2000 | Cali, Colombia | Age: 20
My first visit to the U.S. had been a gift from my dad for my quinceanera, and I visited again when I was 17 for a summer vacation. I grew up in Cali, Colombia with my mom and dad. I went to the same all-girls Catholic school from kindergarten until I graduated. My life was very stable I studied psychology at the university for 2.5 years, and then one of my close friends moved to France. I believe in destiny, and to me that was the first piece of the puzzle that would change the path my life would take. We were romantically involved at the time, and I thought that if I moved to Amsterdam, where I had family, we could continue my studies as well as our relationship. At 19, Paris and Amsterdam seemed close enough for us to be together. I had been preparing for this move for a year, and when I got the visa rejection letter, I made up my mind to move to New York.
Within a week, I was living here with my uncle. I came on the tourist visa I had gotten at 15. The process of getting a green card through my dad took 7 years. The plan had never been to move the family here, but my dad says that I paved the way because now they’re all legal citizens.
I overstayed, so I had no papers; I had to learn the language and put myself through school. My purpose all along had been to finish my education, but because I didn’t have a green card, I couldn’t get financial aid. I paid for school by working as a personal trainer at a high end gym. I was able to transfer credits from Colombia to John Jay, where I received my Bachelor’s and Master’s in forensic psychology.
For 7 years it felt like I was in prison. I wasn’t able to have a bank account or a phone. You can’t do anything if you don’t have legal documentation. The day I went to New Jersey to pick up my green card, I left that office feeling like, “God, I’m free!” That year I went back home for Christmas, and I felt like a stranger in my hometown. People at home said I spoke funny now; people here would always say I have an accent. You feel like you don’t belong anywhere.
I applied to NYU for nonprofit management with the idea of wanting to help the world, but I didn’t know how. I started working for Life is Precious, a nonprofit suicide prevention program. It was created because young Latinas have the highest suicide rates in NYC. I was an intake counselor interviewing the girls that were referred from the partner hospitals because they had depression or suicidal ideations. These girls were 13-17 years old. They would tell me every day that they wanted to kill themselves, that they had no reason to live, that life was pointless. There’s only so much of these stories you can take. I promised them that I would change the situation for young Latinas. So while at NYU, I created a nonprofit to support young Latinas in NYC via mentorship programs similar to the Big Brothers Big Sisters. My organization started to function as a legal entity in 2012. It’s called Latinas On the Verge of Excellence - The L.O.V.E. Mentoring Program. We implement the mentoring programs at 10 public after school programs. Most recently my question has been how to make this more sustainable and how to increase the impact that we have. I’ve been thinking of creating a school, and I was recently admitted to Harvard for a program that will help me do that.
A friend in Colombia gave me this bracelet when I was 13. It reminds me of the uncertainty of that age. I had no idea where life would take me. All the support and guidance I’ve received on this journey has been amazing, but if I didn’t believe in myself nothing would have happened. It transports me back in time and helps me relate to the girls I work with. Unlike them, I had the privilege of a strong support system. Even 20, I could have lost track of myself and went in the wrong direction. When I was here by myself and I had to figure things out alone and put myself through school and find work. I wasn’t the 13 year old girl anymore, but I still had to work pretty hard. The girls we work with may say, “You don’t get me” or “You don’t understand my life,” and I have to get down on their level and share my story of my own journey to get where I am now.