College Admit Season: What Are You Doing to Create a Space of Belonging?

We’re in the season of college acceptances which can bring a great source of stress, joy, and disbelief. We are captivated by the announcements from family, friends, and complete strangers who leap out of computer chairs wearing hoodies from their top choice school.

But what happens once these students arrive on campuses which are far removed from the places in which they feel a sense of belonging?

When I was 18 I went to Loyola Marymount University. Up until that point I had met maybe a couple of White people my age and only knew home to be Boyle Heights.

So many of us navigate college applications, choice, and college life blindly.

My parents are both immigrants from Mexico. My dad attended elementary school when he wasn’t working as a farm hand. His education stopped at the 3rd grade. My mom attended school sporadically up until the 6th grade. As the eldest, she regularly stayed home to babysit her younger seven siblings. At 14 she was pulled out of school permanently to work double shifts in the garment district. My parents met in LA working at Cliftons Cafeteria, got married at the Guadalupe Wedding Chapel on Broadway, and settled in a studio apartment on Union in Westlake. After one too many close calls with the regular drive-by’s, they decided to head East to Boyle Heights where my older sister and I attended Evergreen elementary. My childhood consisted of a few short blocks from school to Brooklyn (now Cesar Chavez). In the Summer we would get a dosage of alternate reality, of paradise, of two months spent in Villa Coronado, Chihuahua, MX (a small town that you have to really zoom in and know where to look to find it on a map) with my abuelito, tias and tios, and gaggle of primos. These spaces clung to me like a second skin, familiar and glowing.

Students of color will experience a multitude of microaggressions. What is your school doing to counterbalance the harm enacted by the environment you are bringing them into?

So when I walked onto the Marina Del Rey beautiful campus by the beach, I was elated. As I was unloading my things from the car a group of fraternity brothers walked by and stopped to stare and ask, “Hey! What are you?! We have a bet going. My bet is that you are Peruvian, they think you are Colombian.” Confused and feeling the red flame of self-consciousness lick my skin as my mom stood next to me I answered, “I’m Mexican.” They made a face and said, “Really? You’re Mexican? That’s too bad.” And without another word they walked off, their confident strut irking me even more. “Qué dijó?” my mom asked, “No sé.” I played dumb, trying hard to shrug it off.

Later that week I became friends with Kirsten whose name I found it so hard to pronounce that I practiced it over and over again as I showered and got ready for the day’s activities. I was so excited to make a friend and I really didn’t want to mess up her name. As we walked across campus, I noticed her curly-haired, blonde, lightly tanned, blue-eyed, with a slight bounce to her walk and me, canela-colored, dark stick straight hair, dark eyes, and with a determined stride, I thought wow this is really working. As we walked I caught the eye of an older Latina woman who looked lost and she asked me for directions in Spanish. Excited to know where she wanted to go I eagerly gave her directions in Spanish with a big smile. I felt the warmth of her gratitude as she said, “Gracias mijita!” Maybe that’s why it stung even more when Kirsten turned to me with a fuchi face and a hand on her hip to ask with disdain, “You speak Mexican?” “Nooo, I speak Spanish. I’m Mexican.” “Oh. I thought you were just really tanned.” We didn’t hang out after that. I wish I could say that I walked away with my forehead high with pride but that wasn’t the case. I was so hungry for connection that I would have kept hanging out with her if she didn’t start avoiding me.

Your students should not suffer from your failure to plan.

LMU didn’t have enough dorms for all of the freshman so they placed students into creative overflow housing. Some students were staying at a nearby nice hotel. I was placed into a temporary space (a converted study room with bunkbeds pushed in where we were told not to decorate since it was temporary) with a freshman who I was so excited to find out also spoke Spanish. Her Salvadorean parents visited often that week and I longed to be included in their tight knit trio. She was moved out to a permanent freshman housing a few days later so we never got a chance to connect. I felt like they took the two Latinas and shoved them wherever without any consideration. I felt like an estorbo. Because I didn’t have an official dorm room number, I didn’t receive any of the freshman dorm emails. Everyone seemed to be making friends fast and I just felt like an outsider. After a couple of weeks I was moved to a Sophomore dorm where my roommate was a White girl from Arizona, who corrected me and informed me she was Jewish. My suite mates were a bubbly blonde from Brazil and a Latina who didn’t speak Spanish and whose family had lived in the US for generations. They were nice but I didn’t blame them for not wanting a frosh around. I cringe when I remember how awkward I was around them. I would say I owe my former roommate the chocolate I took from her bin during my depression-driven compulsive binging but she was an incredibly unfriendly roommate so I will finally forgive myself and call it square.

