“A dream come true” is how I describe my study abroad experience to anyone who asks. Not for your normal reasons -- such as travel, incredible history, and people. But because, contrary to many people, I can't say “I never imagined this” -- I did. I worked for it since I knew it was an option in middle school and with only one semester in college, I achieved that almost lifelong goal. The same can't be said for my family. As you all know, Cuba is a communist country. In 1983, my father was sent to Berlin to work in a factory. Life was much better than in Cuba, but still not ideal. He would tell me how he and his friends would go to the rooftop of where they lived and look over to the other side of the wall. They imagined how much better their lives would be. He never imagined he would have a daughter that would be standing on the other side. I remember calling him on FaceTime at the "Brandenburg Gate" and seeing tears in his eyes. It was a big moment for me, not just another thing to tick off the tourist list.
Here’s the thing, I'm a first-generation college student. Not only am I the first person in my family to go to college but I am the first generation in the United States. I come from Camaguey, Cuba. My family was very humble, and like many people, they wanted to come to America chasing the dream. Rather than for themselves, it was for me.
I came to the United States when I was 7 years old. I knew no English and failed third grade because I couldn’t even read it. My school didn’t have ESL since there were not that many Latinos in Louisville at the time. I had to put my best foot forward and work for my education. College was never a choice; it was a guarantee. I didn’t know how I would afford it, but I knew that was the goal.
I went to Western High School here in Louisville, Kentucky. It helps students from low-income families go to college. There, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime by being able to attend college full-time as a high school junior. With this opportunity, I graduated from high school with an associate's degree and 63+ college credits ready to transfer to a university. I graduated cum laude with a 4.6 GPA. I was proud of myself but knew this was only the beginning. Thanks to my hard work, dedication, and drive, I now have enough scholarships to the point where my education comes at no cost. I started to attend the University of Louisville in August 2018, and by September I was filling out the paperwork to study abroad with CEA in the French Riviera for the Spring 2019 semester.
As a non-citizen and as the first person in my family to not only go to college but study abroad, I needed all the guidance I could get, and CEA was there for me the whole way. Whether via email, phone calls, text, whatever it may be -- they always helped in every way to ensure I could achieve my goal.
Most people ask me: why not study abroad in Spain if you know Spanish? And here's the answer. As shocking as it may be, I wanted to go somewhere completely different. A small town where I didn’t know the language and where I knew English wouldn’t dominate. I wanted to feel the struggle my mother went through coming to the United States. I wanted to prove to myself that I could build resilience and shine and prosper in one of the most challenging environments I could place myself in.
I have no regrets. Not only did it grow my appreciation for my family for having endured such a change with absolutely nothing. CEA offered me guidance and a home; meanwhile, my mother had to build all of that on her own here. I learned independence in a way beyond words.
France became by home by the end of the four months because it allowed me not to grow but blossom into a person I didn’t know I could be. It allowed me to learn about others and their lives. While abroad, I tried to speak to locals in each country I visited (nine total), and I found that as humankind we are all fairly similar. We are looking for prosperity and happiness. We all fall and get back up. We all have to learn and go outside of our comfort zones.
If you are a first-generation college student, I applaud you for stepping into the unknown. For furthering your education and growing yourself. I urge you to study abroad -- if not for a whole semester like I did, then at least for a summer. It will teach you things beyond textbooks and lectures. I know it can be scary and not everyone has financial stability, but see it as an investment in the most profitable business you will ever have: yourself. Paul Coelho once said “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine; it is lethal.” For me, making my family proud is priceless. Showing my mother her sacrifices weren't in vain is my biggest achievement. And studying abroad showed me that no matter your culture, ethnicity, race, or place of birth, everyone deserves respect and an opportunity to grow.
Olivia Gutierrez Padron is a CEA Alumni Ambassador who studied abroad in the French Riviera during the Spring 2019 semester. She is currently a student at the University of Louisville.
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