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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

My Time Among the Whites

Notes from an Unfinished Education

Jennine Capó Crucet




It was a simple question, but we couldn’t find the answer in any of the paperwork the college had sent: How long was my family supposed to stay for first-year student orientation? This may seem easy enough to answer now, but this was 1999 and Google wasn’t yet a verb, and we were a low-income family (according to my new school) without regular internet access. I was the first in my family to go to college, which made me a first-generation college student as well as a first-generation American, because my parents were born in Cuba. We didn’t know that families were supposed to leave campus almost immediately after they unloaded your stuff from the car.

Together we made the trip from my hometown of Miami to what would be my new college home in upstate New York. Shortly after arriving on campus, the five of us—both of my parents, my younger sister, my abuela, and me—found ourselves listening to a dean end his welcome speech with the words: “Now, parents, please, go. Your child is in good hands. Time to cut the cord. Go home.”

Almost everyone in the audience laughed, but not me, and not my parents. They turned to me and said, “What does he mean, go?” My abuela asked my sister in Spanish, “What? What’s he saying?” a new note of panic in her voice because my sister had stopped translating. She didn’t know how, exactly, to translate the dean’s joke. She turned to me like something was my fault and said, “But orientation’s just started.” I was just as confused as they were. We thought we all needed to be there for first-year orientation—the whole family, for the whole week. My dad had booked their hotel room until the day after my classes officially began. They’d used all their vacation time from work and had been saving for months to get me to school and go through what we’d thought of as our orientation.

This confusion isn’t the most common or problematic issue first-generation college students and their families face—not by a long shot—but it shows just how clueless and out of our element we were. Another example: Every afternoon during that week, we had to go back to the only department store we could find, the now defunct Ames, for some stupid thing we hadn’t known was a necessity, something not in our budget, things like shower shoes, a bathrobe, a plastic soap holder (we hadn’t realized the bathroom situation would be a communal one—in fact, we hadn’t thought about the bathroom situation at all), extra-long twin sheets, mesh laundry bags. Before the other families left, we carefully watched them because they looked at ease, like they knew what they were doing, and we made new shopping lists with our limited vocabulary: Those things that lift up the bed, we wrote. That plastic thing to carry stuff to the bathroom.

My family followed me around as I visited department offices during course registration. “Only four classes?” they asked, assuming I was mistakenly taking my first semester too easy. And I’d agreed: Like most high schoolers, I’d taken six classes every year, so four seemed like nothing—this kind of assumption being one of the more common first-generation college student mistakes, one I thankfully didn’t make.

They went with me to the campus store to buy my books, and together we learned what the stickers on worn copies promised: Used Saves. They walked me to orientation events they thought they’d also be attending and to buildings I was supposed to be finding on my own. They waited outside those buildings so that we could all leave from there and go to lunch together. The five of us wandered each day through the dining hall’s doors. “You guys are still here!” the over-friendly person swiping ID cards said after day three. “They sure are!” I chirped back, learning via the cues of my hallmates that I was supposed to want my family gone. But it was an act: I wanted them there. We sat together at meals—amid all the other students, already making friends—my mom placing a napkin and fork at each seat, setting the table as we did at home.

I don’t remember the moment they drove away. I’m told it’s one of those instances you never forget, that second when you realize you’re finally on your own, a feeling of fear mixed with freedom, and also, I’m told, with relief. But for me, the memory of that moment just doesn’t exist—perhaps because, when you’re the first in your family to go to college, you never truly feel like you’re there on your own.

* * *

I’d applied to only two places for college, the University of Florida and Cornell University, because applying to college was (and is) an expensive process, and I didn’t know about fee waivers. My decision to apply specifically to Cornell—a choice that would eventually change the course of my life—might as well have occurred randomly. I was waiting in a high school guidance counselor’s office for a schedule change as she silently sorted through a pile of college-related junk mail (she wasn’t the college counselor, and that year, as far as I knew, my high school didn’t have one). When I saw a cover image flash by—that of a tree bursting red with color, in the height of its fall foliage—I blurted out, “What’s that one?” and lurched forward to put my hand on top of it, to stop her sorting. She handed it to me as an afterthought, without even looking up, and the rest of the brochures—all these other possible versions of my future—went into her recycling bin. I learned from that viewbook that Cornell was the first of the Ivy League schools to admit women and people of color. I thought that was cool, and that was enough to make me want to try and get accepted (but not necessarily go). This single experience, coming before easy access to the internet, constituted the bulk of my college research process. There was a paper application inside that viewbook, which I would eventually fill out and send off with all the other pieces of information Cornell required, including an application fee.