I was so painfully lonely. I didn’t know how to just be me. I didn’t feel like I had the chance. Every time I met someone, they asked me, “What are you?” I felt excruciatingly awkward trying to get them to understand that I was Mexican and born in LA. It became easier to just nod when they assumed I was a foreign international student. Sometimes I leaned into whatever they thought I was, I was so damn hungry for friends.

You must provide mental health education and support to all students.

Then a few weeks into school I had issues with my computer and had to call IT. An older Filipino man walked in and asked me if I was Filipina. I said no but that I got asked that a lot, smiling to signal that I took it as a compliment. I had a quick realization that we were alone in my room. It made me uncomfortable but I didn’t know how to handle it. Could I ask him to come back? Don’t be ridiculous I told myself. Then he asked me a series of really personal questions: “Do you have a boyfriend? I bet you don’t, you look like a good girl.” I said no even though I technically did. I felt ashamed for lying to please this older man. Was I being respectful or was I falling into my old patterns of victim and abuser? I waved it off. “Are you a virgin?” He asked as he handed me a disk to clean my computer drive, his finger caressing my hand as I took it. I felt sick in my stomach. “I have to go to class now.” I lied. The room felt hot and I felt like I was falling out of consciousness (I now know that my body was disassociating, a helpful skill I learned when I was being abused as a child). He got up, annoyed, and stated that it was going to take another two hours for the disk to work (a lie). I insisted I couldn’t be late to class, to my theology class, I emphasized. I pandered to his good girl conversation thread hoping he would believe me and leave. He smiled, whispering close to my ear, “Well since you’re such a good girl…” He paused looking down at my chest and scanning my body for several seconds. “…I will leave you the disk. When you’re done with classes you can bring it to me tonight. My office is in the basement. Very quiet. I will wait for you.” I smiled brightly and nodded as I walked him out. As soon as he left I wanted to scratch my eyes out and jump out the window. I felt sick. Ashamed. Dirty.

I was carrying so much pain without the vocabulary to name what happened or the reassurance that it wasn’t my fault.

The exchange triggered all of my past sexual trauma. The IT tech kept calling several times a day using the disk as an excuse. This was not a store-bought software, it was software burned onto a generic CD that I’m sure he had several copies of.

His unwelcome and inappropriate advances (and his access to me) triggered a deep depression that took me from acing my 20 units to failing. I stopped going to class. I was scared to go out. I was ashamed of being scared. Nothing happened I told myself. The calls didn’t stop and I was so scared that he would drop by. I begged my suite mates to return it for me.

The thread between first-gen college and low-income students and their university is incredibly tenuous given all that we have to do to be able to attend.

I was holding four jobs at the time. I sorted books at the library and was a receptionist at an office – both jobs work study, meaning checks that went directly to my tuition. My third job was from sorting shoes at a Mervyn’s 30 miles away, a 2+hr bus ride each way, where I worked from 11 PM – almost 4 AM several days a week. My fourth job was Fri- Sun as a grill cook at the Los Angeles County Hospital, a job I held throughout high school. I worked so that I could meet the roughly $1K/month parent contribution that my parents couldn’t contribute to. They had four other kids and made minimum wage, well under the poverty line in LA. They were used to me helping them financially, there was no way to ask them. Ask them for what? To kill themselves further so that I could go to a private school? I felt so uninformed and stupid. I went to the dean’s office to tell them that I was struggling financially, emotionally, and now academically. I asked if there was any way I could qualify for additional loans. I got an “understanding smile” and apology that more couldn’t be done. I spoke to my professors (who were almost all masters students) for help and they shrugged their shoulders, no special treatment and all that. In their defense I didn’t say why I was struggling. I was too damn ashamed. In my defense, I didn’t feel seen, heard, and nowhere near safe in order to open up.

College Dropout.

Shortly after my mother was getting surgery and would be unable to work for months. She was struggling financially and while she didn’t ask, she didn’t say no when I said I’d take a leave of absence to come home and work and help. The decision was easy to make because I had no roots at LMU. I lacked a support system. I lacked a guide. I lacked a sense of belonging.

I never went back and no one at LMU ever reached out.

