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A Latina In Pursuit of Higher Education

Migrating to the United States at the age of five from Mexicali, Baja California has been the greatest gift my parents could have given my siblings and me. My parents came in search of the “American Dream,” a life with financial stability, quality education, and limitless opportunities for our family to flourish in ways Mexico could not provide. My family of four at the time migrated not knowing a single word of English nor having an understanding of American culture. Our arrival marked a new era for our family. We were no longer divided by a border with my father commuting each weekend from the states to see us in Mexicali; we were all finally under the same roof with news of a better life buzzing.

Immigrants accounted for 13.5 percent of the total U.S. population in 2015 and 19.5 million immigrants are Hispanic or Latino, accounting for 45 percent of the entire immigrant population. This often makes me wonder what factors affect a household’s decision to leave behind all that they know to begin a journey of uncertainty and hardship. For my family, the notion of obtaining a quality education was the determinant behind our move. From our arrival, I have been a student of public education. In a public elementary school, I learned English. In a public high school, I found the spark to pursue a postsecondary degree. And, in a public higher education institution, I am making my dreams of becoming an exemplary business woman come true. While I have been fortunate and blessed to be given the opportunity to persist, many others live a different story. Mexican immigrants tend to have lower rates of higher education attainment with only 6 percent holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared  to 29 percent of the total foreign-born populations and 30 percent of U.S.-born populations. Getting an education is a foreign concept for many Latinos, as the means are often not there, especially in rural communities. My parents saw a different life for us that not many couldn’t even dream of back home. They saw us growing as students in an environment that had all the tools and resources needed to achieve academic success.

My path to higher education was everything but simple. During the first few years after we moved, our family faced  the language barrier, which caused difficult times for our household. With 69 percent of Mexican immigrants having limited English proficiency, a simple conversation exchange at the grocery store can turn to disgruntled disagreements, like it did for us. After starting school and learning the language on my own at the age of six, I became my parents personal translator. Whether I was relaying information about our mortgage payments to my mother and or telling the doctor about my father’s symptoms, I was the language broker. The moment I heard, “Vane, que dice esto?” – what does that say – or “dile al muchacho que no quiero eso,” – tell that man I don’t want that – I knew I was on duty. If something got lost in translation, I was responsible for the lack of understanding which pushed me to dominate the language faster for the sake of my household.

After tackling the language barrier, I thought I had all that was necessary to continue my education, but I was wrong. Pursuing higher education was always a matter of “when” and not of “if” within my household, so the encouragement was there, but the resources were not. I was left in a wake of ambiguity, trying desperately to find pieces of the puzzle to figure out my path as a student. While I believe my struggle led to my academic success to date, accessing a quality education should not be that hard, especially for first-generation students like myself.

If lack of resources wasn’t enough to deter education, the gender roles that accompany young Latinas like myself have poisoned my progress. What’s a young Mexicana going to do at the university? Why is she wasting her time going to school instead of marrying young and being someone’s wife? I was fortunate to have found Mrs. Sonia Sanchez-Saenz, my Culinary Arts teacher, who helped shed light on my potential as a not only a student beyond high school, but my role as a Latina within my community. These questions no longer taunt my journey to success. I have been able to live past these gender roles and expectations assumed for women in Latinx cultures and pursue all that I was destined to not accomplish.

Through the years I have realized the support from my parents and their unwavering faith in my potential  fuels my drive and keeps me going when I stumble. While they may not know what is expected of me as a student, they offer the best guidance I could ask for. I do it all for them and for those coming after me, but we still have a lot of work to do as a community. High school dropout rates continue to decline for Latinos, reaching an all time low in 2014, and this is translating into more young people from our community pursuing higher education. In 2014,  35 percent of Hispanics enrolled in college. We are progressing toward becoming educated professionals, but are still significantly trailing our counterparts when it comes to college completion. While our enrollment rates more narrowly trail our white peers (at 35 percent compared to 42 percent respectively), our college completion rate of 15 percent is significantly lower than whites at 41 percent. At the core of our culture is family and the importance of ensuring our household’s stability; however, as a community we can prioritize short-term gains above long-term success, with many students seeking employment instead of education. The best investment is education because it will not only help your own future, but will create a college-going environment and path for future students to follow as they embark on their own journeys. This is what I am choosing to dedicate my struggle to. I am just a Latina doing what I was told I couldn’t do, navigating through the complexities our higher education system welcomes, but instead of giving into the fold, I’m choosing to bring those around me along for the ride, for my success will taste sweeter when my community thrives with me.  

Students, never stop striving for academic success. Use your journey to higher education as a path to learn more about yourself, the things you like and dislike, and most importantly, your passions. Your academic career will only be as great as your mentality toward it, so always keep a positive outlook and remember that hardships build character. Whether you have to stay at school later or study longer than everyone else, focus on your path and everything will fall into place. Never forget, your education is the most important investment and one no one can take away. Keep on believing in yourself and never forget where you come from.


Vanesa Contreras Rodriguez is a Junior attending Arizona State University where she studies Business Entrepreneurship at the W. P. Carey School of Business with a Minor in Spanish from the School of International Letters and Cultures. She is the Communications Scholar for Young Invincibles in Washington, D.C. this summer. Vanesa migrated to the United States at the age of five and has lived in sunny Phoenix, Arizona since. She is interested in pursuing a career that centers around the notion of providing students and their families the necessary resources to achieve a higher education, specifically geared towards increasing attainment rates within Latinx communities in America.

Check out my brother’s perspective