The Equation

Photograph by Nino Mekanarishvili

Cecilia Hernandez writes about the path out of poverty – good grades, getting into college, graduating and finding a well-paying job. She realized that to succeed on this journey she needed to ask for help and collaborate with others.

It always felt like New York University found me.

I never considered NYU as a real option for me until I received an e-mail explaining their Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP).

HEOP understood the inequities that come with growing up with a lower socio-economic background and being a minority, both of which make the feat of being a college graduate more difficult to reach.

Before College, I never took the time to analyse this inequity equation. However, I did memorise the solution.

Get good grades, plus get into college, plus graduate, equals get a well-paying job.

I am not sure when the exact moment was when I started to break down this equation beyond the rote memorisation I trained myself to do my whole life.

But I will always vividly remember the first Saturday in spring break of my freshman year at NYU when I called my mom to let her know that I will be coming home after work and asked her if she was excited to see me. Sadly, her response was that the place I had called home my whole life was no longer our home. We were evicted. Leaving all our belongings, childhood memories behind a locked door. For the first time the equation felt unsolvable. Graduating college did not feel like the solution for me. There was no home to go to that Spring break so instead I stayed in my dorm room on Fifth Avenue contemplating if I should drop out of college and get a full-time job to help my family. Part of me believes that the reason I stayed to finish the semester was because I did not want to let go of the equation I had memorized for so many years.

Illustration by Miekie Verster

As I transitioned between my college years, my problems at home were harder to solve. Simultaneously, as I progressed through my math major, my classes became harder as they were no longer about solving equations, but instead about proving complex theorems. College became about proving to myself that I could overcome the inequalities I was born into as well as the competition that comes with attending a prestigious university.

By the end of my fall semester of my senior year, the mathematical proofs I encountered in class felt unsolvable. At home, my family was also going through another eviction. Something else that felt unsolvable to me. I couldn’t keep up with my classes and the competition of my senior year. I was stuck and out of options to solve these problems. Once I accepted that I couldn’t prove these alone, I began to make progress. My professors, classmates, and academic advisors never made me feel like I wasn’t good enough to be in NYU’s competitive environment. Instead, they were compassionate and provided me with extra help outside of class, words of encouragement, and strategies to graduate.

Collaborating with others to come up with solutions was ultimately what helped me graduate from NYU. The solution I had memorised for many years – get good grades, get into college, graduate, and get a job without further analyses in a lot of ways was true for me. After graduation, I got a job in Finance, and a few years later, in Data Analytics. It almost feels like a dream come true to know that I helped my family get out of poverty and that I made the right decision to finish my degree. Further analysing this equation though shows me that getting these opportunities and keeping them have been extremely difficult, given how competitive these fields are, but I believe my major in mathematics prepared me for them.

For me, life after college has been about proving to myself that I can ask for help, collaborate with others to continue to grow and learn in my career, and continue to pay it forward in honour of those who have helped me along the way and continue to help me.

Cecilia Hernandez

BA of Mathematics,
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY

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