I see myself having to prove that just because I’m tan, doesn’t mean that I am less than they are. They may not even think it, but society has made me feel like I need to validate my worth simply because of the color of my skin. So when my roommate (a fellow Latina) made me feel like I wasn’t enough as a Latina, I felt even more frustrated with myself. I will never understand why she always tried to make me feel less than she was, but after that I knew that my dream of having my roommate as my best friend was dead. The truth is that you only share a room with your roommate, so that doesn’t mean that you guys have to be best friends. It would be nice, but that’s not always the case. Since then, I’ve had other roommates but I still haven’t found a roommate who I would want in my life forever.
My freshman year, I was struggling a lot with letting go of high school. I was also set to believe that I was going to meet the love of my life in college. I always thought that I HAD to meet the love of my life my freshman year or I was going to be single for the rest of my life. Movies made me believe that I would find the perfect guy in the library, in my lecture, or at a football game. Movies also brainwashed me into thinking that you had to go to college with a clean slate, that is NOT true. Just because you still talk to your high school friends/boyfriends/girlfriends that doesn’t mean that something is wrong with you. When I was in high school, I was dating my best friend and I was so stuck with the idea that I had to go to college without any “strings attached” or any “baggage” from high school. Whoever put that idea in my head is complete garbage because going to college doesn’t meant that you have to change who you are. Everyone claims that when you go to college you have to discover who you are and they pressure you into thinking that you change yourself in order to “find yourself.” When I hear people say this I always roll my eyes because of how stupid that advice is and because of how stupid I was to actually believe it. If you are happy with who you are, you don’t have to go to a different school to find yourself. By the time we get to college, most of us know who we are or at least who we want to be. We don’t have to go through different phases to achieve this.
Although my time at A&M has been amazing, there are still a few things I would’ve changed. But my changes would’ve started in high school. There were many times that I wanted to transfer and I think that it is completely normal. I was attending my DREAM school, so there’s no way that I could leave right?? Wrong. I was only two hours away from home, but there were many times when I thought about transferring to the University of Houston to be closer to my friends and family. I was also depressed because the concept of going to college without any “high school baggage” meant that I let go of my boyfriend and best friend, which is totally ridiculous now that I think about it. After a year of getting out of that sad spot, I think it’s important for people to know that going to college doesn’t mean cutting ties with your childhood friends or to the boy/girl you are currently dating. Sure, those relationships may die out eventually, but let it happen naturally and don’t be so quick to cut those ties. You will make a lot of friends in college and sometimes your friends back home will feel like you don’t care about them anymore, so make them feel loved. It feels so refreshing to call your friends back home after a long day of hell. The truth is that most of those friends will still be there for you when you come back home for the holidays, SO DON’T BE SO QUICK TO CUT THEM OFF!! If it happens naturally, then that is out of your control. But, don’t be fooled, just because you are moving on with your life that doesn’t meant that you have to leave the people who have always been there for you behind.
M: When I got to Harvard, part of what struck me was the new culture. I went to high school in a place where most people were more well-off than my family, so I thought I was used to seeing all of the expensive clothes and styles. But Harvard seemed like it was that experience magnified. Everywhere I looked, the main pieces that people wore were things I didn’t own or had never heard of. I still loved the campus, my dorm, and my roommate, but it was a bit of an adjustment being immersed in that culture.
Think back to your darkest moment during your freshman year when you felt hopeless or completely discouraged. What was it? What caused you to feel that way?
