Congratulations to the winners and honorable mentions of the 2016-17 First Generation College Essay Contest!
Tied for Third Place ($25): Marina Gonzalez, Hidden Treasures
Growing up I had basic support and guidance with simple tasks, comforting tasks that almost become tradition.
I’d sit on the big kitchen chair, now moved to the living room, with my back turned to my mother who was sitting on the couch. She would smoothly comb back my hair, separate three strands and begin braiding the French braid that my arms were too short to create for myself. At my cherry wood desk illuminated gently by a purple lamp, my mother would glance over my shoulder to help me with my math homework. Step by step she would use pointers to help me solve each equation. “See, you got it!” she would say with a smile from cheek to cheek. These were moments that every little girl loves to have with her mother, the simple yet memorable deeds. Moments that were lost before their rhythm began.
I was about nine years old when my mother was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. I was young, but not naïve. I could see the changes in her. My mom changed from being active and involved to becoming weak and fragile. Her skin so pale, yet so soft; the white scarf with colored stars wrapped around her head; the raspy tone in her voice when she spoke.
To say my little tiny heart shattered into a million pieces when I first found out would be a bit too dramatic for my taste. The truth is, I didn’t know how to feel. I was too young to wrap my head around the changes that were about to come. I was in middle school being a good kid, getting good grades and still having playdates with my best friends. I didn’t yet realize how many nights my mother would spend in a hospital bed rather than in her own. I didn’t yet realize how my dad would soon have to learn the mother and father role in one. Instead, I thought about how it would be to not have her around, how she knew my dad couldn’t take care of me and my sister – not like this – how she’d ask me where I wanted to live. If I would be okay moving in with my oldest sister Alicia who was about in her twenties.
But she was still my mother. Still positive, but more distant. I guess I became more distant as well. I didn’t want to seem like a nuisance, so I took on her role. My father couldn’t even make a simple ponytail to save his life. So, I taught myself that French braid I once struggled with and never asked any more questions on my math homework – I could do that myself. I didn’t really have someone to vent to when I was stressed or in need of advice. I relied on myself and that was fine. I was my own support system.
My mother’s positivity shined even at her worst and that is something that has always stayed with me. That’s why being there for others, for my friends, has always been so important to me. I want them to know I’m there for them no matter what. I want to let them know they have someone to talk to who will give great advice and cheerful times. I remember having sleepovers all the time with my group of friends, running wild in the backyard and jumping on the trampoline. Everyone was always cracking jokes, dying of laughter, and we’d all fall asleep in the living room watching movies. Seeing all my friends so happy and full of smiles was my favorite thing, it kept me smiling and made me forget the wretchedness at home. My relationships with my friends were my support. I was able to connect with them like I couldn’t with my parents. Around the same time my mother was diagnosed, my friend’s parents were divorcing. She told me what was going on and I truly felt sorry for her. My parents were working so hard for me and my sister to be happy through this time and her parents were leaving one another. We leaned on each other through both struggles, we kept each other positive and that’s what made it easier. I wanted to be that helping hand for her like she was for me, the way all my friends were for me. Mostly because I know what it’s like to have no one pushing you and the only assistance you have when no one else is there, is your own. I know what it is to not have anyone to talk to about what’s going on in your head, the thoughts running wild. I lost that when my mother’s battle began. And not that it was her fault, she was fighting for her life and I was just building mine.
About three years later when I was twelve, my mother was declared cancer free. She was so determined, and so courageous. She survived the battle. And I survived my childhood.
Tied for Third Place ($25): Anonymous
My reflection in the mirror speaks to me in a way that makes me feel like I don’t fulfill the standards to be considered smart. What does a smart person look like? Upper class, Asian, Caucasian with parents who are engineers, doctors, or lawyers. I do not belong in any of those categories. I came to the United States when I was one, and did not come with much; just my bright purple and pink Dora luggage and my white fluffy stuffed teddy bear. My parents have always told me that they wanted to give me the opportunity to become someone in life, and not have to work twelve hour shifts, six days a week in order to live a stable life. I have always felt that having English as my second language puts me at a disadvantage compared to others whose parents speak and write English.
Recently, however, I found the High School Valedictorian speech made by Larissa Martinez, from Texas, who will be attending Yale in the fall. She spoke for me and eleven million other immigrants in this country who don’t speak about the challenges we face. The way Martinez ended her speech made me realize I can be whomever I want with hard work and dedication. “By sharing my story, I hope to convince all of you that if I were able to break every stereotype based on what I'm classified as Mexican, female, undocumented, first generation, low-income then so can you."
Last year, I was an intern at Yale New Haven Hospital and was fortunate to observe and help in the ER trauma room. “You three come here,” the doctor ordered. I was wearing a yellow gown, latex gloves, and a blue mask. After five seconds of panic, I immediately stood right next to the patient with my two other peers standing next to me. “You grab him from here and on the count of three we are going to turn the patient to his side toward me.” My hands were soaked in blood once I placed them on his shoulder and back. I did not expect to participate in such an intense case with the little experience that I had, but thanks to that physician I realized how much I love the adrenaline of trauma.
During my internship at Yale New Haven Hospital my primary job was to talk to patients in the ER about a program called PRIDE that focuses on the elderly. In many cases, the patients didn’t speak English and when they found out that I spoke Spanish their faces brightened with relief. I was in charge of translating the program’s brochure into Spanish, which was an honor. Never did I imagined that I had the capabilities to make such an impact in people's lives and people like my parents were able to read and comprehend something without confusion.
Over the past year I have learned that being bilingual is a blessing and can open many doors in my future. I decided I want to study nursing, but not general nursing; I want to be a trauma nurse. My experience in the ER showed me how much I love to see a team of people work together to save a life. I admired the trauma nurse, who tries to communicate with patients while they are at their lowest. My contribution in the ER and for PRIDE has made me realize I have something very unique to offer.
The sacrifice my parents made to bring me into this country was enormous and now is my turn to sacrifice sleep, nights out with friends, and everything else that might get in my path to success. My passion for helping others drives me and my recent experiences have shown me that I’m smart in my own way, and the only difference between others and I is a piece of a paper.