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Angelica Tello – One mile, Two Worlds: A First Generation College Graduate on Getting To and Through College

This piece first appeared on the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation blog.

Angelica Tello, a Dell Scholars Program graduate, is a PhD candidate at The University of Texas at San Antonio. The oldest of three siblings, she grew up in Austin, Texas, just across the freeway from the University of Texas’ flagship school. Angelica recently told us about her experience as a first generation college student, and about what it takes for students like her to find their way through school.

What’s college?

It’s a really strange thing to think about, but going through elementary and middle school, I didn’t really even know that college existed. For my parents, who didn’t have high school diplomas, the idea was that you were going to graduate from high school. That was the idea at the schools I attended, too.

It wasn’t until my freshman year in high school that I got a letter in class that said, “Are you interested in going to college or university?” The letter was inviting me to join AVID — Advancement via Individual Determination. It’s a college preparatory program. I really didn’t know what that meant.

So I took the letter home, and I thought about it, and finally I asked one of my aunts about what college and university were. She tried to explain to me, but she didn’t have a clear understanding either; she just knew that it was after high school. My next step was to talk a teacher. She told me that she thought I should join AVID; she thought it would be a good opportunity. I had to interview and get accepted, which I did. It was through AVID that I learned about getting an undergraduate degree, and about the opportunities that attending college makes available.  

A phone call makes a difference

When I was an undergrad, the first semester was really hard. A lot of it was just sense of belonging. It was a huge campus. I became really aware of class differences. I struggled a lot and began to wonder, “Do I even belong here?” Then, because I was a Dell Scholar, I got a phone call just to talk about how I was doing. That made me realize that someone cared about my success, and knew that I had the potential to do great things, and wanted to support me. It felt genuine.

My second semester as an undergrad was a turning point. I was in an American studies class. It was a big lecture class, 300 students. We read a book every week and discussed it. One week we read Manchild in the Promised Land. It’s by a man who shared his experience about growing up in a very low-income neighborhood in Harlem in the 1940s and ’50s. I loved that book. In our next class, the professor asked, “Do you think that kids still experience these things: growing up in low-income areas, struggling with getting access to education, overcoming barriers that can make it difficult to get out of that situation?”  And a lot of students had very strong things to say like, “I don’t think that exists anymore; that was so long ago. I don’t think students have to struggle with finding meals.”

Finding a voice and navigating a path

So I raised my hand. I didn’t share all my whole life story, but I did share that my experience of living just across the freeway from the university, and growing up in a low-income community where students still struggle with getting access to education.

After that class, I realized, in a very deep way, that my voice was needed and valid. I realized, “Yeah, it’s important for me to continue my education, and to connect with people who are going to be supportive, and to be an example for other first gen students like me.”

I feel lucky, very lucky, that I had some amazing mentors along my way in college, because when I first came to school, I didn’t know anything about navigating higher ed; it was just all a huge unknown. And it’s weird going through something blind. It’s exciting; it’s scary at the same time. You don’t know what you’re going to encounter, and you run into mistakes while you’re going through it and have to figure it out along the way.

For more on Angelica Tello’s AVID story, see her speech at the 2010 AVID Summer Institute.

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