Courtesy of the Wellness Center As we reminisce on our childhood, the thought of LEGOs comes to mind. The classic Danish toy has had an effect on the lives of children everywhere, allowing them to build whatever their tiny hearts may desire through interlocking plastic blocks. As a more hands-on approach, LaGuardia Community College’s Wellness […]
The grounds of Paola’s shaky voice begin to reveal the rough path she followed to receive a full-ride to Columbia University.
Paola Cruz, 26, is an undergraduate at Columbia University, though her story starts in the Philippines.
After being diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, an immune disorder also known as an overactive thyroid that causes anxiety, palpitations, irregular weight loss, tremors, hair loss and other complications, Ms. Cruz was forced to drop her classes. “It’s (school) always been on the back of my mind, even after having stopped attending in the Philippines,” she reveals.
Sponsored by her mother who has lived in Rhode Island since Ms. Cruz was 10-years old, she and her brother arrived in the United States in October of 2012, but decided to reside in New York instead of Rhode Island. “I didn’t know any better. But, my mom and aunt said there would be better opportunities for us in New York.”
Having lived in New York and having traveled back and forth to Rhode Island, Ms. Cruz realizes how right they were. “There’s a diversity of people here and in Rhode Island, it’s just them and whoever else.” She continues, “and here, it’s so fast paced and active. There, it’s so peaceful, which is good… sometimes.”
After arriving in New York, she found an advertisement for a free business course offered by Grace Institute in a church, a program specifically for underrepresented women in New York. Ms. Cruz began the course and found a job working as a mail-clerk for Penguin Group six months later.
While working for Penguin, Ms. Cruz began researching colleges and realized how expensive four-year colleges were. She narrowed her research to community colleges and found LaGuardia Community College (LaGCC.) “I actually researched a lot before coming here and found that LaGuardia offers so many opportunities, scholarship wise, and that they can be accessible to students like me who come from low-income families,” explains Ms. Cruz. Soon after, she applied as a physical therapy major, particularly because most of her family has a medical background.
During the application process, she began looking into new jobs and found Streetwise, a program that partners students with mentors who have careers based on the student’s interests. “Growing up, I always had a journal with me and it was sort of therapy for me. We [siblings] were so young when our parents left. That was kind of my escape at night when I wanted to express my feelings,” reveals Ms. Cruz. She was paired with someone who worked for CNN after expressing her passion for writing and wanting to do something in media, although not fully understanding how to find a practical job in that field. Through Streetwise, she was also able to land her current job, working as a receptionist for Syncora Guarantee, a financial company, all while supporting her family in the Philippines.
“Filipinos are known for being nurses so I am surrounded by people who are doctors and nurses. My aunts, uncles and cousins are nurses. There was this pressure where I was asking myself “‘Do I have to take the same path that they did? Do I like what they do?’” With this in mind, Ms. Cruz declared herself a physical therapy major.
She confided in her Streetwise mentor, who was fully aware of her passion for writing and media, that she was still indecisive about her declared major. Her mentor asked her “Do you want to be a novelist, maybe, or even a journalist?” She responded with a slight certainty, “I think I want to be a journalist? I like the idea of writing about what matters and I like informing people, so maybe I want to do that.” Because of her traditional family, she was in a constant battle, fighting the thought of following her passion for writing as opposed to following the norm her family had set in place with their careers.
In an attempt to satisfy her racing thoughts, she met with Professor Victor Rosa, Co-Director of the Journalism Option at LaGCC, who explained how rewarding the option is. “I remember him telling me ‘If you really want to do something about this and you’re passionate about this, you can always try and if you don’t like it, you can always change your major.’” After that conversation, Ms. Cruz changed her major to journalism.
While she was a full-time journalism student and full-time worker, her spare time was limited. “I took my first journalism class, which was ENG 288: Internship for The Bridge. Everything that I learned about journalism started with that class. From then on, I’ve been a consistent writer for The Bridge,” explains Ms. Cruz.
Aside from The Bridge, Ms. Cruz was involved in a number of other campus organizations. She was a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society, volunteering along with other LaGuardia scholars like herself. “Being in that community was great for me because everyone was so passionate and driven, just like with ASAP Scholars, another program I was involved in.” The Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) pays a students tuition, provides metro cards and text book vouchers. In return, students must display outstanding academic progress.
During her application process to a four-year institution, Ms. Cruz explains “Columbia was never a plan, initially.” After meeting alums and students from Columbia University and other private schools, she inquired about how to apply to these colleges. After listening to their stories, she applied to Columbia. “I remember thinking ‘If these people can do it then so can I,’” she says.
After applying to multiple colleges and receiving just as many acceptance letters, her letter from Columbia University attracted Ms. Cruz most. She decided to begin applying for scholarships to help fund her education. However, after receiving three scholarships and financial aid that totaled nearly $30,000, it was still not enough to cover the annual $50,760 tuition fee. “I spoke with one of the financial advisors in Columbia and asked her if they could give me more than $12,000 [ for one scholarship] and she told me ‘your scholarship is actually the highest one that I know of,’” she says. Ms. Cruz was left with the option of applying for a student loan, something she was dreading to do.
Realizing she had already exhausted all of her resources, Ms. Cruz decided to begin applying for a student loan. “I remember this particular day. It was the day of my midterm for my Global History class, and it was also the day I had to accept this student loan from Sallie Mae. And that was one of the most depressing moments of my life,” she explains. After agreeing to the “terms of agreement” for the loan, she hit “submit” and left for school.
Though she accepted the student loan and her college education was fully funded, Ms. Cruz still felt regret and took a nap in the library while waiting for her class. She was awaken by a phone call from a representative at Columbia. “She told me I was one of the P.A.L.S. scholarship recipients. I was so confused. This particular scholarship, students do not apply for it. It’s the Admissions Office who decides who to give it to. And I was just lucky enough to be selected, though I couldn’t even grasp it,” she says while smiling as she relived the memory. Ms.Cruz continues: “she told me that if I have any questions, I could always email her. And I did have a question, which was to confirm that I was actually a recipient.”
After doing some research on what the P.A.L.S. scholarship is, she learned that the scholarship covers the rest of a students’ tuition. Ms. Cruz decided to email the representative for clarification and headed to class to take her midterm. “I got an email back from her while I was in class and I just saw the subject heading which said ‘Congratulations.’ Once I read it, it was everything and I started to cry,” she explains while laughing.
Ms. Cruz is currently an English major at Columbia University’s School of General Studies, in her second semester. Her journey to an Ivy League school demonstrates the determination and drive that can be found in LaGuardia students.