A: Aside from all the boy, roommate, and friendship drama, there was only one thing that truly shattered my freshman year. In October, my aunt Alicia passed away. She was like a mother to me and my best friend who i could tell anything to. I crashed my car during the football game against Alabama. I had just come back from seeing Yo-Yo Ma perform in San Antonio. This was my first accident so I didn’t know what to do. I called my mom and she didn’t really seem to care. My parents have always made me feel like I was the most important thing in the universe to them, so when their calls were short and dull I was very concerned. After three days of short calls and dull conversations, I was starting to get angry. What was so important that my parents/family members couldn’t help me during my car accident? My mom knew that my roommate was on a trip so she didn’t want me to be alone when I finally heard the news. It was around mid-term season so no one wanted to tell me because once I knew, there was no way that I could unhear it or unfeel the emotions that I had. My mom called one of my friends who lived in College Station and I was very surprised to see her. I was very confused and I was starting to get scared and that’s when my world changed forever. My mom told me that someone found my aunt on the floor of her apartment where no one knew how long she was down for. She could no longer talk, move, or do anything. They told me that they weren’t sure if she was going to make it and that’s when I felt my stomach drop. Here I was, enjoying a football game, getting angry at my family for ignoring me, and thinking that everything was okay. But the truth was that nothing was okay. Everything finally made sense, but at the same time it didn’t. I couldn’t focus on my midterms and I was so helpless for the rest of the week. I was crying all the time and I couldn’t study for my exams without breaking down into a panic attack. My best friend didn’t talk to me anymore, my family was busy at the hospital, and I didn’t feel comfortable enough with my college station friends to share my pain with them. I never felt more alone in my life. My mother picked me up that Friday after my last class. It was two weeks after they found my aunt on the floor and I was the only one who hadn’t seen her in the hospital yet. I was the last person in the room with her. I had fifteen minutes to talk, sing, and hold her hand before she passed away. I could feel her warm hand growing cold and that’s when my depression really hit me.
M: My first night on campus, I was absolutely devastated. I’m really close with my family, and I had spent nearly every day of the summer with my little brother. When they left, I felt like I didn’t really know anybody, and was put off by some of the personalities I had encountered on my first day of orientation. Part of it was feeling intimidated socially, and like I didn’t really fit in with the norm at Harvard––the people wearing all the same clothes, who already knew each other, and spent hours discussing all the different places they had traveled to that summer. That night, I felt completely alone and just wanted to be back home.
Knowing what you do now, if you could have given advice to your younger self during that moment, what would you have told yourself?
A: My aunt’s death added to the fuel of me wanting to transfer to UH. My aunt’s death made me very homesick and I was constantly driving back to Houston (every weekend) because I didn’t want to miss important moments with my family. No one wanted to look me in the eye or call me about what happened to my aunt because they thought that I was too busy chasing my dream or that I was already overwhelmed with. They kept defending their silence by saying that she wouldn’t have wanted me to be distracted from my exams over something that I couldn’t even help with. It made me feel so useless and like an outsider in my own family. Whenever I think of dropping out of school, I always think back to when my aunt would sit with me in my bed while I was studying and how she would say that if anyone in the family was going to make it, it was going to be me. She was also very supportive of my dreams and I knew that the last thing in the world that I should do is transfer out of A&M. I had worked so hard to get there and nothing I would do could bring her back. Leaving home to chase your dreams becomes so difficult when your family doesn’t keep you in the loop of things. I might only be two hours away from home, but there are some things that my family hides from me because they know that I will get stressed over it and that it would affect my role as a student. As a person who likes to be kept in the loop and who is very protective over their family, it makes me feel terrible that my family felt the need to keep this from me. I would like to think that I would’ve handled the news well, but I was a mess. I had to Q-drop some classes and I had to work twice as hard to recover and keep my 4.0. Although I was excelling academically, I was dying emotionally. Now that I’m in a better place, I’m so glad that I didn’t actually transfer from A&M. I’m in a much better place with stronger friendships and genuine happiness. When you’re in that dark spot, when you’re feeling homesick, and when everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong, it’s so easy to jump to a quick solution, but that may not always be the best solution. Although UH is a wonderful university, it is not the one where I am destined to be at. God has opened so many doors for me at A&M and I have had a lot of opportunities as an Aggie that I wouldn’t change for the world. Therefore, I think it is so important to let time pass before making any rash decisions. Things may look bad today, but they will be better tomorrow. The truth is that everyone in college is on the same boat. We are all missing our families, we all want to make friends, and we all want to be successful, so don’t be afraid to approach people and befriend them.
M: I would have probably reminded myself that most people feel that way when they’re going through a big adjustment. It’s totally natural and there’s no shame in it.
How did you find your community on campus? Was it hard? And how long did it take you to do so?
