Harvard-bound high school senior Aldo Medina reflects on his interactions with his school district’s leadership and expresses his hopes for the future of American public education.
March 5, 2020
In the fall of 2016, my social studies teacher invited one of his former students to our classroom to speak. The topic of her speech? An educational journey that began at our urban high school, moved to Indiana University for undergrad, and eventually ended up at Harvard Law School, where she was now studying.
At the time, I knew full well that statistically, people of my background didn’t go to college. As a freshman at an Indianapolis high school where 86 percent of my peers were Black or Latino, and where 67 percent of my peers were considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, I recognized that systemic barriers kept people like me out of academia far too often. Nevertheless, listening to our classroom’s guest speaker—a fellow person of color who once navigated the same high school hallways I currently found myself in—was nothing short of inspiring.
Today, almost four years after that fateful classroom visit, I’m headed to Harvard myself as one of just four Early Admit students from the state of Indiana.
“I dream of a day where experiences like mine—the experience of jumping from the classrooms of a public high school straight into the ones at an Ivy League university—aren’t seem as uncommon or extraordinary.”
My story, though—the story of a low-income student catapulted to the Ivy League after an inspiring chance encounter—is far from unique. Every year, we hear on the news about students from places like south side Chicago or east Los Angeles defying all the odds with acceptances to our nation’s premier colleges. What we don’t hear about, though, is the fact that many of these students applied to these schools in the first place only after an external mentor or advisor encourages them to do so. Furthermore, many of these students apply to these schools because they know that contrary to popular perception among first-gen, low-income students, top-tier schools are often surprisingly generous in their financial aid policies.
Therefore, if you’re a teacher or administrator at a high school like mine, I ask that you take some time out of your day to encourage your students to dream big. I’ve outlined some specific actions that you can implement in your classrooms and schools below. I believe that these actions are best implemented in freshman and sophomore classrooms; this way, students know about these no-cost, tailored opportunities well in advance of any deadlines.
1. Discuss College Financial Assistance
Let your underclassmen know that many colleges make active efforts to provide low-cost or even no-cost financial aid packages to low-income students that they choose to admit. In simple terms, let students know know that hard work in their early years can lead to full-rides when they are seniors. After all, many elite institutions across the country, including Harvard, Amherst, Brown, and Swarthmore, offer generous financial-aid policies in their acceptance packages. At “need-blind, no-loan” schools such as these, they’ll likely not have to pay a dime if they’re admitted!
2. Share Details on Nonprofit Support for First-Generation Students
Let your underclassmen know that there are many nationally renowned nonprofits out there that want to help low-income, first-generation students as they navigate the college admissions process. Some non-profits, like LEDA or SCS Noonan, will even fly out low-income high school juniors to summer programs at colleges like Princeton at Amherst at no cost at all in order to provide them with SAT/ACT and writing instruction.
3. Introduce Role Models of Color
Provide your students with information about role models that they can relate to. I know that as I navigated my high school years, I began truly believing in my capacity to succeed once I heard the background stories of various high-profile leaders of color, including Michelle Obama,(who grew up in south-side Chicago before going to Princeton and Harvard), Sonia Sotomayor (who grew up in the Bronx before ending up at Princeton and Yale), or Cory Booker (who grew up in Newark before heading off to Stanford and Oxford).
I am very cognizant of the fact that many low-income students of color like me all over the country are being overlooked and unrecognized by our nation’s leading colleges. I know that breaking down this barrier begins early during the high school underclassman years, and I dream of a day where all low-income public students in America are equipped with information about the various programs and institutions that simply want to see them succeed as minority leaders from humble backgrounds.
Furthermore, I also dream of a day where experiences like mine—the experience of jumping from the classrooms of a public high school straight into the ones at an Ivy League university—aren’t seem as uncommon or extraordinary. “Homeless to Harvard”-style stories like mine shouldn’t be inspiring. Instead, they should be commonplace. I hope that one day, students everywhere can receive an equitable education regardless if they hail from low-income neighborhoods or from wealthy, tight-knit suburbs.
Aldo Medina is a high school senior at Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, and serves on the Indianapolis Public Schools Student Council, a student advisory group for Superintendent Aleesia Johnson. Aldo is a 2020 delegate to the United States Senate Youth Program and a rising freshman at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.