From the Bronx to Brandeis

Shelley, whose mom immigrated here from the DR, works hard to get herself into Brandeis. COVID-19 adds to the barriers blocking Shelley from greater opportunity than her mother had.

by Shelley Polanco

My grandparents, my mother, and my four uncles moved to the United States in 1995. They left behind their home in the Dominican Republic with the dream that an American education could take you anywhere. My grandfather could only attend elementary school in the DR, and he wanted more for his children and their children.

My mom was 16 when they arrived here. She knew little English, but her determination carried her to LaGuardia Community College in Queens. Her immigration status, however, made her ineligible for federal assistance, and my grandfather’s humble earnings as a taxi driver couldn’t cover tuition either. After one semester, she had to drop out.

Twelve years later, as a single mother, she returned to college full-time. Since she could not afford child care, she took me with her to evening classes at Lehman College in the Bronx. My mother and I would sit near the front of the classroom, and I’d do my homework. I was 12.

My favorite was her mathematics course that met on Thursdays. When we arrived, the professor greeted me warmly as his “youngest college student.” My mother finished her bachelor’s degree, then went on to get a master’s degree in Human Resources (HR) Management, also from Lehman, in 2017.

Dragging a Debt

It was as if, at age 36, she’d redeemed my entire family’s sacrifice as immigrants. As she walked across the stage with proud tears in her eyes, though, she was silently dragging over $100,000 in student debt. Much of that was used to cover our living expenses as well as tuition.

She was hired as an HR assistant, considering it a temporary position. But despite having a master’s in the field, she’s still there, three years later. And every paycheck goes to bills and student loan payments, which have high interest rates. She can’t get ahead. Nor can she find a bank to give her a mortgage to buy a home, which for her, is another piece of the American Dream.

Nonetheless, she still believes wholeheartedly in the power of education. Her criticism surrounds the price of college and how student loans continue to haunt graduates who don’t come from wealth. Why must college cost so much? Why can’t it be free?

After she graduated, when I was a freshman in high school, my mom introduced me to our household finances. Together, we sat and pondered what subscriptions were necessary and what we could do without. That’s when I learned just how much my mother owed. We still budget together, and our talks motivated me to apply rigorously for college scholarships. My mother’s college journey made me wonder about mine early on, but, like her, I love learning, and I stayed motivated.

Aiming for More Access

In 8th grade, I began to dream about going to an excellent high school with lots of options and resources; I wanted to make sure I heard about all the programs that my mother could have benefited from.

I made a powerful connection with my guidance counselor, Ms. Delma, and she became my mentor. She pushed me to take the high school application process seriously. During lunch in 8th grade, I sat in her cubicle and pored over the big high school book. When I got to The Beacon School, I fell in love with the pictures of colorful hallways and the fine art studios and math classes. I couldn’t believe that I could explore photography, dance, and music while taking core academic classes.

Beacon’s application process was complex, but with the help of Ms. Delma at school and my mother at home, I compiled an application portfolio of essays and test scores. Six weeks later, I was invited in for an interview that turned out to be a group interview. My interviewer had a poker face, and I assumed the worst.

But I got in. On my first day as a student, I already had my eyes peeled for help with my college application process. The Beacon School had more than 1,500 students, but only a handful of guidance counselors. Once I met my guidance counselor, I quickly realized that Beacon provided scarce support for first generation and low-income students; their majority White student population did not demand it.

I quickly shifted gears and began to search within my own small community of other low-income freshmen, and discovered a handful of college-access programs that were still accepting applications. That fall, I spent my afternoons in my advisor’s room, printing applications and practicing for interviews.

Uncovering Injustice

After sending in an application and interviewing, I earned a spot in a college readiness program called Minds Matter for academically promising low-income students. Throughout high school, I spent every Saturday taking SAT prep courses, writing workshops, and bonding with my two mentors. Minds Matter plugged me into an extended community of 80 high school students from across the city and dozens of New York City professionals who volunteered to guide us. This program gave me access to networking opportunities and provided every mentee a paid summer program. The summer before my senior year, I spent two weeks at Harvard, studying the art and science of memory.

