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College access and the promise of higher education

Randall F. Clemens

I imagine it takes an extreme amount of courage to migrate from one country to another, to leave your wife and three daughters for the uncertain promise of a better job and more opportunity. That is what Diane’s father did. He immigrated to Los Angeles, obtained a manufacturing job, learned English, and saved money. He then paid a Coyote to bring his beloved family back to him. 

The reunited family lived happily together until the father unexpectedly died of a terminal illness nearly a year later. As Diane told me one day after school, her father’s death changed everything. He was the sole income earner and their liaison to a strange new world. After his death, her mother began working full-time. Diane, the oldest of the children, became the primary caretaker. She admitted, “I had to grow up fast.”

Two weeks ago and over a decade after her arrival to the country, Diane received an acceptance letter from Harvard University. Her remarkable journey began in a rural village with two parents deciding to sacrifice for the prospect of opportunity. Next fall, her journey will continue in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the most prestigious college campus in the world. 

For seven years, I have worked as a teacher and researcher with thousands of students. Diane is the first to have gained admittance to Harvard. She is as hardworking as she is gifted and the type of student teachers love. Even her friends know how special she is. One joked, “Of course, you’re going to go to Harvard and become a doctor or lawyer. You’re Diane.”

Diane is an undocumented, first-generation college student. By all accounts, her story is exceptional. Next week, I will discuss another, more common story. Until then, I celebrate the life of a determined and deserving student who reminds us all of the promise of higher education.