When it came time to choose a college, I wanted to go as far away from home as possible. I love my family, but I knew that I needed to move out if I was ever going to be a truly independent person. Going across the country for school was the best and most frustrating experience of my life up to that point all at once. As a Latina going to college, I learned so much about myself, my family, and my culture that made it all worth it. Here are 20 important lessons from my college years.
1. We’re not in abuela’s kitchen anymore.
In Los Angeles, I had access to Cuban food anywhere I wanted. My abuela would make me ropa vieja if I asked, and I could always get lechon and plantains delivered from our favorite restaurant. In Boston, there was no abuela and nowhere that delivered, and my scaredy-cat self certainly wasn’t going to take the subway alone to find what I wanted. Once I had access to a kitchen again, I learned how to make my favorites and more. It helped me feel connected to something familiar while I navigated the newness of college.
2. Community doesn’t just happen.
The Cuban-American Students’ Association was a godsend once I found it. Here were people who spoke like me, had families like mine, and got Cuban food for meetings. Seeking them out and getting involved with them took work, though, and I joined late in my college career. Had I found them earlier, I might have had a smoother transition to college.
3. Keeping in touch requires patience.
I talked to my mom, grandma, great grandma, and anyone else who happened to be in the house at the time on a weekly basis. Telling the same stories over again and answering the same questions got old fast, and I had to learn how to be patient. They were trying to figure out this newfound independence as much as I was, and I couldn’t let their concern for every little detail bother me.
4. It also requires boundaries.
Going to college meant that for the first time, I had way more control over boundaries. It took me a while, but eventually, I realized that I didn’t have to pick up the phone every time someone called – I could protect my time if I needed to and call back later. I also didn’t have to tell them everything, and while I don’t advocate lying to your family or withholding important information, it was nice to know that I wouldn’t get in trouble for staying out late as long as I chose not to share that. I felt less anxious and more in control of my decisions.
5. Things slip through the cracks too easily if you don’t keep up.
When my great aunt died, no one told me. We weren’t particularly close, but I was still shocked at the news when my dad casually brought it up one day. Everyone had assumed that someone else had mentioned it. I realized that if I wanted to be kept in the loop, I had to do the work to keep myself in it.
6. Dating is a whole lot easier when you’re far from home.
Bringing boyfriends to meet my family always made me anxious. In college, I could go out with someone, and nobody would know. It helped me be more adventurous and relaxed. If the date went wrong, I wouldn’t have to retell all the gory details, and if it went well, he didn’t have to meet my parents if he dropped me off at home. I could keep it to myself, grow in the relationship, and then let everyone else in when I was ready.
7. I had to make my own decisions.
Before college, it felt like I rarely made decisions on my own. I constantly had a committee of people around me to help me decide on everything from what to wear to which classes to take, and I had a weird fear of disappointing people by making the wrong choice. Sometimes I had college friends around to help, but sometimes, I was on my own, and it was paralyzing. Without people around to constantly validate my actions, I had to learn to trust myself more.
8. You always need some structure.
After spending what felt like every Saturday cleaning the house and constantly operating on my family’s schedule, I loved the idea of having complete control over my own routines — which meant that for a long time, I didn’t have them. My “No parents! No rules!” attitude meant that I regularly slept with unfolded laundry at the foot of my bed and had a hard time remembering to take the trash out. My poor, poor roommate! Eventually, I knew I needed some structure, but I created it on my own terms.
9. Life requires some fearlessness.
Growing up, I was always warned about the bad things that would happen if I went anywhere alone. “Sin chaperona, no!” was a common refrain. But in college, I learned how to be a little more fearless. I could take the subway by myself if I paid attention to my surroundings. I went to Italy for spring break — sin chaperona. Realizing I was capable of doing these “scary” things boosted my confidence and made me feel truly independent.
