How Being Homeless Helped Me Find A Home In The Ivy League

Estimated reading time ~ 6 min

As I toured my 12-year-old sister, Belén, around New York City, I temporarily forgot about the roller-coaster year I’d had. Belén lives in a trailer park with my father in a low-income, predominantly Latino neighborhood in Moreno Valley, California. While I’m 2,700 miles and many worlds away from her as I pursue my Ph.D. in the history of immigration at Columbia University, there was something about Belén and I walking around the Ivy League campus – the place where I get paid to read about and research the history of immigration and childhood – that struck me. In that moment, we were united in just how far we were from home.

I arrived at Columbia last fall to embark on an academic journey with a few dozen peers. Within weeks of my first semester, I had met children of renowned professors who’ve written textbooks and attorneys who negotiate missile defense agreements for the federal government. Many hold intimidating degrees from world-class institutions such as Oxford, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. And me? Like most of the world outside the bubble of elite higher education, I’m not related to anyone rich or renowned. The closest allegiance I can claim is that my mom, a housekeeper at a fancy hotel on the Las Vegas strip, once cleaned Drake’s suite.

Searching for stability

Ivon baby I was born in East Los Angeles to two then-undocumented immigrants from Guadalajara who came to the U.S. in the 1980s and overstayed their visas before being granted legal residency. As the first person in my extended family to graduate from college in the United States, pursuing higher education has been a bit of a solo journey. That isn’t to say I haven’t had any support, but rather that no one in my family quite understands some of the challenges I feel as a first-generation, low-income graduate student.

After earning my B.A. in history and philosophy from the University of Nevada, Reno and disclosing my plans to stay in school for at least another six years to pursue my PhD, my mother made clear that she thought I’d gone insane. There have been more than a few moments where I thought she was right.

Of course, it’s not atypical for a low-income student attending an elite institution to feel out of place. A recent study found that only three percent of students at 91 of the most competitive colleges in the country come from families in the bottom income quartile, while 72 percent of students at those schools come from the wealthiest 25 percent of families. I have to continue to remind (and convince) myself that I do have many of the skills and qualities needed to succeed at an institution like Columbia.

Growing up, we moved constantly in search of better employment for my parents and to escape workplace raids and threats of deportation. I never felt a sense of permanence in the same school or community, settling somewhere new every two to three years, forced to make friends and find my place again and again.

When I was 16, my parents’ relationship came to an aggressive, life-altering halt. Upon returning to Las Vegas from a statewide speech and debate competition, my mother told me that my father had decided we were no longer welcome in his home. She instructed me to gather as many of our personal belongings as possible before he returned home. I ran upstairs to grab my school binders, textbooks, and play scripts — the tools I knew I would need to survive.

I was in the middle of preparing for the SAT, AP exams, an upcoming school musical, and national debate competitions when I became homeless. These pursuits, not where I would sleep that night or what I would eat, were my immediate concerns. Academics became my escape – the area in my life that I could have some influence over. I made sure to excel, but in many ways, the minute the final school bell rang at 2:15pm, my real education began. To buy a few more hours of stability each day, I got heavily involved in after-school theater, where I created fictional worlds and took on other people’s personas to put off getting in the car with my mother and wondering if another stranger might lend us a couch for the night.

Ivon body image

Learning self-advocacy

Given my circumstances, I know I am supposed to feel grateful to walk through Columbia’s halls every day as a fully-funded doctoral student. And I do. If I’m being honest, though, I spent a lot of my first year of graduate school feeling frustrated and unprepared. I started having (and believing) a recurring nightmare that the admissions office had made a terrible mistake. By October, I felt more alone than I ever have.

My first semester was a period of discomfort, guilt, depression, and culture shock. My peers seemed to arrive programmed to craft historiographical essays and command classroom discussions. I vividly remember a conversation with a student who wondered out loud whether our professors “gave everyone A’s.” I swallowed hard and thought about how, in addition to not getting any A’s, my professor had actually scrawled “ugh” on the front page of the first essay I turned in.

To survive, I reverted back to a mode I thought I had long put to rest, channeling the resilience and coping skills I’d developed while living out of my mother’s car, sleeping on unfamiliar couches, and scrambling to successfully finish high school. Being homeless taught me to be my own advocate. While I didn’t anticipate encountering so much adversity at Columbia, I did arrive conditioned to push through it.

But graduate school can be really miserable and overwhelming, especially if you're entirely unfamiliar with the environment and from an underrepresented background. Grit alone wasn’t going to get me through year one. I learned, sometimes the hard way, about the importance of asking for help. I was lucky to have an amazing advisor – herself a woman of color – who was and has continued to be such a fierce advocate for me. This was critical during the many moments when I encountered resistance and felt dismissed and inadequate. We met for weekly tutorials, and I’d leave wondering what I’d done to deserve her faith and continued mentorship. She helped me realize I was worthy of self-advocacy when I felt like the ultimate imposter and thought I wasn't worth fighting for.

With my advisor’s support, I got to work improving my reading, writing, and research skills. I was, it turned out, capable of staying afloat. Over time, some of the same peers I believed were five miles ahead of me acknowledged and built off of the comments I’d make in class discussions. A peer who used to talk over me told me after a lecture that he thought my contribution that day was “mic-dropping” and even that professor who'd written "ugh" on my first paper changed his tune.

Finding home

I had the opportunity to spend this summer doing research at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in D.C. learning how policies are created and helping to better them. At 22 years old, I can envision a future for myself in which I successfully advocate for migrant children who grew up in families like my own.

I hope we’ll continue to see universities taking action to address underrepresented students’ imposter syndrome. A research project published earlier this summer found that completing a 40-minute set of online exercises messaging that intelligence can be developed and improved actually halved the freshman-year completion gap between low-income and non-low-income students. That’s important, as is the finding that exposing new students to stories of how upperclassman navigated the challenges of campus life can be similarly impactful. A forthcoming study will examine whether the positive effects of this work carry through to students' professional careers. My hypothesis is that they do.

Going into my second year of graduate school, I still sometimes have that dream – the one suggesting that a person like me, who came from tenuous roots, impermanence, and insecurity — is no match for the halls of Columbia. But I wake up to a different reality now: I have the tools I need to be successful, and I'm here to stay.

Images by Luke Cheng

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