Felipe Sepulveda moved to America as a toddler; he didn't speak English when he entered kindergarten. A fast learner, he was the "first kid in the class to count to 100," and entering high school, he was admitted to a California bridge program, the Puente Project, which aims to get more poor, mostly Latino, youth to college.
Last autumn, Sepulveda, now 19, entered Harvard University. Before he left his Anaheim neighborhood for the hallowed grounds of Cambridge, Mass., Next America featured him in an article about English as the common denominator in a melting-pot nation (Univision also profiled him on its Fusion blog). Here are some insights into his experience.
This interview, conducted by Jody Brannon, has been edited for length and clarity.
The Harvard community, from my experience as an undergraduate, is a very open and welcoming one. I have not felt any issues with my economic and ethnic background. There are also many Latinos here at the college that I interact with and am friends with.
The highlight is being in a better academic environment than the one I had at my old high school—having so many resources at my disposal, amazing/interesting courses, professors that are leaders in their field, and interacting with so many brilliant students and roommates. The downside is mainly just being homesick and missing my family dearly. I didn't go back home until winter break, and it had been the longest amount of time I spent away from home.
The environment at Harvard is remarkably different and a stark contrast to what was available to me at my high school. The workload and academic environment is intense compared to what I was used to. I ended up doing well and adjusted to the academics within a few weeks.
I think that it would've been much better for me if I had been challenged more in high school with my workload, difficulty of courses, amount of reading assigned. I wish I would've taken more math as well. I would recommend [the Puente program] assign more reading and writing in the English classes—and greatly encourage the students to take the hardest classes offered at school.
After my first year, my goals have changed. When I started college, I wanted to do law school. I am now leaning toward getting my master's degree in either business or public administration. I am majoring in economics and minoring in government.
Over the summer, I did two internships. One was a public administration internship for the city of Anaheim in which I got to work for the city administration, specifically the city manager's office. I also did a month-long fellowship in California's capital of Sacramento. I worked with state Assembly members on the policymaking process. Specifically, I interned for the office of state Assembly member Tom Daly, who represents the 69th District. He's a great guy.
I loved going back home. I really like being at Harvard, but I got homesick during the first semester, so it felt great to be back home with friends and family. My father is still a truck driver. My mother is now trying to get a job to help my father out. My younger sister now has very high aspirations for college, in large part because she has seen me succeed, and she also wants to go to Harvard. My older sister is now a manager at the movie theater where she has been working. She has not gone back to school.
I think that it's unfortunate that fellow Latinos aren't following my path in larger numbers. I think it's important that there be a larger focus on the Latino community in the United States. We are a large and growing component of the population, and something should be done to get more of us in college.
I think it's important for first-generation students to set a college-bound trend of succeeding so that the second generation and so on can follow this trend. In that sense, I feel like we can play a vital role in the Next America, as opposed to occupying low-paying jobs. I feel that being educated, there is a lot we can contribute to this great country.
'MY VIEW' OF THE NEXT AMERICA
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Jody Brannon contributed to this article.