Guadalupe Castaneda is heading to Princeton University on a full scholarship — no small feat, given that she is the first person in her immediate family to finish elementary school.
“When I applied, I wasn’t sure if I would get in,” said Castaneda, a senior at Newark High School. “I was like, ‘There’s no way. It’s Princeton. I’m not going to get in.’ But I did get in.”
Castaneda’s parents grew up in Guanajuato, a state in central Mexico, and left school after fourth grade to work. They moved to Newark 18 years ago, and Castaneda was born a year later. Graduating high school, she said, was its own accomplishment.
“Seeing me go to high school is a dream for them, because they wouldn’t have imagined that, at least over there in Mexico,” she said. But earning a spot in one of the top universities in the nation — “They can’t even understand how great it is.”
Still, Castaneda credits her parents with instilling in her a crystal clear understanding of the importance of education.
She remembers weighing her options before enrolling in high school — many family members recommended she attend a vocational technology to gain career skills, but Castaneda wanted to take advanced courses and position herself as a strong college applicant. She explained that she wanted to attend a school with the resources to launch students into career opportunities.
It was daunting, she said, starting the application process without the support of family members familiar with higher education. During her sophomore year, she turned to TeenSHARP, a Wilmington-based nonprofit which seeks to prepare low-income students for success in college.
TeenSHARP helped Castaneda navigate the complex application process, starting with some valuable insight — a good relationship with her high school guidance counselors could make or break her college prospects.
“I really had no idea what I was doing,” she said. “I didn’t know how to talk to my guidance counselor, I didn’t know how to form a good relationship with my teachers, I would just go to class and not really be very engaged.”
Shirin Skovronski, Castaneda’s guidance counselor at Newark High School, pointed her to QuestBridge, a national network connecting low-income students to opportunities at leading institutions of higher education. Castaneda said that knowing she had Skovronski’s support gave her the confidence needed to overcome her doubts and apply.
“My guidance counselor had faith in me, she supported me,” Castaneda said. “I decided — why not? I’m just gonna do it.”
Still, she remembers the nerves that took over in the moments before checking her application status in the online portal. She’d seen other students opening their acceptances on social media, but her own still hadn’t come. When she opened the portal, she was braced for a rejection.
“I was so nervous,” she said. “I cried for like 30 minutes before.”
When she opened the message, she couldn’t believe it.
“I thought it was fake,” she said. “I thought they were playing a trick on me. I thought, ‘No, this isn’t real, I’m hallucinating or something.’”
She was alone at the time, and called her mom.
“She was busy with somebody else, and she didn’t want to yell and scream in front of them,” she said. “It just seemed so surreal.”
It took a while for her parents to wrap their heads around the news. Castaneda recalled asking a TeenSHARP counselor to help explain it to them in Spanish — that their daughter had been accepted into Princeton, and that they would not have to pay a cent. She said they stayed up late that night talking, with her mother saying again and again how proud she was.
In her application essays, Castaneda wrote about the expectations that constrained her — that she wouldn’t be able to afford a school like Princeton, and that if she wanted to make it in higher education, she’d have to start at the community college level.
Acceptance to Princeton flipped the script, and affirmed for Castaneda her own power to achieve her dreams.
“Even if it seems hard, even if it seems like people are against you, you have to push and push,” she said. “Don’t doubt yourself. Don’t doubt what you’re able to do.”
Castaneda, who is the president of service group Key Club and plays viola in symphonic orchestra, attended programs at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton in consecutive summers with the support of her guidance counselor.
That taste of college life gives her some idea of what she’s getting herself into. Without that experience, she said, it would be doubly daunting to now face four years at Princeton without knowing what to expect.
At Princeton, she attended a summer program in artificial intelligence. Going forward, she’s thinking of bringing together her love for neuroscience with her interest in technology and artificial intelligence.
She advocated for more outreach toward low-income students, as well as dual-language support for families, to help more students achieve their potential for greatness in college.
“For first-generation families, it’s really important to get that support,” she said. “Especially with younger kids, because I remember a lot of my classmates never really saw the purpose of getting a higher education.”
Castaneda credited TeenSHARP with guiding her through the application process, and advocated for more resources to help organizations like TeenSHARP reach more students. These organizations can also be critical in building community, helping students support and learn from one another.
She said that it’s important to find people who help you flourish, grow and become someone who accomplishes great things. She paused for a moment to consider what advice she would share with other prospective college applicants.
“There’s something that my mom told me a lot — she said never be ashamed of your roots,” she said. “And know that even if you come from humble beginnings, you can accomplish anything you want, as long as you put your mind to it.”