“I could never make it there,” they said. “I am just not smart enough,” they explained. Those were some of the comments I heard from students in my high school teacher's Spanish class. I was back in her class after completing my first semester at UC Berkeley to answer questions about college applications and college experiences because as a first-generation college student I know first-hand how intimidating the idea of college can feel. Many of the students in those Spanish classes are students like myself. They are first-generation Americans that usually come from low-income families. We are the students no one expects to make it to a top university like Berkeley. And sadly few of us do because when those around you don’t think you can make it, it becomes easy to see that as the truth. I was in the front of the room answering questions and could see them placing me on a pedestal. They asked me what classes I had taken in high school, my test scores on the SATs and ACTs. They heard my responses and assumed I was smarter than them and that that was why I had been able to persevere through the obstacles many of them were currently facing and come out “on top." All I could say was NOOOOOOO! No, at the “fact” that they were not good enough. No, at the “fact” that they could not succeed. No, at the “fact” that they were not smart enough! But no matter how many times I repeated that they could do it, they did not seem to believe it themselves.
They saw me as the “lucky one” and why shouldn’t they? I had been lucky, lucky to have found a third-grade teacher who believed in me enough to put me in the “smart” classes when I had failed to pass the GATE test. Being in those classes shaped my trajectory. It lead me onto a path in which I found educators who believed in my potential and challenged me to do more. That doesn’t take away from the fact that I spent sleepless nights throughout high school making sure I got that A. My hard work and dedication played a major role into how I made it into the #1 public university in the world but I would not have made it here without those opportunities that many students like myself don’t get. And I know for certain that if more students of color had access to these opportunities and could find more educators like the ones I found, the amount of low-income, first-generation Latinx students in top four-year institutions would rise. These students have the potential, they just need the resources and someone to truly believe in them. Our education system is broken, that’s a fact. Not every student has access to the resources they need and highly-qualified teachers supporting them. Therefore, I ask that we make education in this country our number one priority. It’s not fair to our students of color and/or low-income students, and they should be our number one concern. We cannot be the nation we claim to be without giving all students access to a quality education.
An original version of this post appeared on the SFER blog.
Viviana Martin-Gonzalez is a second-year at UC Berkeley majoring in political economy and is a recruitment captain at University of California, Berkley for Students for Education Reform (SFER).