A: I didn’t really find my community on campus until this year. I was involved in a lot of great organizations but I never felt like it was something I was in love with. I hated the business classes I took, I hated my major, and I hated my organizations. If you looked at my instagram or Facebook, you’d think I was lying to you right now because all of those pictures showcased me as a happy person. During the day I was hyping myself up and having “fun” at A&M, but at night I was crying myself to sleep because I didn’t know why I was so unhappy. I would see all of my friends back home having fun together and that could’ve been me too, but I decided to move away from home. I remember that I was starting to grow resentful towards my friends because I felt like I was getting left behind. I slowly started to detach myself from friends that I had since I moved to Alief and that caused me to feel so angry towards people.
I changed my major three times my freshman year and it wasn’t until my sophomore year that I finally found where I was supposed to be. Sophomore year is also the year where I found my people. Going to a PWI is difficult when you want to connect to people who think and look like you. I never thought that I would meet my best friend while studying abroad, but I did. It wasn’t until I went to Germany that I met Mariana and finally found the Hispanic friend that I really needed in College Station. With Mariana I felt right at home because I could talk Spanish with her, we could discuss the struggles of being Latina in a white world, and it was nice to cook traditional Latin meals with someone who genuinely enjoys it (not just tacos and margaritas from Tex-Mex restaurants). Since Mariana is a Spanish major, she was immediately inside the Hispanic circles at A&M. Unfortunately for me, my major wasn’t crowded with Latinxs, so it wasn’t until I met Mariana that I started to surround myself with Latinxs.
Once I started to get leadership positions within my organizations, I started to feel like I was getting my groove back. During an officer retreat, I grew a closer bond with people in my organization whom I didn’t feel comfortable with all freshman year. Since that retreat where we stayed up all night waiting for paint to dry and ordered pizza at our Director’s apartment, we have become inseparable.I was finally befriending people who I spent all year avoiding because our personalities crashed as timid freshmen. When I look back at my freshman year, I realize that the friendships that I have now would not have worked back then. My freshman year was all about me trying to let go off my past and trying to adjust to my new life in a different city with people I’ve never met before. None of my childhood friends came to A&M and I didn’t really know anyone when I came here, so it took a while for me to finally go out and look for friends. Something that my professor told me (that has stuck with me) is that everyone is on the same boat. We are all lonely and we are all missing our “home” so we should try to befriend people to make the pain feel less painful. As silly as it may sound, I am happy that I finally found the people who make College Station feel like my home away from home.
M: On campus, I dove right into things that I knew I enjoyed from high school. In high school, I found comfort in organizations where I could put in a lot of work and distinguish myself. So on campus, I joined Model Congress, Mock Trial, and the Institute of Politics. It took some time to get into each organization, but I loved preparing for applications, interviews, and tryouts. It felt good to accomplish that myself, and I learned about how much I had in common with my fellow team members and colleagues.
Did you ever experience impostor syndrome? Elaborate on that feeling.
A: I do think that I experienced impostor syndrome. With social media it is so easy to portray your life one way when it is really a different way. If you look at my Instagram you can see a happy Ana that is always traveling, going to concerts and football games, and living life to the fullest. That is all true. I did travel to Costa Rica and Germany, I did splurge on concerts, and I did try new things. Was I happy? Absolutely. But is that all my life was? No. Sure, you can see pictures of me enjoying a Kanye West concert, but what is not pictured is me crying the next day when I have to tell my siblings goodbye because I have to drive back to college station. You can see me cheering on my Aggies at a football game, but what you don’t see is the car accident that I was in the previous day. It is so easy to highlight the good parts of my life because that’s what everyone wants to see. No one really wants to see the low parts of your life because it just reminds us of our own problems.Although I had an awesome freshman year, I felt like I was living it up in College Station in order to assure my mom that moving away was a good decision. I didn’t want my younger siblings to know that sometimes college is miserable. I wanted to put up this fake wall that only highlighted my good days, in order to forget that sometimes my life wasn’t that great. Now that I look back towards my freshman year I feel like I was floating through my life. I was having the picture-perfect life, but I wasn’t living in the moment. I was so concerned with making sure I looked happy so that my parents and siblings would feel accomplished that they had someone in college who was thriving, but my heart wasn’t in the right place. Sometimes I felt like I was living for them, instead of for myself, and that was unfair to my mental state. There is so much pressure on first generation students to be successful because we feel like we owe it to the sacrifices our parents have made, and for me that meant sacrificing my happiness and mental state. I had to fake it till I made it. So although I do love the way that my life has turned out and even though I am grateful for all the experiences I have had, I do believe that some moments in my freshman year were to prove that nothing my family sacrificed was done in vain.
