Aug 01, 2015


From New Haven to Harvard: My Unexpected Journey to the Ivy League

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I was born in the Fair Haven neighborhood of New Haven, CT to a Cuban father (Jose) and Puerto Rican mother (Carmen). My large family included six sisters (Rosa, Maria, Roxanne, Nora, Camille, and Elizabeth) and two brothers (Benjamin and Joseph).

Growing Up in the 1980’s

We lived the typical fabulous immigrant life of luxury, including thrice weekly trips to church, squabbles over the few toys we had, and fights with the neighborhood kids whenever they messed with us. The 1980s crack and gang epidemics hit my neighborhood in Fair Haven particularly hard, and so my parents quickly shuttled our family to a nicer neighborhood, which had the added bonus of granting us admission to a better school system.

The first time I stepped into my new school, I was completely overwhelmed. I had never seen so many white kids with name brand clothes and fancy backpacks. I think I was about 7 years old when several of my classmates made it their mission to make it clear that I wasn’t as good as them and didn’t belong in “their world.”

Never one to back down to a challenge, I fought back with my fists and with my mind. I poured myself into my schoolwork, earned good grades, and was chosen to participate in the school district’s Gifted and Talented program. This kept me out of trouble for the next few years, but high school changed everything. I lost interest in school, started hanging out with troublemakers, and developed a serious chip on my shoulder.

Factory Work and Hanging Out on the Streets

High school was a blur, but I somehow managed to graduate on time. I clumsily applied to several colleges, but my grades were so bad that I was rejected from every one of them. Therefore, I did what almost all the men in my family did. I went to work in a factory by day and hung out on the streets at night.

The streets of New Haven were full of trouble, and I managed to find my share. I bounced from one factory job to another for the next several years before my father helped me get a job in the aluminum factory where he worked. I was finally making pretty good money, learning useful job skills such as heavy machine operation, carpentry, and tow-motor driving, and was surrounded by some of the most interesting characters I have ever known.

Many of the guys in the factory were ex-military, followed the news carefully, and had strong opinions. This was a big change from my previous jobs where guys mostly discussed women and sports. I now spent my lunch breaks debating them on politics and current events.

Trying Out College a Third Time

Noticing my zeal for politics and current events, the guys in the factory encouraged me to give college another shot. Even though I had already dropped out of community college twice, I took their advice and went back for my third shot at the prize. This time, I focused on courses like History and Sociology which managed to hold my interest. I did so well that year, I was able to transfer to Southern Connecticut State University, majored in Political Science, and applied to graduate school.

I left the factory after 10 long years with a college degree and a scholarship to study Public Policy at Harvard.

Life at Harvard University

Harvard was a different world. I had never before been around a group of people with such high aspirations. My classmates would regularly talk about their desire to run for high office, create non-profits overseas, and save the world in one way or another. In most cases, I believed that they would actually do what they said they planned to do. They were smart, motivated, and had great support networks. Many came from wealthy and well connected families.

It wasn’t all good at Harvard. When I first arrived, I was suffering from a bad case of culture shock and thought I might drop out.  I dressed like a homeboy from the hood, while many of my classmates wore fancy oxford shirts with crisp, pressed slacks. The party scene was different as well. People at Harvard parties would stand around for hours talking to each other about their accomplishments and goals. I would freeze up and feel awkward at these parties as I felt like my accomplishments couldn’t match those of my peers.

There were also times when I felt like I wasn’t smart enough to keep up with my classes. The amount of reading and tough assignments was staggering. I was used to figuring things out on my own, but at Harvard I couldn’t seem to figure anything out, yet didn’t want to ask my classmates for help. I guess I was afraid they would think I was dumb.

Gaining Confidence and Finding My Place

It took me a couple of months, but I finally started to figure things out at Harvard and began to fit in better. I made friends who I felt like were in my corner, I gained confidence in my classes and started to pick my grades up, and I changed my wardrobe to look more professional.

By the end of my first year, things were going so well I could hardly believe it. I had organized a successful conference for inner-city youth in Boston, partnering Harvard with a public high school. I even managed to get Afeni Shakur (mother of slain rapper Tupac Shakur) to attend. I did very well in my classes and secured a summer internship. I finally felt like I belonged with the rest of the big-shots at Harvard.

Life After Harvard

After my two-year stint at Harvard, I took a job in DC with a government services firm. Less than two years later, I decided to change course and started working in a charter school in Brooklyn and then another in Harlem. I was doing important work and making a difference in the world.

Things were good and got even better when I reconnected with the woman I had dated during my second year at Harvard. She had finished her MBA and MPA at Harvard while I was working in New York. We hadn’t even spoken in eighteen months when we were reunited. It was as if the universe couldn’t stand to see us apart.

I was influenced to blog by that woman (who is now my girlfriend) who happens to be a prolific writer and blogger, and I also drew inspiration from my favorite political blogger, Andrew Sullivan. I’ve seen and learned so much in school, work, and life that I just can’t help but have strong opinions on the direction we should be going to solve our problems as a national and global community.

Next Steps

My blog is my attempt to connect with equally passionate souls in order to share information and ideas. I’m excited about this next chapter in my life and look forward to where this social media movement will take me.

Joshua Garriga is a 2008 graduate of Harvard Kennedy School. He writes daily about politics, travel, and life. Read his thoughts at The Daily Garriga. Follow him on twitter @DailyGarriga.

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Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Dr. Perez-Litwin is the Founder & CEO of ELLA Leadership Institute, a multi-platform professional development organization designed to advance the careers and leadership of women. She's the creative force behind the LATINAS THINK BIG™ national tour, sponsored and live-streamed by Google.

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  1. This is great! I love your honesty. I know this is a story I can personally relate to…growing up poor and the culture shock of higher society…although nowhere near the extremes of Harvard! I can only imagine how intimidating that must have been. What a great story of courage and success! Congrats!

  2. Excellent! These are the type of stories our muchachos need to hear. Thank you Angelica for bringing this new blogger to light. And thank you Jossua for being such an inspiration to our community.

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