Take the Pledge

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Meet Vanessa L.

Emp 2689

Vanessa is a graduate of Kathlyn Joy Gilliam with an earned A.A. from Cedar Valley College. As a current sophomore at Southern Methodist University, she studies political communication, Spanish & Latin American studies, and human rights/history. 

I'm always grateful that I always had parents and family members that encouraged me to go to college and pursue a higher education. Though most of them hadn’t lived through it, they understand that a higher education is a key component for success; they’ve always wanted to give me what they never had. 

However, what I didn’t understand until I actually got to college was that other families supported their children in ways that I never had. But it wasn’t that my family didn’t want to support me, they just didn’t know how. This was the case for many of my peers as well, even the ones who didn’t get to go to college. 

"Diversity and equity initiatives start at the top – with campus and faculty leadership, as well as  university boards of directors. They must implement best practices in admissions, and then go beyond that by assisting with student persistence, completion, and mental well-being."

You don’t understand unless you’ve actually lived it. I remember when I was still a senior in high school; it was the Fall semester and many of my friends and I were applying to several colleges. None of us even thought about applying to schools outside of Texas. As potential first-generation college students, moving out of state wasn’t encouraged or allowed by our families because we were still expected to support and provide for our families at home, whether that was through financial support, helping out at home or just staying by their side. The concept of being shipped off to another state away from our families after graduating high school was foreign to us. Many of us were also scared to leave them and everything we had ever known.   

I was definitely scared, but I don’t think I truly realized how scared I was until I actually arrived at Southern Methodist University. My eyes had never seen so many expensive cars; designer handbags and backpacks were all around me. Many of these things I hadn’t even seen in person until I got to SMU. I felt uncomfortable, scared and out of place, but still excited. I mean, who wouldn’t be?

But there were times it was hard to be excited. It took time to find a good group of friends. It wasn’t because people were mean (for the most part). I just couldn’t bond with people I couldn’t relate to and all I wanted was some sense of belonging. That truly is what all freshmen want when they first arrive at their college campus, but first-generation and low-income students crave this sense of belonging so much more because we’re already made to feel different than everyone else before we even get there.  

However, there’s also this idea in the back of our heads that we’re just not allowed to complain about these sorts of things; it’s a privilege to be here in the first place, so why are you complaining?  

But this is about more than just the financial aid and scholarships. It's about more than getting good grades in my classes. Those are the things that brought me to college in the first place, but it takes much more than that to succeed. We need vehicles of support in place that make up for the resources lacking for the non-traditional student, but often times, these issues are ignored or shrugged off. We're told or quickly learn that we have to advocate for ourselves both at home and at school – that if we make the professors and faculty pity us, then they’ll go the extra mile for us and help us out.   

However, the reason there is such a lack of initiative to tackle these issues is because we are the minority population. We must go far beyond diversifying admissions strategies – we must diversify staff, faculty and student leadership roles, as well as develop initiatives to help educate those who don’t identify as the minority. It shouldn’t be our burden to advocate for ourselves and immediately assimilate to the campus culture, otherwise change will never happen. The campus culture needs to make us feel welcome. 

Diversity and equity initiatives start at the top – with campus and faculty leadership, as well as  university boards of directors. They must implement best practices in admissions, and then go beyond that by assisting with student persistence, completion, and mental well-being. They must ask questions like, “Who are we marketing to? What students are we making ourselves accessible to? Are we creating and promoting a culture that is inclusive? Who is being excluded and why?” 

Luckily, as of this year, SMU has launched their Student Persistence and Achievement Programs, which marks the first step in assisting first-generation students with acclimating to campus and utilizing financial, academic and social resources. But this isn’t enough to be an end-all be-all solution; this is just the beginning. Change starts from the inside, and it starts at the top. I’ll be waiting for the day that I can be proud of the work SMU has done in leading diversity and equity initiatives for underrepresented students that go beyond financial aid.

Are you a current or rising Promise Scholar, parent, educator, or administrator? Join Vanessa and share your experience with Dallas County Promise.