Othanya (center), a Dominican high school student, recently accepted to Columbia University on full scholarship
“La educación es la mejor herencia…” was a phrase Othanya, a 17-year old high school senior, repeatedly heard from her Dominican immigrant parents. Othanya was recently accepted to Columbia University, with a full 4-year scholarship — everything covered, including books and housing.
I sat down for lunch the other day with this amazing young lady. I heard about her when my brother-in-law, the director of a youth program at a community center in northern Manhattan, text messaged me a question Othanya had asked him: “Which college is best? Columbia or Cornell? I have a Dominican student here that got accepted into both, full scholarship.” I was immediately excited for this Latina student, and very impressed by her achievement.
Twenty-five years ago I found myself in her same exact shoes — the daughter of a Dominican immigrant family, raised in Washington Heights, and with the option of Columbia and Cornell with full scholarship. But the similarities between Othanya and I (25 years ago) end there. Othanya lost her mother to cancer last year, leaving her and her 1-year older brother. Her resiliency, resolve and perspective on life is incomparable. She has a strength and a spirit that radiates, and a genuine smile that is peaceful and content.
I wanted to meet with Othanya for many reasons. In particular, I wanted to learn what it takes these days to be a competitive and successful Latino student. As I continue to build a college prep company, I have come to appreciate how powerful students’ stories are. I’m on a mission to fully understand what exactly foster academic success among our Latino youths.
NL: Othanya, what has driven you to be so successful in school?
Othanya: Ever since I can remember, since I was in kindergarten, my parents always, always used to tell me that I needed to study because an education was important for success in life. My mother always reminded us that getting an education was the best way to be independent and not need or depend on anyone else. She would say “La educacion es la mejor herencia…”
NL: What high school are you attending now?
Othanya: I’m in a private Catholic school. My parents would have never been able to afford it, but I applied for and received a scholarship from a social entrepreneur that left funds for underprivileged minority students in Catholic schools.
NL: What do you believe helped you get admitted to these selective colleges?
Othanya: Academics played a small part; it was more the activities I was involved with, and the way I expressed who I was in my college application.
NL: So what types of helpful activities were you involved with?
Othanya: The Liberty Leads Program helped me tremendously. They coached and supported me throughout high school. They helped me get a part-time job at the prestigious Bank Street College, part of Columbia University. They also gave me the opportunity to travel to Brazil for a summer, to learn and volunteer with other students.
I was also part of the Reach Project, where they provide Saturday sessions for the AP test, and reward students financially for scoring a 4 or a 5 on the AP Tests! I also found another program, the Ivy Insider for more academic help. In addition to that, I was part of the YMCA Global Teams, the National Hispanic Youth Project, and I have been the President of the Washington Heights and Inwood Youth Council in my community.
NL: So, you’re the President of the Washington Heights and Inwood Youth Council. What’s their mission?
Othanya: Our main thing is to bring the youth together, to talk to them, and to have an open conversation about their struggles in the community. We want them to know that there is a better way to deal with their struggle, other than doing the wrong things (like drugs, or dropping out of school). So we have workshops and meetings in the community. We partner up with other youth organizations. As President, I have learned to speak in front of people, to lead the meetings and do lots of things.
NL: You are quite a motivated and resourceful young lady…
Othany: (smiling) Yes, I am. I’m always looking for new opportunities…
NL: What has been one of your best experiences so far?
Othanya: Spending a summer in Brazil. That was amazing. I loved meeting new people and getting to know another culture. I learned Portuguese while I was there, and I learned to play soccer.
NL: Do you know what profession you want to go into, after college?
Othanya: I want to become a lawyer. I want to know what my rights are in this country, and help people defend those rights. I plan on majoring in Political Sciences at Columbia.
NL: Something tells me you are going to be an amazing leader…
Othanya: (smiled enthusiastically)
A College Education is the New Latino Family Dream
I firmly believe that completing a college education is the new Latino immigrant dream. Many Latino families came to this country in the 1960’s and 1970’s seeking a better life for their children and hoping to save enough money to buy una casita back in the country. But the dream has evolved. It is time to redefine the dream.
As Latinos, we must recognize the importance of achieving higher education. As we continue to grow in numbers in this country, it is imperative that we raise well-educated children, so they can be prepared to become future leaders.
Preparing your child for college starts today, right now — regardless of your child’s age. If you have questions on how to begin the process, join New Latina’s College Prep Facebook Group, where support parents and students on achieving academic success and college preparation. We have a small group of volunteers ready to help. If you’re interested in volunteering, please join the group!