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As the daughter of a lifelong educator, stereotypes about the public school system never rang true to me because I grew up with a first hand perspective of the elaborate inner machinery that kept the system running—all through my mom’s daily life as a high school counselor. She transformed my rudimentary understanding of the public education system—which is, of course, not a monolithic one—into a consciousness of the complex realities, tragedies, and triumphs that many public school students and educators face across state lines. Most importantly, she taught me to never expect less from a public school student.

My own experience as a public school student reinforced not only my belief in the system, but also my belief in the resolve to succeed of the students that make up these schools. This belief has been doubly reaffirmed here at Columbia. I’ve made friends here from all across the country who were among the first ones to be admitted to Columbia or an Ivy League school in the history of their high school—often without the help of a college counselor. One of my favorite stories is that of the students who had to explain to others from their high school that, contrary to popular belief, Columbia with a “U” is an actual university, not a country.

Back in Texas, our home life was undeniably influenced by my mom’s career in public education. Our breakfast table was rendered obsolete because our family was always rushing out the door with breakfast tacos in our hands—my mom didn’t want to keep the kids or parents waiting. Most after-school afternoons consisted of seeing her come home in a state of fatigue—usually hours after her workday was supposed to end.

But it was evenings spent with her that gave me the most valuable insight to the life of a public school educator. Usually over a cup of hot chocolate, she would intimately illustrate how the efforts of teachers, librarians, administrators, and the students themselves would come together to achieve distinct goals every day. I’d listen attentively as she recounted the journeys of the resilient and brilliant kids in the English as a Second Language program that she got to be a part of. She regularly told me about the successful academic journeys of teenage mothers, recent immigrants, and others whose odds were stacked against them.

These conversations showed me how she profoundly believed in the public school system and made me believe in it too.

It wasn’t just my mom. I believed in the public school system because of my high school peers too. And that belief was only cemented when I saw what Columbia students with similar backgrounds could achieve here on campus. For so many of them, Columbia was once an unattainable goal—outside the trajectory of those in their community. A lot of us have had our resolves tested on our path to this university, whether through persuading our parents to let us study far away in New York City, or persuading ourselves that a university that has never accepted anyone from our high school would ever consider our applications. As the saying goes, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” It can be profoundly difficult to imagine yourself at a university at which your high school has never been represented—even harder when your school is devoid of connections with alumni or faculty.

It goes without saying that what school we come from, different access to resources, parental support, and school staff makes it so that some people have had it easier than others. There is no single educational experience that can define and describe the varying factors, obstacles, and privileges within one type of educational journey—public or private or otherwise.

For some students though, this resolve and resilience was imperative at an earlier age and carries a much heavier weight. Although their successes make inspiring stories now—at the time, uncertainty and struggle is what defined their journey to Columbia. The story is only heartwarming after all the conquering has been done.

While my mom taught me how to love the public school system, the students here taught me why. I have come to be amazed by the number of stories I’ve heard from students here who had to figure things out on their own and who had to fight relentlessly throughout their life to get here. We are around so many conquerors of all different kinds of socioeconomic, systemic, and structural barriers. Let us celebrate them and learn from the diversity of our educational journeys and never lose or forget the resolve and determination that got us here.

Maria Castillo is a sophomore in SEAS studying environmental engineering and minoring in political science. She kind of misses going to high school football games. Her mom has been a high school counselor for almost 40 years and is her biggest hero. If you want to hear about graduating in a class of over a thousand people, you can reach her at Tex-Mex Near You runs on alternate Mondays.

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