In February, our First Graduate students at James Denman Middle School were joined by Rachel Itwaru for our monthly First Gen Speaker Series. Rachel is a business analyst at Salesforce.org, a self-funded social enterprise that provides technology solutions to social-impact organizations. Rachel spoke to our students about her family’s background and challenges, her pathway to college, and her passion for the work she does now. After the presentation, First Graduate advisor Meg Ramey interviewed Rachel about her story.
What was it like where you grew up?
Bloomfield, NJ is a diverse town–both racially and socioeconomically–that is surrounded by both wealthy and impoverished neighborhoods. The concerns of students in the part of town I grew up in were very different than the concerns of students in the nicer, more affluent parts of town. I was appreciative of the fact that I got to interact with so many different types of people from a plethora of backgrounds and cultures, but it was never the ideal place to raise a child. We would periodically hear about shootings or gang-related activity concentrated in the part of town I lived in and it wasn’t uncommon to have the occasional incident at school.
Please describe your family’s background.
My parents immigrated to the United States from Guyana — a tiny South American country that borders Venezuela and Brazil — in their early twenties. I always think about the courage and hope they must have had to travel to a place with no concept of how to survive there. My dad was one of twelve siblings and my mom was one of five. Given the lack of economic opportunity and upward mobility in Guyana, they both moved from tropical villages to Brooklyn, New York in the mid-80s. With no disposable income to support pursuing a full college education, they relied on survival jobs attained through temp agencies, or informal relationships with other recent immigrants who knew of jobs that paid — even if they were unregulated, underpaid or exploitative. My dad did everything from work in a textile factory to cleaning airplanes, and my mom was able to attain the occasional typing job (back then restaurants in New York would hire people to type out menus). Through a lot of discipline and self-teaching, my dad was able to eventually pursue a career in IT, and my mom is an underwriter at an insurance company in New York.
Describe your high school environment. How did students at your high school view their future? Was college on the table?
The classes in my high school were really segregated based on perceived academic ability. I was able to learn among really driven, impressive people by being in certain classes, but it wasn’t representative of the school as a whole. We had our fair share of disciplinary, gang, and drug-related problems. Over 40% of the student body was economically disadvantaged and on the college readiness index, my school scored 13 out of 100. Access to AP classes and diverse student organizations (which were necessary to gain admission to top universities) was very limited relative to nearby schools. For some of my friends, attending college was a given, and for others, it didn’t matter as much. Knowing my parents were living paycheck to paycheck made me want to go to college, so for my brother and I, we knew we had to go. There was too much evidence to support that we could lead better, more fulfilling, worry-free lives with a college education. However, notable colleges were noticeably absent from college fairs, and there were a lot of vocational schools and armed service organizations present. I was lucky to have friends with older siblings who attended college and be surrounded by people who also wanted to get a college degree. Making the right friends was certainly influential.
What motivated you to apply to Harvard?
I was in the backyard with cousins eating Domino’s pizza on a very humid summer day when my mom excitedly ran to me with the phone in her hand saying Harvard was calling. I assumed it was some sort of mass communication because maybe, in my perusing college websites, I had inadvertently filled out a form or something. But it was the financial aid office calling to inform me that they had identified me as a promising candidate and I should apply. I remember asking “On the real, what are my chances of getting in?” In hindsight, this probably wasn’t the best representation of myself, but it turned out fine. They told me they looked at candidates in the context of where they came from, which renewed my sense of hope that I could be considered for a position at a university that I perceived to only admit affluent and recognizable families of a certain background. It made me want to try even harder during my senior year of high school.
What was it like to figure out how to apply to college without a lot of support?
So much Googling! I had no idea what I was getting myself into, or how to best convey my story and who I was in the many essays required to apply to schools. The idea of having an admissions committee review my application and academic performance was really daunting. I remember perusing college forums looking for evidence that there were other people like me applying to top universities but it was difficult to find comparable stories. It’s easy to develop a concept of what’s possible based on what others like yourself have done in the past, but it’s important to remind yourself that you can unfold your own story. At one point my parents earnestly requested the help of a counselor from another high school, but she turned out to be discouraging and lacked the empathy required to assist a first-generation college student through this process. I did, however, have a few phenomenal teachers and mentors in my life that were kind enough to encourage me, answer questions, and review my essays.
What did it feel like to be a “first gen” student at Harvard and what related challenges did you face?
One of the first things I noticed was how evident socioeconomic disparity was at Harvard. There is a paucity of low-income students at prestigious universities and it was difficult to feel a sense of belonging until I embraced my own identity as a first-generation student. Eventually, I didn’t feel so badly that I couldn’t afford to keep up with the brand-name clothing and and expensive club memberships that some of my friends were able to pay for, but it took time to adjust. Academically, I was nowhere as prepared as other students who had graduated from more rigorous high schools. I’m glad I had a lot of support from on-campus mentors as well as other first-generation classmates.
What has your career path been like? What do you like about your current job?
I started out working in the financial sector but I felt an obligation to work for mission-driven organizations where I felt I could interact with like-minded people. I always had the goal of working at a social enterprise, but I thought I would benefit from working at larger, for-profit organizations to learn how to work — that is, to understand how to be an accountable, disciplined team member in a fast-paced environment. My first job in tech was in a business operations role, and then I proceeded to work in healthcare technology until eventually finding my way to a Salesforce.org, where I currently work. Salesforce.org is a self-sustaining social enterprise that spends proceeds from our technology on employee volunteerism, grantmaking, youth workforce development, and technology innovation. I’m grateful for the opportunity to work alongside mission-driven people who feel an obligation to do good in the world.