I never went back to LMU and it took me 14 years to get back to school full time. I’m lucky. The overwhelming majority of college students who dropout, including prospective students who accept but don’t end up attending any school largely due to financial constraints (Summer melt) and those who dropout after starting school, never return to school. As a first-gen college, low-income, daughter of Mexican immigrants who lived below the poverty line, I had a lot of cards stacked against me. These are data points that can easily be tracked. This data should be used to plan for and accommodate students.

I understand that it is hard for large universities to provide personalized services but it is unethical to accept students who meet your quotas, who you charge the same tuition, and whose personal statements clearly state their mental health crises – and not do a damn thing for them once they are on campus.

I was saddled with a lot of debt from just one semester. I was also saddled with a heavy feeling of failure. Of letting my parents down. Of disappointing my high school teachers. Of loss.

There were many little and easy things that could have been done to prevent me from leaving. Instead, many things and non-actions on LMU’s part prevented me from feeling welcome, from feeling like I belonged.

So I ask again, what are you doing to ensure that your prospective students can come to see your school as home? What are you doing to ensure that they can feel like they belong?

Normalizing Failure with Scott Hanselman

I think you sense a theme here 🙂 My partner once told me that he filters the associates he wants to work with by seeing if they’re the type to run towards a fire or run away from it. Well I know that I’m the kind to run full speed towards the fire, take my sweater and beat the shit out of the fire in order to put it out. Call that what you will, but what you can’t call me is someone who would run away from a challenge. Or the possibility of failure.

I had the joy of being a guest speaker on Scott Hanselman’s podcast where we chatted for <1/2 an hour on Normalizing Failure. I humbly believe that you will relate and find it refreshing.

Con mucho amor, much love, all the time:

– Susana AKA Miss Chingona, La Mera Mera, La Coder, La Honey, La que / the one that will always keep it real with you. I hope you enjoy!

First Job: How to Prepare for Professional Success

A First Gen Mexican American’s perspective

Recently I posted in response to my good friend Stephanie’s LinkedIn post asking for tips for her first post-college job. I encourage you to read it and to add any advice you’d like to add! Brittanny – another incredible friend, encouraged me to make it a post of its own. Tiene razón, let’s amplify our collective wisdom!

Picture of author Susana Benavidez with arms up in discussion

How To Succeed When You Don’t Have an Example

When I got an internship during high school at a high rise in downtown Los Angeles, my chest felt tight with pride as I walked through those sliding glass doors and pushed the button for a floor high above the fields, kitchens, and factory floors that my parents spent their life working at.

I didn’t have a manual on how to succeed in a professional (office) setting but after working in a variety of office settings since I was 18, I have a thing or two to share.

Your Personal Brand

You have to cultivate your professional brand from Day 1. Your performance and the impression you make in your first 90 days is crucial to your success. For those first three months you will be able to show who you are, what you can do, and how valuable to the company you will become. You want the company to pat themselves on the back for nabbing such a great hire.

What does this mean? Working hard is not enough. You need to go above and beyond to show what you have to offer. You need to be intentional of how you work and the work product you produce.

Always be prepared. When something is pending, spend at least a few minutes reviewing it so that you know the task and status. You don’t want to be asked about the one thing you didn’t get to and be at a loss for words.

Perception is what the majority of people use to make quick decisions on your abilities and how you fit into opportunities. If you ride in strong at the beginning you will have solidified your brand as someone who delivers, is dependable, and is hungry to learn.

Remember that you are cultivating your brand at work. This isn’t a reflection of who you are at home. Personally, I like to strike a balance of offering personal details and who I am in connection to the things that I can control. For example, I will share that I had a non-traditional path and how that helped me develop a strong sense of hustle and empathy for those still on the steep end of their journey. I share the joy I get from mentoring POC who are navigating community college and the transfer process. Would I share personal details about my dysfunctional family? No, that’s for me to vent to my close friends who know me and do not judge me. Sharing those stories can put you in a state of vulnerability while surrounded by uncomfortable silence. But that is my take – not words to live by.

Finding a Mentor

When you meet new people don’t only show up with questions – see how you can help the person. Whether it be by volunteering to help, providing an introduction that would be mutually beneficial, bringing insightful feedback, etc. People gravitate towards those that they can learn from and not only teach – ie don’t have others think you’re only a taker. You always have something to teach! You have the valuable beginner’s eyes and mindset so be creative with your ideas.

