If you know me, I have likely told you this story. On a chilly day in May I graduated from University of Colorado (CU) Boulder. After a beautiful ceremony at Folsom Field, my parents and I came back to the car. Before leaving the parking lot, I looked at my mother through the rearview mirror. She was looking out the window and quietly crying. When I asked her what was the matter in Spanish, she responded, “As a mother, one always hopes for our kids to reach for the stars. I had big dreams for you, but a place like this, I didn’t even know it existed. You reached even beyond my dreams”. It was the first and only time my Ecuadorian mother ever visited Colorado. The day before, during the School of Arts and Sciences graduation, she heard my speech in English thanking for her support. She enthusiastically clapped, even though she couldn’t understand a word of what I was saying. Back at the car, she was shedding happy tears. I realized I had accomplished so much more than a degree: I made my mother proud. 

Choosing CU was the craziest decision on my life. Before I decided to attend this university, I knew nothing about Colorado. I couldn’t even point at it on a map, and my English was still pretty minimal. Yet, when I saw they offered the degree of my dreams, there was no other option. I came to Colorado with nothing where I didn’t know a single person. All I knew was that this was the place for me. 

That day sitting in the car with my mom, that crazy idea of attending CU also felt like the best of my life. 

While the decision of choosing a school seems to be a personal one, for many of us who come from the less traditional paths, the decision is anything but that. We, the immigrants, first generation students, low income, from BIPOC communities, veterans, older students and all other “misfits” of the traditional higher education system in the US, carry the weight of our families, our cultures, our communities and those who support us along the way even if our dreams were unimaginable from their realities. 

In my household growing up, education was always valued at the highest level. For me there was never a question of whether or not I would finish school. That is not the case for many families in which secondary education is not encouraged or seen as an option. . In these  environments where education has not been seen as a possibility or encouraged, it can take an  individual massive courage to decide to pursue their dreams of higher education. This path can often feel lonely and leave students feeling disconnected from their community while never fully integrating into  their university life. 

It is because of them, that I do the work I do as the Program Manager of the Sustainability Skills Initiative (SSI). SSI was designed to support these students, encourage them, guide them and empower them so they can be successful in the sustainability field. It’s a pipeline of employment to help traditionally left our populations to excel in the environmental field. I am committed to my students so they don’t have to experience the struggles I personally did alone. To learn more about SSI visit our website at www.thealliancecenter.org/sustainabilityskills or email me directly at imendoza@thealliancenter.org.

This blogpost was written by Isabel Mendoza, Program Manager at The Alliance Center.