By some measures, most of them financial, my choice to attend Cornell was not a smart one. And when I say “my,” I mean “me and my entire family,” because the decision never felt wholly my own to make, as I understood that my choice would impact my parents’ lives in drastic ways none of us could fully anticipate. What I did know was that, thanks to my good grades and various state initiatives meant to entice students to stay in the state for college, I had an excellent financial aid package from the University of Florida (UF): full tuition, room and board covered, the additional scholarships I’d earned through other channels all landing in my pocket to cover books and other expenses. I could afford to have a car. I could come home on weekends if I wanted. I was about to be the first in my family to go to college, and it wouldn’t cost us a cent. Thanks to rolling admissions, I knew by October that I’d been admitted, and by November, I was stockpiling Gator paraphernalia.

Then, in April, I got into Cornell. I now know that their financial aid package was also strong, but it didn’t feel that way then: There was a subsidized loan of four thousand a year that was in my name, and in addition to that, there was an “expected family contribution” (or EFC) of a few thousand dollars—a gap in my aid package that my parents were expected to cover and that could (and would) change each year.

The questions for us became: Did I need to go to the more expensive school? Would it really make a tangible difference in my life?

I had the privilege of supportive parents who, while they definitely wanted me closer to home, had been convinced by both me and the school trying to recruit me that going to Cornell was an investment in a future that—though we couldn’t quite picture it—we somehow intuited we’d be foolish to pass up. We didn’t know what exactly we were investing in, only that the result of this investment was whoever I was going to be. I look back on it now and cannot believe what I did to my parents: They remortgaged their home, which they’d already paid off (hence the financial aid office seeing it as a resource they could tap) to cover what Cornell calculated they could afford.

Recently I called my mom in Miami to ask her why in the end they agreed to let me turn down a free ride to UF.

“Don’t you remember?” she said. “We went to that Cornell recruitment thing at that man’s house in Coral Gables. He was a lawyer or something. Me and your father couldn’t sleep that night. We were talking, thinking, okay, we’re two stupid people—not stupid, you know what I mean—and these people, they were just … we wanted that for you, for you to have all that, be all that.”

“But isn’t that wrong, the way that event made you feel? Wasn’t that manipulative?”

“Of course it was! That’s how the world works! You know that,” she said.

I only remember the inside of that house in Coral Gables (which is one of the Miami area’s wealthiest neighborhoods, and which is in fact its own city). The host had a whole room in his house just for his family’s books—a room I now know is called a study—and jutting out from one of the built-in bookshelves was a desk, and on top of that was the family’s computer. He’d used the internet to pull up that morning’s issue of The Cornell Daily Sun, the campus newspaper. He’d let me sit at the desk and read it while the rest of the house hummed with laughing and talking. And floating just under the talking, classical music, which emanated from speakers I couldn’t see, only feel. I remember looking around, trying and failing to find them.

I couldn’t understand back then that attending Cornell would plug me into a kind of access and privilege I didn’t yet have a name for. But my parents, having worked trade jobs their whole lives, knew better.

My mother said, “Do you really think you’d be where you are now if you’d gone to UF?”

I can’t say where I’d be had I not asked a bored counselor to hand me a brochure she was about to throw away. All I can possibly know is where I am now, which is far from home, living dependent-free, in a landlocked state, writing books and working as a newly tenured professor at a Big Ten school in a city where I am related to absolutely no one. My best friend from high school, who graduated second in our class and was supposed to be my Gator roommate, went to UF and loved it. She finished a semester early, married her high school boyfriend, and has two gorgeous children and an amazing house. She has rewarding friendships (she’s substituted me as her BFF with a woman whose life on Instagram looks equally amazing—by which I mean she seems to own a boat). She has a fulfilling career. She has a loving relationship with her parents and sees them all the time.

There is no “but” here.

Copyright © 2019 by Jennine Capó Crucet