Communication is Key

Efficiency and communication is key. I create mechanisms and frameworks to make what I can control as efficient as possible so that I can have the space to be creative. Ask others what their preferred style of communication is and following through on what they share.

Document Your Growth

Document your growth, questions, breakthroughs to be able to sell your accomplishments and not have to try to remember how your roadmap evolved. This can be especially rewarding when you feel like time is flying and there aren’t enough hours in the day. Take a look back and see everything you’ve accomplished! I send weekly updates on my progress to the team (in connection to a program I run) which allows them to see all the great work I am contributing.

What is your advice to your fellow gente? Comment Below!

Transferring to Stanford Q&A – A student’s perspective

Hi! If you’re here because of this tweet, welcome!

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Feel free to read more about me in the About page but a brief intro:

I’m a senior at Stanford University majoring in CS in the AI track. I’m also a transfer student (transferred from a Cañada Community College). I’m Latinx, first-gen, and nontraditional (over 25) and a mom to three girls.

To start off PLEASE APPLY. I’ll let you in on a little secret: Every single one of us thought we wouldn’t get in because our year the acceptance rate was <2%. Pero aqui estoy!

To share information as much as possible I will list Q&A from DM’s resulting from the tweet above. While I wish everyone well, I am concentrating my efforts in increasing the number of Latinx, Black, Native American, first-gen / low income community college transfers. I respectfully ask that you not DM me on the process for grad school or frosh app (no idea). Follow me @susanabenavidez and DM me your questions.

Let’s begin! I will share the questions I’ve received and answers I provide. Please note that my answers do not in any way represent Stanford nor are legal advice nor are to be taken as official instructions of any kind. Names are removed and questions are edited for clarity.

Q. How do I event start the application process?

A. Here’s a checklist from Stanford detailing exactly what you need to submit for your application.

Q. Can I afford it?

A. I can’t answer this question for you but I can share that Stanford has been incredibly generous with me and many of the transfer students that I know. I got into UC Berkeley – you can read about that here and the financial package I got meant I had to pay several thousands of dollars even though I qualified for financial aid with a low family contribution. When I got into Stanford – you can read about that moment here I didn’t respond. It wasn’t until the transfer director contacted me to see what was going on. I told her I was waiting on financial aid because I couldn’t commit without knowing what I would owe. She checked and I got my FA letter almost immediately.

I almost screamed when I saw the generous $$$ scholarship they awarded me. It was like they made it so I couldn’t say no. My youngest was 4 months old when I started and they even provided me with a daycare stipend. It obviously doesn’t cover all of my expenses as I have a big family but it covers enough to give me peace of mind.

See here for official information from Stanford about cost / aid estimates.

Q. Do they accept transfer students out of California?

A. Yes! My transfer class had students from all over the US and an international student from Singapore.

Q. Hi Susana – I’m considering CS at Stanford!. I’m already a self-taught developer but I want to go back to school. My biggest obstacle is that I’m undocumented and low income. I’m not sure where I can find resource for my specific case. Any tips, would be much appreciated. 🙂

A. I emailed financial aid and will report back what they say (didn’t give any identifying information)

“Hi Susana, Stanford treats undocumented students as US domestic students in the undergraduate admission process, assessing their applications under the same need-blind admission policy it uses for citizens of the United States. Stanford will use institutional funds to meet the full demonstrated financial need of undocumented students who are admitted. Please share our Undocumented Student webpage with your friend and let him know that he is welcome to call our office if he has any concerns.

Our number is 650-723-3058.

Financial Aid Officer Montag Hall, 355 Galvez Street Stanford, CA 94305-6106 | T 650.723.3058”

Here is the link to the Undocumented Student webpage:

Q. I received several questions that asked for general advice. I mean many of us are first-gen students and didn’t receive the guidance on how to apply to schools or that Stanford even takes transfers.

“I’m a second year (first born and gen) student at —- college and I wasn’t planning on transferring anywhere until 2021 as a —— student. I honestly never considered Stanford until I came across your tweet! I need all the orientation I could get so I was wondering if you had some pointers that I could work on for during this next year! Thank you sm.”

