Start Simple

Angela Omongos
College Access: Research & Action (CARA)

Suppose you’re a teenage boy from Mexico whose family recently migrated to the United States. You barely understand, much less even speak, English. Your grades are pitiful, not because you were in a corner smoking pot but because you were up all night working to support your little hermano and sick mother. Your buddies at school kept talking about some strange place they called “college” and although you’re pretty much content working at Al Karim’s Deli for life, you can’t stop the nagging feeling that there is more to life than selling bacon and cheese bagels.

This story is exactly what Diego Cuenca told me as his reason for coming to the college office. Truth be told, when I first saw him come in, I thought he was just going to sit back and loiter. He walked in awkwardly, wore baggy pants and a lopsided Yankees cap. But no, he was eager, and I saw sheer determination in his eyes as he confronted me and said, “Give me college.”
Taken aback, I replied, “ You want me to give you college? You mean go to college.”
“Yeah, mi amiga. College. No me gusta trabajar en la Deli. But me es pobre. Me es no dinero…I fail math.”

Instead of seeing him as a faceless 12th Grader, I began to see Diego as a brother whom I simply had to help. Smiling, I asked what his name was. He replied, in his thick Spanish accent and in a voice brimming with pride, Diego Cuenca.

Immediately, I felt a little envious of his mastery of Spanish, and answered with the pitiful attempt of, “Me llamo Angela”. Even though we clearly had a language barrier, and perhaps an unexpected first meeting, I knew from that instant that I would help him on his road to college and he, on the other hand, would teach me many things, including a crash course in Spanish 101. I began paying more attention in Spanish class so I could communicate better with Diego.

I sat down with Diego at one of the computers in the college office. I scattered an array of college resources: the glossy City University of New York (CUNY) Viewbook, a State University of New York (SUNY) brochure and the admissions profile for both. I put my professional Youth Leader face on, and began with the usual questions.

“Did you take your SATs yet?”
“What major would you want to study in college?”
“Do you have any colleges in mind yet?”
I felt like a doctor trying to diagnose Diego’s struggles. Or, like a lawyer trying to interrogate him on the things he thought of or did. He looked at me with eyes of confusion. His eyes scrunched up and didn’t seem to be following me. I knew I was going in the wrong direction. So, I started simple.
“What do you want to be in the future?”
“No sé.”

I knew enough Spanish to understand that. “Do you like computers? Maybe computer science? A graphic designer, eh, fashion designer?”
He laughed. “No!”
“Nurse? Doctor? Chef?” I had probably gone through a decent number of professions, from a plumber to a baker to the presidency of Mexico. I can even vaguely remember bringing up the papacy of the Church.

Again and again, he laughed. Perhaps this guy was only trying to have fun with me, and that’s exactly what this session turned out to be. Instead of rigid hardcore seriousness, we entered a conversation so carefree and enjoyable. It was like talking to your brother or a friend.
Out of nowhere, he tilted his head, smiled bashfully and proclaimed, “I will be a pilot or a police officer.” It was so random that I almost fell out of my chair!
“What? Why didn’t you say so earlier?”
“Yeah. Pilot. Police. Peace.”

I comically punched his shoulder and said, “Okay, but did you take your SAT yet? It’s a long exam you take in Junior or Senior year.”
“No, Angela.”
I said, “No te preocupes. We can get you to a community college. They offer aviation and criminology courses. You don’t have to present a 3.0 average and the tuition may be manageable for you, too.”
In my mind, I drew up a list of Diego’s struggles. His problems are very common among recent immigrants. The language barrier certainly made things harder for him and made college preparation a real challenge. Diego, who is only in his teens, is sadly exposed to the harshness of real life responsibility that includes caring for both his younger brother and mother. He is the breadwinner of his family and getting an education has to come second to his job. It is very common for low-income students to juggle between school and work. Furthermore, his undocumented status severely limits his exposure to a variety of careers or majors being offered at colleges. My job as a youth leader is to share the different post-secondary options available to him. I have to help Diego find a way for him to continue being the padre de familia while reaping the benefits of being a student that could lead him to a brighter future.

One day, while I was working with him and he needed a Social Security number, he gave me a nervous look. “Social Security? Lo tienes, Diego?”
For a moment, I thought he would bolt away from the computer and hastily shift away from me. But slowly, he relaxed himself and said in a low voice, “Lo siento, Angela. Pero when I came here, I was, eh, economy class.”

I looked at him understandably. “It’s ok. I can’t afford First Class seats on the plane either.”
“No, Angela! I don’t have Social Security.” He tried to look away.
I needed a minute to remember how difficult of a situation Diego was in. I said, “Nah, CUNY accepts everyone, Diego! Geez, don’t be a worrywart! Te tengo.” Diego needed to know that his immigration status would not be a barrier to him applying to college.

“Yep.” The hug he gave me afterwards made my Monday.
That session was the beginning of our long journey. I advised him to start simple. I guided Diego through his CUNY application, and I discussed the benefits of being a college graduate with him. We researched the different schools to see which were a suitable match for him.
Diego really wanted to go to John Jay College to study Criminology at a four-year college. His average didn’t meet John Jay’s average GPA requirement and his lack of SAT scores simply made his acceptance seem virtually impossible. Diego had so much ambition now that he was aware of the variety of courses he could study. But that knowledge only made him more uncomfortable since he didn’t have the highest grades or the best English skills.

Diego decided to focus on getting into a community college. We both compromised and decided to put his top two community colleges in his application to the City University of New York. His first choice was to study Criminal Justice at Queensborough Community College and his second was Aviation Management at LaGuardia Community College. Diego was also glad to learn about the flexibility of the college course schedule, which would make it easier for him to balance school with his job. It felt good to help Diego take his first step toward a college education.

While Diego’s undocumented status did not hinder his college application, I knew I had to discuss the problem of financial aid with him, since he would not be eligible for federal aid because of his status. I thought he would give up again. That he would just go to work, skip a year or two in order to save money. Nope! His boss from Al Karim’s Deli heard about his plans to go to college and was kind enough to lend him money for a jumpstart! Diego promised to up his grades in order to receive scholarships. He also decided to sell Pop Tarts and candy around the school, saving money for his CUNY commitment deposit. I knew he could do it.

The last time I saw Diego was when I was sitting on the sofa in the college office, glaring at the face of Death. Actually, it was just my trigonometry homework. He smoothly sat down beside me, quite jolly in fact.
“Hola, Angela! What’s up?”
“Dying. Mad. Tired. What else?” I replied, as I grudgingly ripped a piece of scrap paper to shreds. I was deep in thought, trying to figure out my trig assignment, when all of a sudden, Diego gave me a tight and warm hug. I was caught off guard.
Then he said, in his thick, rich Spanish accent that I oh-so-want-to-copy, “Angela…just start simple.” The sly guy gave me a wink and jogged away.
I guess I had to thank him for my 100 in both Trigonometry and Spanish.
Yup. Just start simple.