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Real Talk: Being POC at a PWI from UT Austin

July 31, 2020
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The blog series: Real Talk: Being a POC at a PWI spotlights the untold stories and experiences of students of color in the College Success Program. These stories are not indicative of every student of color’s experience at their PWI. However, other students of color reading may find parallels in these accounts due to having similar experiences at their respective campuses. Every person’s story carries value in the holistic experience colleges have to offer. Thank you, Annie, for boldly sharing your story about being a student of color at UT Austin with us.

Annie You, Class of 2023

Growing up in a low-income household with two parents who never had the opportunity to pursue any education, college always seemed like a faraway dream to me.  I remember from a very young age how my parents would talk nostalgically about the time they got to attend that one class and how whether it was raining, snowing, or storming, they would still go. Now granted, I did know some parts of those stories were probably dramatized since my parents always found ways to weave those details in whenever I did not want to do my homework. But as I grew up and started seeing the realities of what a life without an education looked like, I soon began to recognize my own privilege in having the opportunities I did have in front me, opportunities my parents never had themselves.

Education has always been a major part of my life; it was the one thing I could always call my own.  The short and sweet version of my story is I was born in New York, was shipped back to China for five years, and then my family came to the US not knowing how to speak English. As I began to learn English on my own, I slowly developed a fear of missing out on worthwhile opportunities. Consequently, this pushed me to join and actively participate in student organizations on my high school and college campuses, two environments that I often had to learn to figure out myself. Now, I am a rising sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin, double majoring in Business (probably MIS/Marketing) and Liberal Arts Honors (probably International Relations).

Neither of my parents had the opportunity to learn English when they got to the US. Because of this, my family was very hands-off when it came to my education since they were not able to actively guide me through the American public education system. When I was growing up, I was really dependent upon my teachers and counselors when it came to navigating through the different elements of school. For the most part, they helped make my middle school and high school years straight forward—I took the traditional AP path, joined a few too many student orgs, and before I knew it, high school was nearly over and it was time to start filling out college applications. 

I always envisioned college to be this unique experience in a completely alien world, and UT had always been just a few miles away, practically in my backyard. I wasn’t sure on whether or not a place I’d become so familiar with would have enough new experiences to offer me.

Searching from Coast to Coast

In the beginning, if I’m honest, I did not want to go to UT Austin. I always envisioned college to be this unique experience in a completely alien world, and UT had always been just a few miles away, practically in my backyard. I had gone to UT for camps throughout middle school and high school, took field trips to the campus, and I wasn’t sure on whether or not a place I’d become so familiar with would have enough new experiences to offer me. As a result, I began contemplating offers from some big-name, out-of-state options in California as well as a sweet financial aid package in Virginia instead.

I remember trying to ask my parents about where to go, but they were supportive regardless of what school I chose and just tossed the decision back to me. At this point, I had watched all the YouTube videos that I could find about the schools in Cali, visited the schools in Virginia, and talked to recruiters. When I went to School A in Virginia, I loved the financial aid offer, I loved the faculty, the weather—but something was still missing. When I did my research about School B, C, D, and E, these places were the complete opposite of School A with a culture I loved, but the location of the schools made them too expensive. 

Through the process of elimination, I started to seriously consider UT Austin. For my college experience, I really wanted to find a middle ground for every aspect. I didn’t want a school that was too big or too small. I wanted a diverse campus in an area that was a mix of city and suburb, with a strong school identity. And, most importantly, I wanted a place that would not put me in debt. What a journey it was to discover that everything I wanted from school was right in front of me the entire time! When I really began devoting my time and attention to UT Austin and after speaking with various recruiters and Alumni, I realized that UT was the middle ground that I was always looking for. It’s an amazing school with fantastic programs and the in-state tuition is a definite selling point. The school spirit, Longhorn culture, and the vast multitude of scholarships and opportunities available made it the best decision that I could’ve made at that time.

College is one of the few times where opportunity is available to you everywhere you go, an entire world of individuals is there for you to meet and learn from—a community that you won't find very often after your four years.

First Year: Endless Opportunity

During my first year at UT Austin, I really began to explore. I initially applied to the business school because all first-years must be undecided, and I also applied to the Liberal Arts Honors program because I have a strong interest there as well. I took various business classes, liberal arts classes, physical education classes, and foreign language classes. I joined different student organizations with ranging emphasis from professionalism, social activity, and philanthropy. 