10. Being alone sometimes is a good thing.
With three younger cousins, a little sister, and countless tias, tios, and people who were somehow related to me even if I didn’t know how time alone was scarce. I loved the noise – usually. College gave me my first opportunity to really spend time alone. Sometimes I enjoyed the quiet, and sometimes I made a beeline for the dining hall to just be around noise. Over time, I learned to really appreciate long stretches of time on my own more.
11. When it comes to language, “use it or lose it” is right.
I went from speaking Spanish almost daily to almost never, and I lost so much vocabulary so quickly that I worried I’d lose it all. To me, speaking Spanish is a huge part of how I personally express my identity as a Latina, and the thought of losing that ability freaked me out. I spoke Spanish to everyone I possibly could and listened to a lot more Spanish-language music than ever before to make up for it.
12. Being Latina was a bigger part of my identity than I realized.
You know that bad joke about how vegans will always tell you they’re vegan as quickly as possible in a conversation? That was me, except I told everyone I was Cuban. Ev-er-y-one. It made me feel special and interesting, and as a freshman in a small New England college who walked in without a single friend, I craved those feelings. But I was also extremely proud to be a little bit different, and I realized just how much I loved my culture when I moved away from it.
13. Apparently, being Latina is “trendy.”
Here’s the thing about being different: You also start to feel a little like an oddity. Most people asked questions about being Cuban that led to really great conversations, but some made me feel like I was on display. All things Cuban had been trendy for a few years, and sometimes it seemed like I was one of those things.
14. There are a lot of misconceptions about Latinidad out there.
I found myself making a lot of corrections and introducing seemingly new perspectives in many of my conversations. No, Cuban food is not spicy, and no, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro are not “heroes” to all of us. People were shocked at the new information, and I was shocked at some of the broad generalizations I bumped into. I’d never assume that all food from all English-speaking countries was the same – so why did some people seem to think that Cuban was just another way to say Mexican?
15. Other parents had been as strict as mine.
Trading stories with other Latinas about our childhoods was an amazing experience. You mean your mom called required phone calls home every hour on the hour when you were out, too? And you weren’t allowed to sleep over at certain people’s houses? My childhood wasn’t so strange, after all.
16. Other families were so similar to mine.
Come to think of it, our entire families felt similar. From Nochebuena festivities and chismosa older family members to Vick’s as a cure-all and countless requests to “ponte un sueter,” I was amazed at how alike Cuban families from all over the country really were.
17. There was a lot about my culture that I didn’t know.
Similar as we were, there was so much I didn’t know about what it meant to be Cuban. Other Cuban-American students used all kinds of slang I had never heard before, and when I said I had no idea what “El Burrito Sabanero” was, you could hear the gasps from down the hall. There was a lot to catch up on, and while I was happy to dive in, sometimes my lack of knowledge made me feel like a fake Latina.
18. Therapy is not a bad thing.
It’s no secret that mental health in the Latinx community needs more attention, and because it’s never really discussed, it took me two and a half years before I took advantage of the free, on-campus counseling offered. I didn’t have to tell anyone I was going, which was one less thing to worry about, and it was a relief to have a way to talk about some issues I’d always wanted to address but didn’t really know how.
19. And I learned to handle stress.
Stress was the biggest issue for me to figure out. I had always been an incredibly anxious person, and everything seemed to have the potential to stress me out and totally ruin my day. I was on my own in college, and I needed to learn how to swim before I sank. It’s an ongoing process, but since going to therapy and really working to find a solution, I’m getting there
20. Now that I felt I had truly grown up, anything was possible.
I know my family cares about me, and all of their questions, restrictions, and concern really do come from a place of genuine care. But going away to Boston for college – a time meant for learning, growing, and exploration – was the best thing I could have done for myself. It allowed me to grow and make mistakes away from watchful eyes and make decisions that were truly my own, rather than decisions made out of fear of disappointing people. It helped me grow into a more independent person who felt confident and knew she could be a capable adult, and it was totally worth the lack of Cuban food to get there.
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