M: For sure. For most of my freshman year, I felt like I was surrounded by wealthy people with well-connected families, and that I didn’t really have a place at Harvard. But it’s all about keeping it in perspective. In my first year at Harvard, I felt like I grew more than I ever had in high school. I decided I didn’t want to let my own insecurities stop me from reaching my goals at Harvard.
If you could re-do a decision you made as a freshman, what would it be and how would you have done it differently?
A: If I could re-do a decision, it would be to stop being so hard on myself and to stop beating myself up for my mistakes. All my life I have punished myself for things that are out of my control. The reason why my parents were never hard on me is because they knew that I was my biggest critic. I spent most of my freshman year locked in the library trying to study and maintain my 4.0, When I got my first B in the spring, I was devastated and I felt like my life was over. Newsflash: it wasn’t and I had to get over myself. I was trying so hard to maintain a picture perfect GPA and resume to impress people, but the truth is that no one cares. Sure, GPA and your resume DO matter, but it is not the most important thing in the world. What I have learned is that people care more about how you present yourself in job interviews and your network truly is what helps you in the job market. You can be the perfect applicant, but charisma really is what gets you far. It is not enough to be the paper-perfect applicant. I wish that I would’ve admitted that to myself so that I would’ve enjoyed my freshman year more. Once I realized that it was okay to get a B once in while, I felt like I could breathe again. Although it is important to maintain good grades and build up your resume, your well-being is more important. Take a moment to really enjoy the moment, go out with friends, or watch a movie and relax because you don’t want to look back to your college career and think that all you did was study in a library. Try to find the balance between taking care of your grades and enjoying your time as a college student.
M: I would have asked for help when I needed it! There are so many support systems at every university (free tutoring, helpful books, etc.), and it doesn’t make sense to bypass them because of one’s own pride. I felt like I had to figure it all out by myself at Harvard, but the truth was I could have just gone out and looked for help with some of my classes.
What is the biggest thing you were shocked to have learned about yourself in college? Do you think you are currently the person you envisioned to be before your first year?
M: I learned that being independent doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help. I think I’m the same person I was back in high school and even last year when I felt a bit intimidated by Harvard––I’ve just picked up some useful tools along the way.
What do you wish somebody would have told you? What is something you wish you would have known before going into college?
A: Study Abroad!! If there is anything I learned from my time at A&M it is that it is important to study abroad. I have traveled to Costa Rica and Germany, and next fall I will be traveling to Spain for three months. It is true that once you start traveling, you may never stop. I am the kind of person that jumps into any new opportunity, no matter how scary it may be. I had no background in marine biology, but I enrolled in a research program in Costa Rica that had to do with sea turtles. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Despite the two hour hike, the lack of A/C and inter service, and the scorpions and jaguars that lingered around the beach house, I would not change my memories from Costa Rica for anything in the world. Not only did I embrace my adventurous side, but I really did make a difference in the research project. Part of my responsibility was to walk back and forth from each end of the beach from 7pm to 4am in search for turtles who are laying their eggs. We had the opportunity to release over 300 baby hatchlings into the ocean which is really rare in that side of the beach.The Nancite Beach Sea Turtle Conservation volunteer project was the most physically and mentally challenging thing that I’ve ever done. Not being able to contact your family for a month and not being to interact with people (we were four hours away from civilization) can really drive a person insane. Yet, the satisfaction you get when you save baby hatchlings from burning up and cleaning up the beach so that the turtles can have a safe place to give birth is a rewarding feeling. My study abroad in Costa Rica experience was completely different from my study abroad experience in Germany. Although they were polar opposite experiences, they were both amazing. Each culture has left a footprint in my life and I am excited to see what Spain has in store for me. I highly recommend that college students should study abroad while they can! It is not something that you will regret!
M: I wish I would have known that putting in time to ensure you are making friends and building a community in college isn’t a bad thing or an example of procrastination. You should prioritize it and make sure college is a place where you are happy and can be yourself.