Being a First-Generation Latina at Columbia SIPA

Thanks to Karla Henriquez MPA ’19 for this post, in response to a topic submitted by Adam B. Submit your idea for a blog post here.


“I got into Columbia!” I told my mom. She did not quite know what that meant. “Obama graduated from there.”

“Ah que bueno,” she said to me.

But she still did not understand what it meant for a first-generation Latina to be accepted into an Ivy League. And to be honest, neither did I.

I would break down the process of going to grad school into four steps: Goal setting, before applying, the application process, and your time in grad school.  Each have their own different sets of challenges. Let me break down what it meant to apply for grad school as a first-gen:

1) Goal setting: 

Write your goals down and they will manifest. It is a simple step, but one that helped me know what I needed to do to get where I wanted to. My goals were:

  1. Prepare for the GRE
  2. Take the GRE
  3. Apply for Grad School
  4. Move out of California

Those were the goals that got me to where I am today. I wrote them down and worked towards them.

2) Before Applying

While I would like to forget about the GRE, it is an important step in the process. Don’t let that stop you from trying.

One of my friends who was going through her first year of law school told me, “The GRE is just a number. Don’t let that define you, you have so much more to offer than just a number.” I took that to heart and prepared as best as I could for the GRE, but also did not limit my options because of a score.

There are affordable options to prepare for it. One thing that I would recommend is to identify what works for you. If you’re great at working on your own, Magoosh is a great option, it’s affordable and they provide you with a whole schedule you can follow. If you need more structure, a class might be best (that’s what I did, it took me some time to save but it helped me set time aside to dedicate to studying).

To figure out the program that fits more with your goals, I would recommend attending the Idealist graduate fairs . Not only are schools there to answer all your questions, but you can also get a feel of the different programs offered at the schools. Another great thing about fairs and attending a school’s open house is that some schools waive application fees. That can be extremely helpful when application fees can be from $50-100 each.

3) The Application Process

I relied on a lot of my friends for help. While no one in my family had attempted this, I did have mentors from undergrad and friends who had applied to graduate school. I asked them for help reviewing my essays, my applications, for help with recommendation letters, encouragement, etc.

I applied to five schools, each with a very different application process, and I tried to start early and knock them out one at a time. I know that sometimes it’s hard to ask for help, but this is the time that we cannot be shy. Find those around you that are willing and comfortable doing this, you will see that there will be those willing to edit your whole essay and help present your best self. Talk to those that know you, to help you identify those parts of your story and professional experience that you should definitely highlight.

Guess what? I got in… to all of my schools!

It was an exciting time, but then came the time to decide. I relied on friends and family to make this decision again. One big part of this process was also money. I had saved some money from working, but I also asked my family and friends for support. My aunts and cousins helped me plan a fundraiser to get enough to cover my moving expenses and the deposit to come to school. Family and friends came over my Tia’s house one day and bought “Panes Rellenos,” a Salvadoran favorite, to help me raise money for the move. We raised around $2,000 that day and created a GoFundMe to raise more.

4) Grad School

I decided on Columbia SIPA because I felt that it would provide me with the opportunities that I did not have prior to this. While I got a chance to visit during Admitted Students’ Day, I didn’t quite know what to expect when I got here. In my mind, it would be a mix between Gossip Girl and Legally Blonde, where everyone was going to be preppy and question how a girl from a state school made it to Columbia.

I was soooo wrong. While, yes there is some of that, I was also able to find a community of people who I relied on for support and encouragement. Through SIPA Students of Color, I found classmates like me who were also first-generation, who also identified with my immigrant background, and who I did not have to explain myself to. We continued building this community by gathering over the weekends for our Women of Color brunches — a community that continued growing as the year went on.

While sometimes you will find yourself in spaces where people ask a thousand questions about what you did before school (which to be honest gets exhausting really fast), finding a community of women where it was not only about our professional goals but of who we are as people was so refreshing.

Through Columbia’s University Life – First Generation Graduate Student initiative, I was able to attend a panel of first-gen faculty where I not only felt seen, and cried as I never had, but it also felt like validation of what I was feeling. From imposter syndrome to not only doing this for yourself but also bringing your whole family with you, to sometimes not having enough money to pay rent or food — These were all things I had faced.

Going to Columbia was a whole experience, and I am not going to tell you it will be easy. As a first-generation student sometimes it’s hard to ask for help because many times you are the one person your family relies on. When things got really hard I wanted to find a way to solve things on my own, until my mom found out and asked me why I did not ask her for help. She then got my aunts together, everyone pitched in $100 or so and they helped me make sure that I had enough to cover rent.

I always thought, “She has a lot going on, I don’t want to be a burden,” but sometimes you need to let go of those thoughts and ask for help. My biggest recommendation would be to seek and ask for help. It’s okay not to have the answers to everything especially when you are used to having them in the past.

I took advantage of tutoring and the many office hours offered for Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, and Quantitative Analysis. When I did not do that great in my first exam, I spent more hours at the library.

When anxiety and sleepless nights kicked in, I took advantage of the counseling services, with many counselors being available for first-generation students. Other resources I should have taken advantage of were

  • The Food Pantry at Columbia with a mission to reduce food insecurity among students.
  • Emergency funding provided by SIPA’s Office of Student Affairs.

Last Thoughts

Never allow yourself to feel that your first-generation experience is a disadvantage. Many times in class, experiences that either my family or I have gone through were discussed. As policymakers, our unique perspectives bring a valuable point to the conversations. We have lived through things that many just read in case studies, and who is better than the people who have experienced them to solve the issues faced by our communities? I stopped seeing my experience, being a first-generation student, as a disadvantage and instead saw how my lived experience can create more inclusive policies for all.

My mom was excited to come to New York for the first time to celebrate my graduation this May. She said her coworkers all congratulated her because her daughter was graduating from Columbia. She made the trip here and I thanked her because it took her, my tias, and my friends to get me here. From pitching in $20 to help me move or pay rent, to proofreading my essays, to sending me texts of encouragement, I cannot emphasize enough that even though our families might not have a fancy Ivy League degree, they provide their support in other ways.

I hope that if you decide on Columbia, or whichever school you decide to attend, you are surrounded by a community of people who will cheer you and support you along the way.