Angelica Estevez ’24 committed to Cornell without having visited campus, and now she won't get to visit Ithaca during this year's Prefreshman Summer Program.

May 13, 2020

For First Gen Student, Online Orientation Can’t Replace Early Move-In

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For Angelica Estevez ’24, the Prefreshman Summer Program was supposed to be a college trial run.

She would have stepped foot in Ithaca for the first time, unpacked her twin extra-long bedding and brushed her teeth in a West Campus communal bathroom.

Now, her only roommates will be her parents. The only lectures Estevez will attend will be from her bedroom in Philadelphia.

“I was looking forward to going to college and being at Cornell, being able to learn how to navigate around the school, moving in,” the incoming engineering student said. “I don’t have any close relatives who have moved into college or had a roommate, so I was definitely looking forward to that.”

As Estevez finishes up the final stretch of her senior year at Philadelphia High School for Girls, she will soon adjust to college life this summer without a campus to ease into.

At Girls’ High, she would have been competing in her final badminton season, taking a ceramics class and learning physics. As her classes transitioned online, she taught herself integrals on Khan Academy to prepare for her AP Calculus AB exam. Instead of making clay pinch pots and coils, Estevez is now reading about art history.

Like her high school classes, the coronavirus pandemic has pushed PSP online — leaving Estevez and her peers excited nonetheless, but eager to see Cornell beyond their computer screens. For about 200 students, their acceptance to the University is conditional on their participation in this program.

As a first-generation immigrant, Estevez navigated the college admissions process largely on her own. She moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 6th grade, meaning her parents “don’t know anything about U.S. colleges,” Estevez said, recalling her visit to Villanova University with a friend, among a sea of parents.

Visiting colleges beyond the reach of public transportation meant proving to her parents that she could drive hours from home. After driving her bowling teammates 1.5 hours away to their regional competition, Estevez started planning a spring trip to Ithaca. Her plan was quickly shut down, though, after Cornell canceled its visitation days.

“Most people, maybe their parents drive them to see their colleges of choice,” Estevez said. “But for me, I just got to go to the ones I could go to on my own, because my parents kind of didn’t want to take me.”

Only being able to preview Cornell from college websites and Katie Tracy YouTube videos didn’t deter Estevez from sending in a last-minute early decision application to the College of Engineering. She didn’t tell her friends about it.

At first, Estevez hesitated to apply early, concerned what that choice would mean for her financial aid. But once she discovered that Cornell’s male-to-female ratio of engineering students was roughly equal, her decision became unwavering.

“I am coming from an all-girls environment, and now I’m going to be in a male-dominated field,” Estevez said. “I stumbled upon Cornell having 50 percent females in their engineering school, and to me that was like, ‘wow, that’s amazing.’”

Growing up, Estevez was drawn to engineering after watching her dad “fix everything himself” around the house, without any formal education as an engineer. Estevez said she was always interested in his work, and ultimately decided to apply to Cornell for mechanical engineering, though she is also considering electrical.

Leading up to her acceptance on Dec. 12, Estevez said she took a nap until the admissions decision loaded into the application portal, waking up minutes before the 7 p.m. announcement.

She gasped when she saw the acceptance, and ran downstairs to ecstatically tell her parents the news.

“I was like, ‘Did I read this wrong? Let me read this word by word,’” Estevez said, originally not believing that she was accepted. “And then it was like ‘Congratulations!’ And then I started crying.”

But attending college more than three hours away from home comes with its challenges. Estevez said many of her close high school friends decided to attend college locally to save money. For Estevez, leaving home means figuring out who will pay the bills and drive her mom around.

“[My parents] don’t speak any English, so I pay their bills,” Estevez said. “I write their checks in English.” Because Estevez is an only-child, it is unclear who these responsibilities will now fall on.

Her parents, who didn’t know she had applied early decision until after she sent in her application, told Estevez she could go to college wherever she wanted. However, as the fall semester approaches, the reality of her leaving has started to settle in.

Estevez said she has turned to videos and virtual tours to get a feel for a school she’s never seen before, but is worried that online visits aren’t enough. For the campuses she was able to visit, Estevez felt she didn’t belong at some of them when she arrived. She’s worried the same might happen at Cornell.

“I’ve been waiting for this for a while, even for PSP,” Estevez said. “I think, ‘wow, I’ve never been there once and I’ve already committed. What if I don’t like it?’”

As she waits to hear when she’ll be able to sit in Duffield for the first time, Estevez said she thinks the online PSP will still help her transition to college, especially if Cornell decides to hold virtual classes in the fall.

“I’ve heard great things, that ‘Ithaca is Gorges,’” Estevez said. “So I tell myself look, whatever it is, it’s going to be OK.”