“I thought I wasn’t going to be given the same opportunities as my peers. But I overcame that.”
Rafael, Tufts University
Hometown: Saint Paul, Minnesota
Rafael Roman Mendoza was born in a tiny town on the side of a mountain in Mexico. When he was 6, his parents, deciding they wanted something better for themselves and their 7 children, moved to Minnesota. Rafael’s uncle lived there, and told them things were better there, there were more jobs. Rafael and two of his siblings made the move with their parents; his oldest four brothers stayed behind in Mexico until there was enough money for them to join the family.
Adjusting to a shockingly different culture and learning an unfamiliar language only contributed to the difficulties Rafael faced. His father worked at a plastics company, his mom washed dishes, and they moved around a lot, first their uncle’s home, then a trailer park, and finally a home of their own. Though Rafael and the younger of the siblings were in school, his four oldest brothers felt they’d be helping the family more if they worked, instead of going to school.
“It’s hard for them; they feel the regret of not continuing their education. There’s a lot of pressure on us, the younger ones, not only to fulfill our parents’ dreams, but also our brothers’ expectations. They have the mindset of, ‘we came here to help you financially; we expect you to do something we weren’t able to do,’” Rafael says.
Rafael’s early experience with school wasn’t easy. He was held back a grade because he wasn’t able to learn English as quickly as his peers. It made him feel bad, like he wasn’t trying hard enough—he began immersing himself in grasping English, watching television only in English, listening to American music, reserving Spanish for his parents only.
But by the time Rafael was in 7th grade, he preferred mostly to hang out with his friends. “I wanted to hang out with the wrong crowd. I wasn’t going to care about education; I just wanted to goof around,” he says. But come 8th grade, he had enrolled in advanced placement classes and had turned his grades around. Even his teachers noticed—“wow, Rafael, what happened?” they asked.
What happened was that Rafael’s parents saw that he wasn’t focusing on his education. They sat him down and told him stories about their own lives as children—how his dad worked in farms picking oranges and strawberries; how he was constantly in pain but knew he had to provide for his family; how he wished he, too, could have an education because his life could be different, could be better.
Rafael realized he was not fulfilling what his parents expected of him, what they changed their lives for in order to allow him to achieve. In motivating himself to do better, he found that what his parents wanted and what he wanted were more aligned than he thought. And their around-the-clock support was exactly what kept Rafael inspired.
“They were always there,” he says. “They woke me up when I forgot my alarm. They made me a meal when I was too busy studying to eat; they were always there for me so that I could meet my academic pursuits.”
Rafael knew he wanted a school that would be a challenge for him. He knew he wanted to “go to a good college”, so during high school, he used to track acceptance rates of colleges as a metric for determining if a school was hard to get into or not. And yet, he had no understanding of other factors classifying a school’s caliber or rank. Rafael’s counselor, who knew that Rafael was from a low-income background, told him about QuestBridge.
QuestBridge introduced him to an array of schools he’d never even heard about. “It was an eye-opener for me,” Rafael says. “I was not even thinking of moving outside of Minnesota until Quest.”
After being named a Finalist, it sunk in that he actually had a shot of going to an incredible college without financial burden. He ranked colleges, but decided to “leave it to fate” and not tell his parents unless he got in, for fear of disappointing them. Against his wildest dreams, Rafael matched, an accomplishment that left him speechless, and his parents — albeit scared — jumping for joy.
Rafael knew leaving home for Boston would be hard, but he also knew he had to try it. He could always come back, he thought. Not having attended a pre-orientation program, Rafael didn’t know a single person on campus. For nights leading up to his departure, he couldn’t sleep.
He likened stepping foot on campus for the first time like his arrival to the U.S., all those years earlier. At first, everything was hard — the classes, making friends, and sometimes he would tell his parents, who he still called every night, that he didn’t know if he could make it. But they knew he could, and ultimately, Rafael knew he could too.
In time, the list of things he loved about college rolled off his tongue with quick passion: “I love school, I love my peers, I love my classes, the professors are amazing.” He even got involved with dance, which is something he had never given himself a chance to do because ‘it wasn’t academic’, but he grew to love that, too. His sincerity is as bright as his future, and college was just the beginning. With a major in economics and minor in finance, Rafael hopes to get his MBA one day, and possibly work abroad. He’d also like to return home to his family at some point in the future.
He has a lot ahead of him, but is thankful for the lessons he’s learned thus far, not least of which is independence. “I always used to be afraid of the unknown, of the ‘oh, what if that happens’. But now I know that mentality is what actually holds you back.”
When asked if he’s proud of himself, he answers with a resounding “yes”. “I was born on a mountainside town in Mexico and came to the U.S. not knowing a bit of English, as an undocumented student, which always scared me. I thought I wasn’t going to be given the same opportunities as my peers,” he says. “But I overcame that. And I’m definitely proud of that, and of myself.”