Despite only having been in college for a year, I already feel like I’ve been placed on a timer. People always talk about how your college years will be the best years of your life, and I’ve always thought that was so sad! The more I think about it, though, the more I understand what they mean. While college may not necessarily be the best four years of your life, for a young person, they are definitely the most unique. College is one of the few times where opportunity is available to you everywhere you go, an entire world of individuals is there for you to meet and learn from—a community that you won’t find very often after your four years. 

College is the best time for you to discover you. However, this era of self-discovery can have a few ugly sides to it, too. My first year was definitely an experience. The ups and downs of my learning curve would’ve put a Six Flags ride to shame. Attending a higher education institution without much family or financial support can be really tough at times, especially if you’re paying for college yourself. I honestly consider myself one of the lucky ones; the grants and scholarships I received are what made college a plausible option.

Imposter Syndrome is Real

Some of the difficulties that I had during my first year were a mixture of financial hardship, insecurities, imposter syndrome, and just general life struggles. Oftentimes, whenever I am in school, I forget about the things outside of college. It’s almost like being in a bubble; you’re so immersed in the experience that you’re having that it’s easy to forget the reality of your own situation beyond school. You’re living a new life with people that know this version of you. But sometimes, reality does hit.

At the beginning of the semester, I couldn’t afford to purchase some textbooks for class because my deposit didn’t reach my bank account on time. There were instances where I had to skip a few classes because my parents needed me to act as a translator for their medical appointments. There were moments when my friends would be excitedly talking about studying abroad, renting out apartments, or taking expensive vacations over break, and my immediate thoughts gravitated towards whether or not I could afford to go with them. Who could I put to be my creditor? Would I get the right amount of financial aid to study abroad?

In addition, being at a school like UT Austin means I am constantly surrounded by bright, intelligent, charismatic individuals who have so much talent that I sometimes end up questioning whether or not I deserve to be standing alongside them. As much as I like to push these thoughts away, they do tend to sneak up on me. I constantly feel like I am not doing enough, that I am not pursuing the right major, that I need to decide on something now. But the biggest and most important lesson that I learned during my freshman year is to listen to yourself. Even as I type it, I think this sounds so cheesy. But, after so many sad boi hours with upper-level students, professors, and my peers— I realized that I was only so stressed out and worried because I feared that I wouldn’t succeed. Before I even had an idea of what kind of success I wanted, I was already putting myself down because I was trying to follow and adjust my path to those around me. 

Try new things, meet new people, and be unapologetically you! You are going to have so many amazing conversations about other people's experiences, and while it's important to learn from those experiences, it's paramount to make your college experience your own.

Words of Wisdom

One of the most insightful words that a senior once told me was that oftentimes, especially as students, we lose sight of what is most important to us. We’re usually too busy chasing after everyone else’s vision of success that we often lose our own. People always ask, “what did you do,” “what internships did you have,” “what organizations did you join,” aiming to mimic others.  What the senior said that really stood out to me was that “just because that maybe that person’s path of success, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will also be mine.” That notion really grabbed me. At times, I did find myself joining certain organizations because that person said it was good, or I’d take a class because of what others made me think I needed to. But I am a firm believer that you know your own self best, even when you don’t think you do—and sometimes all it takes it a second to listen to yourself. For me, I always felt like exploring wasn’t something that I could afford to do. My scholarships required me to take a certain amount of hours, get certain grades—I couldn’t afford just to mess around. 

However, I also learned that exploration is necessary for growth, and that takes time. I do believe that there is a threshold in which a decision needs to be made, but you should always take the time you can to listen to yourself. My first year at UT Austin also taught me to embrace my personal hardships to take pride in my story because it’s made me who I am. It’s the reason I put in more effort into pursuing what I am passionate about, the reason why I strive to make the most out of my opportunities in college.

Rather than viewing my barriers as obstacles, I view them as accolades that help me build a tenacious and ambitious foundation that will aid me in my vision of success. I can proudly say that the classes and organizations that are in my schedule are there because I am actually passionate about them. And I’m always finding ways to give back in the way this community has given so generously to me. I am currently working as an Orientation Advisor for UT Austin this summer, and my driving motivation is to be able to support the incoming students that, like me, may not have that support system at home or elsewhere. College is a time to thrive. Some advice that I always give my incoming students is to make the most out of your time here at UT. Try new things, meet new people, and be unapologetically you! You are going to have so many amazing conversations about other people’s experiences, and while it’s important to learn from those experiences, it’s paramount to make your college experience your own.