“Let me tell you something. If you were admitted, you belong. Your job is to do the very best you can and to bring up two of the classmates you left behind.”
That’s the advice Marta Tienda gives to students who feel out of place at Princeton or even at college in general, especially first-generation college students whose parents may never have even dreamed of college.
Tienda should know. A professor of sociology and demography in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Tienda is the daughter of Mexican migrant laborers. She worked two summers picking tomatoes when money was scarce, and she knows firsthand what it takes to overcome the obstacles to higher education that so many low-income Hispanic students face.
Today, her research and teaching focus on understanding the issues of immigration, population diversification and poverty and the roles they play in terms of access to education and political participation. She’s currently assessing Texas’ Top 10 Percent Plan, in which high school students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class gain automatic admittance into the Texas state university system.
She’s found that even these top-performing students are hesitant to step out of their isolated, mostly Hispanic world. “The cultural difference between south Texas and Austin, Texas,” says Tienda, “and south Texas and the moon is the same.”
Given these findings, Tienda is proud of the impact she can make on students through her work at Princeton, particularly given the University’s efforts to make education affordable through financial aid. “It’s important, when [Hispanic students] are eligible, to be able to cut those cultural hurdles as well as the economic hurdles,” she says.
In the classroom, Tienda feels she plays a part in making good on the promise of a Princeton education for these students. “Watching them catapult through all these new hurdles [is] one of the most satisfying experiences of my life,” she says. “They’re bright-eyed, they’re curious, they’re trying to discover and they’re eager to learn,” she says of her freshmen. “It’s a match made in heaven.”