Yale People

A recent first-generation Yalie on aiming for the stars

Leobardo Espinoza Jr. (’17 B.A.) was one of just a handful of students selected by The New York Times in 2013 to blog about his experience applying to colleges. In the series, he wonders about whether to take a gap year to study abroad, writes of his surprise at being rejected by Washington University in St. Louis, and cites the importance of choosing a school with a diverse population – to be “surrounded by faces that I’ve never seen before.”

On May 21, 2013, Espinoza submitted his final post: “First-Generation Jitters About Going to Yale.” The Yale-bound high school senior was gearing up for what he imagined would be a challenging road ahead. “As much as I wanted to believe that I’ll have it as easy as some of my other fellow classmates, the reality is that I won’t,” Espinoza wrote. “I’ll have to work harder and longer to compete with them. What I do have on my side is the will to succeed, even in the most difficult of situations.”

Espinoza was raised first in California, and then Topeka, Kansas, by hard-working Mexican immigrant parents who had not completed their high school educations. Growing up, he says, he listened to their stories about the importance of education. “My mom always wanted to be a flight attendant,” he says, “but she couldn’t afford the education. She always talked about sacrifice and making the most of my opportunities.”

It was a program called AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) adopted by his school in the 8th grade — and continued through high school — that Espinoza says, “changed the mindset of what I could do.” The program is designed for low-income, high-achieving kids to get them on the college track, and Espinoza says his cohort served the role of support group and family. “The program made me aim for the stars,” he says.

While he admits he never expected to attend Yale, Espinoza says he was immediately swept up in the welcoming experience of Bulldog Days, and Yale’s support for first-year students. “As a first-generation college student without people to ask questions about the process, I knew I would need that support network,” he says. A conference dedicated to first-generation Yale alumni is happening April 13-15 at Yale School of Management.

Espinoza dove into cultural and social activities his freshman year, joining the Latino fraternity Lambda Upsilon Lambda and mentoring New Haven students. By his sophomore year, Espinoza found himself in a new role — exploring his identity, coming out as gay and discovering a new social scene in the process. By his junior year, Espinoza said, he was refocusing on his academics, and striving to keep achieving in an environment “where everyone was an overachiever.” Through it all, his first-generation status played a role. “I knew there would be wealthy kids at Yale who had more than they needed,” he says. But those differences were not an issue, says Espinoza, who gravitated toward other students who could relate to his upbringing. Instead, he says, the difference manifested in his reluctance to ask for help. “I probably didn’t seek academic help that I would have benefitted from because of my first-generation status,” he says. “I doubted myself a lot — more than I should have.”

By his senior year, Espinoza made a decision about where he was headed – and it was not on the path to joining the Foreign Service as he’d long planned. Despite securing a Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, Espinoza opted to turn it down. “A lot of my friends were pre-med, or pre-law and had these very set tracks. They liked that I had a set track, too.”

Instead, Espinoza took an unexpected turn back to Topeka, where he is working at his former high school advising juniors and seniors on their college and career paths. His sister is among 400 seniors at the school.

So many kids grow up thinking ‘I can’t’ or ‘I don’t know,’” Espinoza says. “I tell them to aim for the stars. I’m not asking them all to go to Yale, but I want them to think about the impossible and imagine that it’s possible.”

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Media Contact

Brita Belli: brita.belli@yale.edu, 203-804-1911