Yes, You Do Belong Here

“Dear Emilio,

Thanks so much. We usually have quite a crowd with about 100 students and parents here so it will be fun! It is a great opportunity to meet newly admitted students and their parents and Hoya alumni. Meg Lysy, from the G.U. Admissions Office will also be here.

Barb Vonnegut

Co-Chair, Boston Alumni Admissions Program”

A few days after my acceptance to Georgetown, I received this email. I had two initial responses to the letter. The first was a cordial RVSP, “Why yes, I’d absolutely love to attend this admitted students night.” I was all about Georgetown at this point.

My second response was, “Holy shit! That says Barbara Vonnegut!”

The moment emails from people like the Vonneguts started dropping in my inbox, I knew Georgetown was a place unlike anything I’d ever seen. I was unbelievably excited for this event, and hyped it up to all of the people that I knew. Milton is an incredibly nice town in Massachusetts, with lots of money and good education; I couldn’t help but brag about where I was going.

I’ve never been somebody for dressing nicely; if I could show up to business meetings in shorts, a t-shirt and sneakers, I would. I remember my absolute lack of fashion sense being apparent in my attire for that night — I wore a red and black striped tie over a white shirt and a pair of jeans I’d worn a hundred times previously. My grandmother berated me for my choice of attire, but I insisted, “Who cares what I’m wearing? I got into the school already!”

I can’t say I was entirely ready for the clothing my peers were going to be wearing at the event. Full suits, expensive dresses, pink shorts with whale logos on them. I’d entered a completely new world; one where people wear their social status on their sleeve, and frankly, I had my sleeves rolled all the way up. I’m sure everyone could tell I wasn’t the same as them.

I proceeded to speak with my future peers at the event and noticed a commonly recurring themes among them. They loved talking about their SAT and AP test scores, to the point where they were mentioned once or twice in every conversation that I engaged in. The second was that nearly all of them came from very expensive boarding schools, and if they went to public school, they were from places like Andover and Brookline, where the quality of public education was a multiple of degrees higher than my local high school, Lawrence High. The difference between them and myself, while jarring, was expected. I got a taste of this during Summer Scholars at the University of Notre Dame, and the Georgetown Summer Immersion Program I participated in.

After dodging questions coming my way about AP scores (I had none) and my SAT score (I scored several hundred points lower than the average Georgetown Student), I found a way to crack through the social barrier these students put up, and I connected with them as human beings. Apart from the clothing, the tests and the schools, I talked to them about books they enjoyed reading, their favorite movies, and found a way to reconcile the strange thought that began slowly floating in my head:

“Do I really belong here?”

The question every student with a humble beginning asks themselves. Here I was, at an event hosted by Kurt Vonnegut’s son, surrounded on all sides by students whose great grandparents attended Georgetown. The question grew louder in my head as time grew on, and before I left, it felt overwhelming. I put up a front, but I was genuinely scared about my ability to connect with my colleagues in a meaningful way if our cultural divide was as large as it initially appeared.

But why? Why did I feel this way? I was a decorated student in my own right. I’d led multiple fundraisers, had been a keynote speaker for a few events, had amazing grades, and possessed a resume that rivaled individuals several years older than myself due to my high school’s internship program.

After giving it some thought, I realized that I felt this way because no amount of impressive experience can erase where I come from. No matter how many speeches I gave, I still told my peers from Milton, Brookline, Andover, Weston, and Dover that I lived in the city where they refuse to go — and if they do, it’s very quickly with the windows up, and the doors locked. At the same time this doubt was flying around in my head, there was a feeling that sat in my chest as well, a small feeling of warmth that made it easier to deal with the cold feeling of competition that permeated the Vonnegut’s house. The comment I made to my grandmother before we came into the event, “Who cares what I’m wearing? I got into the school already,” held much more wisdom than I could have imagined when I first said it.

My time at Georgetown has been filled with moments like these. The moment I stepped foot onto campus, the King and Queen of Spain were visiting — then later, Bernie Sanders took time to speak in Gaston Hall during his campaign trail. I also got to see Shaun King in person before he gave a speech; the list goes on and on. There are moments where I realize I’m becoming jaded to the blessing it is to be surrounded by so many successful and influential people. Where once I would fervently attend these events to hear important people speak, I now choose to study for an upcoming test instead. Like Sunny told Calogero from Bronx Tale, “Mantle makes $100,000 a year. How much does your father make? If your father can’t pay the rent go ask Mickey Mantle and see what what he tells you.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg doesn’t give speeches in the Lawrence Community Center, and Hillary Clinton would rather give a speech in the McDonough School of Business than the Haverhill Boys & Girls Club. The experience, and opportunity to hear them speak is amazing, but this thought makes it difficult for me to appreciate the visits as much as I would like.

I even have a nickname at Starbucks!

The economic divide I feel at times can be as simple as the way I choose to spend to with my friends. I’m not able to go out and drop big money on lunches and dinners with them; it’s not economically feasible because I’m self-funded and I don’t have a credit card with someone else’s name attached to it. I instead choose to spend time with my friends by engaging in 1v1’s over coffee, or going the extra mile to hang out with them. I think many of my friends understand why I’m unable to go out with them, and this understanding that I have built with them is deeply appreciated.

There are times though, where I have been offended by my peers’ insensitive comments. When asked why I had barely visited any states in my younger years, I mentioned my economic situation, and I was told that the train is an affordable option.

1. No, the train is not an affordable option

2. The train is certainly not an affordable option when your family is drowning in medical debt.

When I purchased an Xbox One in the middle of the school year, an individual asked me why I was on a full scholarship if I could afford such luxuries, to which I responded, “Work three jobs and tell me if you can’t afford something nice for yourself.” These small moments are not particularly damaging, but they serve as a constant reminder of the difference between most Georgetown students and myself. To many of them, a dollar is just a dollar, but to me, a dollar is 100 cents, and I intend to make every cent count.

The takeaway I have from hearing these insensitive comments is not that Georgetown students are horrible people, but rather that many of them are smart in most ways, but incredibly uneducated in others. Although their SAT scores may be perfect, and their pink shorts cost more than my average outfit, they know next to nothing about my experiences, and the lessons I learned from going up.

This has been an important intellectual development for me, because I’ve found that I no longer ask myself if Georgetown made a mistake by accepting me. I now understand that my University selected us to not only learn from our professors, but also to give knowledge to our peers. This exchange of wisdom makes the entirety of Georgetown’s population stronger, more compassionate and sensitive to the issue of Socio-Economic Status. It is for this reason, and so many more, that I finally feel comfortable saying to myself, “Yes, you do belong here.