Graduates of multicultural colleges gain far more than what they are taught in class. This is evident in classrooms, dorms, and the campus at large. Their stories illustrate the crucial role college can play in students’ growth and enhanced world-view.
Yahira Cruz, University of Chicago
A self-described “nerd,” Yahira cheerfully admits she displayed all the stereotypes associated with that word from an early age—“way more interested in devouring books than playing sports.”
When her parents moved to the Bronx in New York City from Puerto Rico, Yahira was five years old and didn’t speak a word of English. By the third grade, though, she was fluent.
“I was the kid that surpassed the yearly required reading list, the one whose name was followed with a constellation of stars for good behavior, the kind of student teachers love—but also the kind that gets mercilessly teased for being a geek.”
By the time she got to high school, Yahira discovered she craved an intellectual life. “I remember senior year of high school, as other girls frantically searched for the perfect prom dress, I was writing and rewriting college essays. I don’t think I even thought about prom until two weeks before the actual date, much to my mother’s chagrin!”
Yahira decided to attend the University of Chicago (UC) because she felt that was a place where she would fit in, a college with a sense of community and “a nerd’s paradise.”
But at first there were social and intellectual adjustments. “Coming from an environment where everyone looked like me, spoke the same language, and had a similar family composition, it was tough to adjust myself to being the only person of color in a classroom. I was also having a hard time adjusting to the academic rigor of the University. I was not used to having to study, so first quarter was full of growing pains.”
Outside of class, Yahira was very active in the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA)—so active that it became her second home and helped her settle into student life. As in high school, Yahira was an activist on campus, serving on the OMSA advisory board and joining the Lambda Theta Alpha Latina sorority.
Yahira feels UC was great preparation for entering the world. “ I’m much more willing now to try things outside of my comfort zone, whether it’s food or travel. At UC I met people from all over the world, and I was able to gain perspective that I would have otherwise never learned. These days I’m more accepting of differences in thoughts and ideologies. In fact, I embrace differences in opinion because that creates a dynamic space for discussion. And I’ve learned to embrace the nerd in me.”
After graduating from UC with a B.A. in anthropology in 2013, Yahira joined the human resources department at Citadel LLC in New York City, where she is involved in the hiring and interviewing process.
For others beginning their journey in higher education, Yahira has some advice: “I’d like to reassure any student going through the pain [of the] college application process that there really is a light at the end of the tunnel. In the end, you will be at a school that complements your talents and skills. Stop worrying about what other people think and focus on what’s important to you! You will end up at the place where you need to be."
Joe Rios, Holy Cross College
College was a last-minute choice for Joe. As a student at Concord High School in Elkhart, Indiana, he really didn’t know what he wanted to do.
“I have always been a very hard worker, and I figured that I could do well for myself without going to college. But about a week before college classes started, the pressure I was getting from my parents and my girlfriend made me think twice about my future,” Joe says. “The turning point was when my parents asked me, ‘Do you want to work in a factory for the rest of your life like we do?’ That question made me get my act together, and within a week I had taken all the placement exams for college and signed up for classes.”
A Mexican American, Joe took advantage of the international trips Holy Cross College offered. One trip to India was especially instructive. “We were playing soccer with younger children. When one of them got hurt, it was the hardest thing ever because I wanted to help, but I couldn’t communicate; I couldn’t understand. I felt helpless. At the same time, there were so many happy people, even though most had little except their families. It made me more humble, made me focus on the important things in life.”
After graduating in 2011, Joe went to work with AL-KO AXIS in Elkhart, a parts supplier for RV, industrial, cargo, and commercial trailers. As part of the marketing department, he does most of their design work as well as website development. He also co-owns a ModMex restaurant with his Dad. “Cooking is one of my passions; in fact, I hope one day it will become my full-time job. Right now I work at the restaurant on weekends where I am one of the cooks.”
One of the things he feels strongly about is the importance of helping others. “At ModMex,” he explains, “we always donate as much as we can to those in need. For example, last year we hosted an event for CAPS (Child and Parent Services) and donated 60% of our sales.”
In the future, Joe plans to grow his restaurant and start a food truck business. His dream is to see the restaurant get to the point where his parents can quit their factory jobs and just work at the family business. “I would also love to make it my full-time job but my parents always come first. They have done a great deal for me, and now it’s my turn to help them out.”
Whitney Hu, Coe College
With Irish, Italian, Native American, Korean, and Chinese heritages to draw from, Whitney describes her background as “complicated.” Her father immigrated to “good ol’ California” when he was a teenager. That’s where Whitney was born, but her family moved back and forth throughout her childhood—from California to China to California to Texas and back again! “Let’s just say I’m really good at moving,” she says. But that doesn’t mean Whitney lacked a firm foundation.
“My childhood was rewarding,” she says. “My parents are challenging, supportive, and silly. If I said I wanted to be a painter, my Mom would have an easel, watercolors, and walls in the house for me to paint by the next day. When I decided to join debate, my Dad, who was a big time Fortune 500 sales guy, would coach me during the summer.” Yet, her parents didn’t coddle her through the college search. “I was very proactive, handled everything, and applied to everything by myself,” she says.
Strangely enough, for all her proactive searching, Whitney’s dream school found her. “It was a fluke I actually picked up when my admission counselor at Coe called me, but boy, I’m glad I did. We had a hilarious conversation,” she says. “Iowa was a bit off-radar for me, but after talking to Shannon [and] then visiting some colleges where the staff was super lukewarm to me? I thought, I gotta get to Iowa.”
From then on, she was a Kohawk, loving her approachable, down-to-earth professors and friends from all walks of life. “Coe was fantastic and it was like living with a family—am I tearing up? Maybe—away from my own family,” Whitney says. “Once a Kohawk always a Kohawk.”
For students currently mired in the college search, Whitney has several sage pieces of advice. “Visit on a regular day versus a Preview Day. They pull out all the bells and whistles then; better see the college for what it actually is,” she says. She recommends visiting as many different kinds of schools as you can, looking for trends in what you like along the way. “Find a place where you feel comfortable calling it home for four years.”
An English/creative writing major and recent grad, Whitney spent her senior year in New York City through Coe’s New York Term. “I spent the day interning with Tory Johnson from Good Morning America and at night attending shows, dances, music events, and falling in love with the city.” She fell so thoroughly that she moved there and now works as an account manager for IQPC, a company that coordinates business-related events and training.
As for what she’s most excited about in her future? “Figuring out how to be an adult,” she says impishly. “I bought a mattress the other day. That was huge for me.”