Shattering records and stereotypes, first-generation college students share their fears and struggles as they leave Philly

While some college-bound students are concerned about what clothes they plan to wear on the first day of class or what items to bring to decorate their dorm rooms, Khyya Ford, Liana Castro-Torres, and Alexianie Negron are discussing more pressing issues.

The three first-generation college students are more concerned with things like code-switching, being accepted, and wondering if graduating at the top of their William Bodine High School Class for International Studies is enough.

For Castro-Torres, the question is complicated: “What if we go down there and they don’t like how we talk or how we act?”

Castro-Torres worries despite being named a Gates Finalist and earning a 4.42 GPA and the Full International Baccalaureate Diploma while at Bodine, it might not be enough.

Liani Castro-Torres graduated with a 4.42 Weighted GPA. She also earned the Full International Baccalaureate Diploma and will attend the University of Chicago in the fall. (School District of Philadelphia)

The incoming freshman at the University of Chicago is nervous that she won’t fit in.

“I’m pretty nervous,” she said. “Growing up and being raised in Philadelphia is a whole different experience, so it’s like do we have to code switch the entire time that we’re there? I was like, are they going to accept us for who we are, or do I have to pretend to be someone we’re not?”

Castro-Torres seems confident but nervous.

“I don’t want to do that,” she giggled as she nervously raised the issue the other girls had also asked at one point in their lives.

Am I enough?

Negron is also a Gates Finalist and graduated with a 4.39 GPA. She says her biggest fear is not schoolwork but being accepted when she starts Stanford in the fall.

“I was curious how people would respond because of my personality and because of where I come from,” she said.

Alexianie Negron graduated with a 4.39 Weighted GPA and was accepted to Stanford. (School District of Philadelphia)

Both Castro-Torres and Negron admit their parents never attended college, and both had a father who was incarcerated at some point during their lifetime.

Castro-Torres says her family moved here from Puerto Rico and her father never finished high school.

For them, growing up and succeeding in school was about not becoming a statistic.

Negron says she realized early on, that education was a way out. “A lot of my family never made it to where I’m at right now, and it’s been a repeated cycle. Me pushing myself and making it to where I am now and still moving forward, it’s setting a new tone and inspiring others to move in the same path.”

For Ford, it’s also about proving herself. She played varsity softball at Bodine and graduated with a 4.19 GPA.

Despite her athletic and scholastic achievements, she’s also worried about being able to compete academically as she attends Swarthmore College.

“Many people come from different educational levels and have different access to education, I’m worried that I’m already behind and college hasn’t even started yet,” Ford said.

Kyyia Ford had a 4.19 Weighted GPA and will attend Swarthmore College. (School District of Philadelphia)

The academic competition for college students can be grueling and competitive.

Ford says she believes it’s even more difficult when you’re going against other students who had more resources available to them in high school. She shared her concerns about learning with students who graduated from higher-performing schools from around the world.

“Not that Bodine didn’t prepare me, but as a Philadelphia school system, I think it’s very behind education-wise,” Ford said.

But their story is similar to hundreds involving students like them.

Students question whether a society that encourages young hopefuls to attend top-tier higher education institutions, but has low expectations that the impoverished students really belong, will be able to provide the necessary funding and resources needed for them to succeed.

“I think different states have provided different opportunities and different resources for students, so I’m afraid that my best is somebody’s worst,” says Ford.

Despite their concerns, the three seniors have exceeded what was expected of them, and have overcome obstacles both at home and at school to graduate at the top of their class.

But they’re not alone.

Estrellita Ramirez-Arboleda had a 4.33 GPA and will attend Haverford College. (School District of Philadelphia)

The school district says fellow Bodine graduate Estrellita Ramirez-Arboleda had a 4.33 GPA and will attend Haverford College in the fall, and Kaila Randolph-Mitchell was accepted to New York University and earned a 4.37 GPA.

It’s the first time in the school’s history this many graduates have received scholarships to universities with low college acceptance rates.

  • August 23, 2023
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