A. What I did:

JOURNAL Your Accomplishments:

I kept notes of everything I was involved in and did outside of academic school work:
  • Approach professors to take their honors course – some offer a contract you sign and you just have to do extra work and a research paper – apply to symposiums at Berkeley and Stanford to present your research – your counselor should have this info
  • I was a single mom so I added everything I do as a parent on top of working full time and going to school
  • I volunteered at startup orgs showing that my interest in entrepreneurship was tangible
  • I started a social media group for parents that grew into a building a new school effort, served as advertising for the Chamber of Commerce to attract families, and resulted in networking that got me my first business development job
  • I worked up the ladder in business development and highlighted my leadership position at a prestigious firm
  • I had community organizing experience, freelance writing, and showed how much I grew and survived while thriving. It’s hard to remember everything if you don’t take notes in a journal.

Your accomplishments don’t have to look like mine. The transfer class for my year was incredibly diverse and ran the gamut of life experiences. That’s the point. Stanford wants to attract a diverse community of students.

Q. How did you structure your personal statement?

A. My personal statement told a story that went something like this:

  • who I was + where I started
  • the trauma / struggles that defined my early ‘failure’
  • how I took that failure and let it motivate my next moves
  • my commitment to higher education + equality of education (my focus is edtech / CS + Social Good)
  • highlighted the turn from where I was to what I did to accomplish -> highlighted the biggest and most impressive accomplishments
  • how I would leverage my time at Stanford to reach my goals (for me, a startup in edtech / social good space)

That’s sort of the short story of how I approached my personal statement. I would share it except that my essay was deeply personable, emotionally raw, and describes trauma / abuse that I don’t want to share here quite yet.

But the higher level approach I took was – what do I have that others don’t? Why am I impressive? I took the little that life gave me as a start and turned it into mother effin magic.

Let me illustrate my point via a couple of pictures:



Highlight the Upward Trend of your Life that demonstrates sustained growth.

How do you respond to ‘failure’? I’ve had many challenges in my life. ‘Failure’ is hard, really hard. Most people give up, settle, crumble under failure. Others take that failure, learn from it, pivot and take off to their potential. Be the latter. 


In other words, I wasn’t the ‘perfect’ candidate given the early ‘failures’ in my life. But I definitely demonstrated resilience and the ability to not run away from my problems or the shame that comes with them. I owned what happened to me as well as the decisions I made. I spoke about the motivations in my life for a better life and Not Giving Up (for me my little girls). And I showed what a badass I am by letting them see the growth from where I started and what I accomplished with the little I had.

Q. Did you do any research as a community college student?

Q. What is campus life like?

A. I feel like you have to ask someone else on what it’s like as a 20 yo but from my very unique experience:

The first year was tough. It can feel incredibly isolating when you are a nontraditional student and don’t feel like you belong. I joined and took on leadership positions at Women in CS and Society of Latinx Engineers. This helped somewhat. I also took several creative writing courses and that was a great way to meet friends as the classes are tiny (~8 students v. the hundreds in my CS classes).

Eventually I worked through the belief and voice that told me I didn’t belong and worked on carving out spaces for me on campus.

Last year and this year have been incredible socially. I feel like I have friends wherever I go and I very much feel like Stanford is home.

I have done so much while on campus, the opportunities are incredible:

  • Did the Levinthal Tutorial, a 1:1 class with a Stegner Fellow and read one of my short stories to a large audience. I’ve never shared outside of small workshopping.
  • Was a Seeds of Change cohort leader where I went through Stanford’s Women’s Executive Leadership program and taught similar concepts to high school girls interested in STEM
  • Member of CS + Social Good where I took the incredible CS51/52 two quarter course where we ideated, prototyped, and then built a product as a solution posed by an edTech partner
  • Summer CS + Social Good Fellow where I interned at a tiny but powerful edTech startup. I grew so much as an engineer – I had to – I was the 2nd engineer on staff!
  • WiCS and SOLE: Met so many companies that I recruited to come speak to our members, including some very cool CEOs that I really admire
  • Moderated an event with Ellen Pao A Conversation with Ellen K. Pao, tech investor and advocate, the former CEO of reddit, and a cofounder of the award-winning diversity and inclusion nonprofit Project Include
  • Took the novel writing class and have a draft (very rough) of my first novel!
  • Presented my research at the Latinx in AI workshop at NeurIPS last month in Vancouver
  • Forged incredible relationships with CS professors that I deeply admire
  • Met my co-founder!
  • Interned at Y Combinator and Thunkable, a YC Company
  • El Centro for Friday Cafecito (Mexican sweet bread + hot chocolate / sometimes atole or champurrado YUM!)

I know I’m forgetting a lot. But you get the point, if you leverage the resources there is so much to do!