Mary: A 2nd Generation College Student

Mary is the child of two immigrant parents from California.  She is currently a sophomore at Vassar College, a highly selective private four-year college in Upstate New York.  My research (see my blog post “Attainment of Higher Education for Immigrants: What Exactly is Possible?) concludes that access to private colleges is severely restricted for many children of immigrants.  I recently sat down with Mary to discuss her educational trajectory and see what factors enabled her to attend such an esteemed postsecondary institution.  My questions are in bold and Mary’s answers are in plain text.

Are both of your parents immigrants?  If so, where are they from and when did they immigrate?

Yes, they both are.  My dad immigrated about twenty five years ago and my mom immigrated about twenty years ago and they’re both from Mexico.

Do your parents have college degrees?  If so, from where?

No. Neither of them.

Do you have any siblings?

Yeah, two brothers.  Older and younger.

Are they in college?  If so, where?


Did you attend public or private school?

Private school.

How big was your high school?

It’s small.  It’s like a hundred and seventy five students in total.

What was the ethnic make up of your high school?

It was mostly minorities.  Maybe like two or three white people in my class.  But it was like Blacks, Latinos, Tongans.

Did your high school implement ‘tracking’ in terms of its courses/policies?  If so, what track were you in?

Yeah.  We had AP courses and we ahd different levels of math, that’s the first one I know.  It’s advanced math, then regular, and then people who need help with math.  I was in the AP track.

Were there other children of immigrants in your track?

I was in the top and advanced classes in all subjects.  Half of {children of imms] were in the advanced ones and half were in the lower.

Were there a lot of children of immigrants in your school?

Yeah, I’d say about 90% of the population, at least.

What did your school offer in terms of resources to help you search for and apply to colleges?

We had a high school counselor, about one for every forty students.  She was definitely working with us individually, helping us know which colleges to apply to and which ones she recommends.

What types of schools did other children of immigrants in your high school attend?  Liberal arts colleges?  Public universities?  Community Colleges?

Some of them went to Stanford.  Others went to Community College.  Others went to public institutions—UCLA, Yale.  It was all over the map, definitely.

Did you participate in a college prep program?  Was this run through your school or privately?

We had a class called College Readiness.  It was a class where we had to do a lot of writing how college teachers would want us to write.  Just like the resources we need to apply to college, what resources we need to get, preparation for the SATs, and ACTs.  The whole period was dedicated to filling out applications, later filling out the FAFSA.

Did everyone have to take that?

Yeah, it was a requirement so everyone had to take it.

How big was that class?

They only offered two classes and it was about 25 students each.

What types of colleges/universities did you look at?

I looked at schools all over the map.  For my [high] school we have to apply to reach, safety, and target schools.  So I definitely applied to safety schools, the ones I knew I could get into.  Not community colleges, but like Mount Saint Marys.  UC Merced.  Everyone who applied got in.

So did you look mostly at smaller colleges?

Yeah.  I liked the smallness of my highschool.  I liked how teachers focused their time on individuals.  I visted the big schools like UCLA and UC Berkley and it was humongous, so I didn’t see myself there.

Why did you choose Vassar?

Mainly because of financial aid.  I liked that it was in New York, I’ve neve been here before.  I thought it would be a great experience to go across the country to a small liberal arts school.  I liked that it was small and there were no requirements.

Was financial aid an important factor when looking at schools?

For everyone in my high school, yeah.


Mary is working towards a degree in Sociology.  She plans on studying abroad in Europe next fall.