Minds Matter had us read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. As a group, we sat around a large wooden table and discussed the death penalty and the sad reality of how many people of color are incarcerated. I became fascinated by the mass incarceration crisis in this country and wanted to do something to solve it. I was especially disturbed by our societal need to punish.

During my senior year, I discovered that I really needed the Minds Matter community. My school-appointed guidance counselor shook her head when she saw my college list and said, “Too many Ivy League colleges. You need to apply to more SUNY and CUNY schools—affordable options.”

I have nothing against those schools, but I didn’t want to be limited to local public colleges only. When I told my Minds Matter college counselor what my counselor said, she reassured me that no school was out of reach for me and that I could get need-based aid. So I ignored my counselor’s discouraging advice and kept my sights high. And my mom and I went to work.

I scrolled through my contacts and called every person I knew who could help, as my mom Googled and did internet dives to find answers. I took advantage of my free morning period and was the first at my guidance counselor’s door. By December 31 of senior year, all my applications were in.

While we waited to hear back from colleges, I felt a divide between myself and most of the other seniors at Beacon. There was little chatter in the hallways about how they would finance their college education. Instead, they complained about how far their campus was from their vacation home or how inconvenient it was that first-years couldn’t have cars.

Proud, but Guilty Too

I was accepted to 13 colleges, but chose Brandeis University, partly because it has one of the best neuroscience programs in the country. Sparked by the discussions of Just Mercy, I want to make prisons a rehabilitative space. Neuroscience can help me scientifically explore why leaders and decision makers believe prison must punish and hurt. I can also conduct research on the detrimental effects of incarceration on the brain and body, and how that damage leads to recidivism. I hope to combine political science with neuroscience to better understand the failings of our criminal justice system and help transform it.

Brandeis also provided the most financial aid. I still need to cover several thousand dollars every semester, but luckily, Brandeis has flexible payment plans and many work study opportunities. I won’t have to go too far into debt.

I’ve worked hard and gained a lot of success so far. I want to believe that hard work always leads to success, but my mother worked really hard too, and she’s an assistant barely getting by with a lot of debt.

Lately my mom and I have been talking a lot about what classes I should take. As she looked at my list of potential courses recently, she smiled and got teary-eyed. She told me that she was glad I didn’t feel like I had to get a degree in a practical field like Human Resources.

“You’re not under the same pressure I was. Your life is different because you have so many things. You have me.” It was bittersweet to hear that because of her sacrifice, I could go further than her.

I know I’m in a better place than my mom was both times she started college. In many ways, I feel lucky to be moving upward and to be headed to a prestigious private university. Even as I hope that gives me more options than my mom had, I feel guilty comparing my life to hers.

And the prospect of life at Brandeis is daunting. Though I haven’t met my future classmates, my group chats with students there show that my financial struggles will be understood by few. In the general chat, people post pictures of their pets and their Brandeis gear. Meanwhile, in a smaller chat of incoming students of color, we wonder how we’ll wash our curly hair in shared bathrooms, and worry about how few of us there are in our freshman class.

COVID-19 Stalls My Progress

COVID-19 brings bigger worries. Brandeis is allowing students to move into dorms reconfigured to allow social distancing, and everyone must quarantine for two weeks before class. There won’t be dining halls; instead, meals will be delivered to the dorms, and students are discouraged from leaving campus during the semester. After Thanksgiving break, all students will finish the semester from home.

Partly to be safe and partly to save money, I’ll spend my first semester of college as a remote student, staying with my mom in our NYCHA apartment in the Bronx, instead of a dorm in a Boston suburb. Even though I worry about fitting in, I’m sad to miss the social aspect of dorm life and the opportunity to be more independent.

Staying home also means less access to a community of advocates. College is the last safe place to soak up knowledge and explore before I’m thrust into the real world. From behind my laptop, how will I form connections with professors or plug into the career center?

Admission to Brandeis gives me access to a social ladder—the American Dream of mobility-through-education that my grandfather immigrated here for. Despite how far I’ve already gotten, I worry that starting college from home might hinder me from climbing further than my mother was able to.

My grandfather could only attend elementary school in the DR, and he wanted more for his children and their children.
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