Examining Access to Higher Education through Study Abroad

As I am writing my first blog post, I am still in Amherst, surrounded by all the familiar faces and places I’ve come to know, care for, and love in my past two years. I’m just one day away from the beginning of my fall semester and the beginning of my travels to a whole other country for the first time in my life. Within this day alone I’ve felt so much excitement, sadness, optimism, and genuine fear. Upon disclosing all of my increasingly overwhelming feelings to a dear friend, I was reminded of my journey to Amherst and all of the overwhelming feelings I had then.

My first year at Amherst began with the longest and most exhausting flights I have ever been on. After, I had to undergo the particular stress that is the Peter Pan Bus line to arrive late at night in my then unfamiliar first-year dorm. I cleaned my room, unpacked my suitcases, and went to sleep as soon as I could. When I woke up the next day, I was greeted by startling and aggressively peppy Orientation Leaders who peppered the quad with a belated welcome for me, but one that was right on time for others in my class and their families. The moments of joy students and their families had during move-in made real for me the intense emotion I was holding on to since beginning my travels to Amherst. I had been feeling fear and excitement and loneliness and uncertainty and, above all else, confoundment.

My journey to Amherst did not begin with my flights prior to my first fall. Instead, my journey began seven years prior with my admittance to the San Antonio Young Women’s Leadership Academy (YWLA), an all-girls college-preparatory charter school. The YWLA provided me with experiences and opportunities I otherwise would not have had at the public schools in my zip code and is one of the biggest reasons why I am at Amherst currently. My time at the YWLA was difficult and, even though it was a college-preparatory school, there were often times I doubted that I would actually make it to college.

What I realized during my physical travel to Amherst was that I had, indeed, “made it” to college. I was finally doing what my family, my community, and I had been striving for and preparing for during my seven years at the YWLA and it scared me more than I had ever been scared in my life.

Lea overlooking a valley in Amherst

Lea at the beginning of her second year at Amherst.

All of that is to say I’ve spent two years at Amherst and have continued to “make it.” My flights to Amherst were a culmination of confoundment and fear of the uncertainty of where I was goingMe at the beginning of my second year at Amherst

and now, with some of the same family and community that it took to get me to Amherst and some new family, community, and self, I am faced with the same confoundment and fear I felt when I flew to Amherst for my first year. I’m afraid because I feel like I am embarking on another first-year with a dreaded flight I’m taking on my own with only some suitcases and the unknown, and I’m utterly confounded because I’m traveling outside of the country for the first time in my life to study at another institution. It is amazing to think about the times I thought that I wouldn’t even get to college and to know that I’m about to study abroad with so much institutional support.

But it would be careless of me to go abroad without recognizing the immense amount of support at home and at Amherst that have contributed to my “making it.” My family at home, the YWLA, my friends at Amherst, and the Center for Diversity and Student Leadership (CDSL) have all uplifted me such that I can face the unknown time and time again.

But, as much as my story is about love, support, and a lot of confoundment, it is equally about access to higher education.

 Without seven years at a college-preparatory charter school, I don’t believe that I would be gearing up to study abroad as a student at one of the top liberal arts colleges in the United States. I had the privilege of access to an education far superior to what I would have received had I gone to the public schools in my neighborhood- which prepared me to be an Amherst student, much like those of my Amherst peers that went to private schools for much of their lives. My story is about the reality of unequal access to institutions of higher education that is perpetuated in the admissions process of top institutions throughout the United States.

 To this point, Shawna Chen ’20 and Natalie De Rosa ’21 of The Amherst Student wrote afour-part series examining admissions at Amherst” throughout which wealth disparity at Amherst, the impact of athletics on admission, legacy applicants, and the experiences of low-income students on campus were examined. Chen and De Rosa’s series is illuminating and demonstrated the importance of continuing to think about and do work surrounding unequal access to institutions of higher education. To this point, I decided to take my time in London as an opportunity to examine the English system of higher education and its issues of access.

I do not yet know the exact focus my blog will have, but I want to highlight the experiences of low-income students and other non-traditional students at English institutions of higher education. Ultimately, I would like to compare the experiences of non-traditional students at English schools to my own as a First-Generation and low-income student.

For now, I will sign off on my blog and try to enjoy my last day at Amherst while also hectically packing and preparing for more excitement and confoundment.


Wilson Admissions Center

Amherst’s Wilson Admission Center

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