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Following love to grad school does not work out as planned

After tumultuous years, she is still devoted to family—from a distance

A college-bound Cuban challenges traditional expectations, hell-bent on leaving restrictive parents and Miami behind
Many parents try to calm their kids' anxieties before they go off to college, but my mother contributed to mine. The summer before my freshman year, she made me miserable—picking fights over whether I could do my own laundry, accusing me of leaving the family, and even calling me a slut.

"What happens if your roommate is a lesbian," my mother said, "and you have to live with a girl who hits on you?"

I always dreamed of leaving Miami to go to school. In high school, teachers bragged about a handful of "smart kids" every year who got scholarships and grants to go to schools like Cornell and Brown. They encouraged us to apply, too.

My teachers saw college as a great achievement, but my parents never understood all the fuss. They left Cuba in 1982, and having never attended college themselves, knew nothing about the American university system. My mother married my father at age 16 and began having children at 18. When they moved to the U.S., my older sister was just 4, and my father went straight into working construction jobs while my mother stayed at home to care for my sister, occasionally taking jobs such as housekeeping and sewing to help pay bills.

When my older sister was 16 and I was 8, she dropped out of high school and moved out after my father refused to let her date boys and see friends. As she packed her clothes and her TV into her clunky red car, I listened to my mother plead through sobs for her to stay. A few hours later, I asked my mother if her vacant room meant I no longer had to share a room with my younger sister.

My older sister's rebellious nature left a sour taste in my parents' mouth, making them more strict during my teenage years. Getting permission to go to the movies with friends became as difficult as trying to pass a bill through Congress. The process became so arduous that it was easier to stay home, so I got involved in extracurricular activities and focused on schoolwork. I excelled in school even though my parents could never help me with homework. They never learned English.

By my senior year of high school, my transcript ranked me 11th in a class of 793. Of those, 97 percent were Hispanic and grew up with many of the same traditions and values that I did. The bulk of them stayed home with their parents, got full-time retail jobs and went to community colleges. But I wanted to experience America outside of Miami—where Christmas dinner included turkey instead of roasted pork—and I felt going away to college would be the best way to get that experience.

I applied to schools as far away as California and New York, and when the time came to fill out the FAFSA, I was convinced I had made a mistake in punching numbers. The computer said that my expected family contribution was $53,958. My school counselor dug through my parents' income tax returns.

"Honey, your parents are probably worth a million dollars," she said, adding that they own property and had a lot of liquid assets.

"Not everybody's family owns an apartment building," she said.

My parents used all their savings to invest in property, but I had no idea this meant they could send me to school. I broke down and started bawling.

"We can't be rich," I repeated over and over again. "We shop at Wal-Mart."

Before she sent me back to class, Ms. Cohn joked that I was the first student who ever cried about being rich. Instead of laughing, I cried harder.

As soon as I got in my mother's car after school that day, I broke down again. I told her how they could afford to send me to college.

"We can't give you that money for school," she said. "You tell that woman that we have worked really hard to be able to afford property and we're not just going to waste it because you want to go away to school."

When my father got home, he said not to stress about it yet—that we could worry about it once I was accepted somewhere.

That time came in March, when my mother got a call from Syracuse University saying that I had been accepted to the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. But instead of being excited, she was terrified. When she relayed the message, I was ecstatic. About 3,500 students applied and only a few hundred were accepted.

The school flew my mother and me up for a visit that April. While I fell in love with the university, my mother became overwhelmed with anxiety at the possibility of losing her little girl to the tiny dorms.

Soon after, my father sat down with me to do some math and settle the argument. He revealed that if I decided to go to Syracuse, he and my mother would pay nothing, leaving me with over $100,000 in debt. If I decided to attend the University of Miami, which had a similar price tag to Syracuse, they would pay everything and throw in a brand-new car.

Florida State University, which lies seven hours north of Miami, became the eventual compromise. It was far enough from home that I could get the experience I wanted, but near enough that I could do so without being disowned. Plus, merit-based aid covered all of my tuition and most other expenses.

But the argument was never fully settled. There were still spats about where I should live and my mother's anxiety over my roommate.

Almost a year later, at the end of my freshman year in college, I still didn't have a car, but I went wherever I wanted. When I talked to my mother about living arrangements for my sophomore year, all she said was, "You mean you're not coming back to Miami?"








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