Campus Crusader

María Carla Chicuén wants to inspire high-achieving, low-income youth to reach for the school of their dreams

Words by Annie Monjar // Photography by Ana Zangroniz

Some teenagers in America are raised knowing they’ll attend at least one Ivy League school. María Carla Chicuén wasn’t one of them. Newly emigrated from Cuba and living in Miami, Florida, Chicuén had neither resources nor ties to top universities. She assumed such schools were beyond her reach.

A college counselor at a neighboring school thought otherwise. The counselor connected with Chicuén and guided her through the application process and her options in higher education. Chicuén knew she could reach higher than she’d assumed.

Today, Chicuén is a Harvard graduate and special projects assistant to the president of Miami-Dade College, the largest undergraduate institution in the country. Chicuén wants to help students from all backgrounds find the guidance they need to access the best possible education.

Unfortunately, Chicuén’s experience in high school still isn’t uncommon. “The research shows that high-achieving, low-income students aren’t even applying to top colleges,” she says. “They’re mystified by the process and think of top colleges as inaccessible for them.” Her new book, Achieve the College Dream: You Don’t Need to Be Rich to Attend a Top School, outlines how to collate a competitive application and secure the financial aid necessary to pay for elite higher education.

The research shows that high-achieving, low-income students aren’t even applying to top colleges.

Chicuén has dedicated much of her career to education and advocacy, starting as the Latino coordinator for Harvard’s Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program. She earned her master’s degree in international relations from the London School of Economics and has worked in international development banking and higher education access.

While Chicuén hopes her book can provide help to economically underprivileged students, she says the advice it contains about setting oneself up for success and doing so without incurring huge costs is valuable to anyone with college aspirations. “I’m hoping this book will be a valuable resource to counselors, teachers, parents, and students,” she says. “Even people in high-income districts might find it helpful for encouraging students as young as middle school to consider top colleges and become aware of the preparation necessary.”

Achieve the College Dream is organized chronologically with the intent of walking students through the many, often confusing steps toward college admission. Chicuén outlines the types of academic and extracurricular characteristics schools are looking for and how to plan a curriculum that will meet those desires. She also offers advice for low-income students to succeed on standardized tests, including the process for obtaining fee waivers and preparation that doesn’t require an expensive tutor.

“I also talk about the myth that students have to become extraordinary leaders to be considered exceptional,” she says. “In fact, universities are very interested in personal challenges that you’ve had to overcome. If you worked at a local food chain to support your family, that shows a real sense of responsibility.”

Chicuén dispels the notion that students will be financially better off if they apply and attend less prestigious universities: “Because top schools have greater financial resources, there is more aid available, the majority of which isn’t even loans,” she explains. “Students can actually get grants complemented by external scholarships. But often, students know so little about that; they only look at the sticker price, and when they see that the annual cost is higher than their family’s annual salary, they reject these schools.”

Achieve the College Dream already has a ringing endorsement from William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard University. Chicuén hopes to turn the book’s release into an opportunity to host speaking engagements for students and parents.

Chicuén’s advice to low-income youth doesn’t come from atop the ivory tower of higher education; she’s lived it. Now, she hopes her book will be a “simple, straightforward, and inspiring” way to reach more students who have the potential but need help recognizing it.

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