They Made It

Melissa Bailey PhotoNearly a year after heading off to Fairfield University as first-generation college students, Solanlly Canas and Chastity Berrios met up back on New Haven Green. They returned home not as dropouts, but as rising sophomores who defied the odds.

The year posed a test: Can two Latina city kids from one of the state’s lowest-performing high schools make it alongside their wealthy white peers at a private university in Fairfield? And can two first-generation students from humble backgrounds make it in a country where two of every three low-income students who enroll in college end up dropping out?

Chastity and Solanlly (pictured above), who graduated last year from New Haven’s High School in the Community, passed that first-year test.

It wasn’t easy.

Chastity, who commuted by car from a New Haven public housing development, got stuck on campus one night in a thunderstorm after she left her headlights on, draining the car battery. On another day, she spent four hours searching in vain for a lost car key, setting her back by $250 and a missed ecology class. She logged 14-hour days on campus, between commuting home and working 16 hours a week at Dunkin’ Donuts.

She survived the year with her mom’s Nissan Altima intact—and As and Bs to show for her hard work.

Solanlly [pronounced so•LON•jee], an undocumented immigrant from Colombia, navigated a campus where 87 percent of students are white and the majority hail from much wealthier families than hers. She confronted culture shock moving into the dormitory, where students described growing up in enormous houses. A native Spanish speaker, she got tripped up by some English words she didn’t know on her exams.

She passed all of her classes and made it into Fairfield’s honors program.

The two hugged on a recent afternoon on Chapel Street, regrouping on familiar turf after their year’s adventure at Fairfield, a Jesuit university in suburban Connecticut. They made it through—with the confidence, academic standing, and financial stability to return this fall as sophomores. After commuting for a year, Chastity has been accepted as an RA (resident assistant), landing her a free spot in a dormitory, within open-window shouting distance of her close friend.

Chastity, who’s 19, will spend the summer working at Dunkin’ Donuts, a job she has held since she was 16. Solanlly, who’s 20, has a paid internship at a local foundation.

Chastity and Solanlly got an “overwhelming” head start at college their senior year in high school, when they attended a semester-long early-college program at the University of New Haven (UNH). Even as the top two students at their New Haven high school, they found themselves having to take back-to-basics math classes, as most New Haven grads do.

In a conversation over frozen yogurt on Chapel Street, the young women shared what they’ve learned from their first year of full-time college.

Bring Snacks

Chastity was one of just 52 out of 1,000 freshmen who commuted to Fairfield’s campus instead of living in the dorms.

“The commute was hard,” Chastity said. It was costly too: “Most of my paychecks would go to gas.”

The hardest part about commuting was not the 35-minute drive, or the cost, Chastity said. It was “planning your day” on campus, to squeeze in the classes, studying, work-study job, homework and tutoring before heading home again.

Being a commuter means you don’t have a natural place to crash on campus for a few hours, say, between the final class of the afternoon and an evening tutoring session. Pulling long days on the go could be pretty tiring, she said.

“Sometimes I would get mad and say, ‘I don’t want to drive home at the end of this long day,’” she recalled.

Melissa Bailey File PhotoOther times, she would take a break in Solanlly’s dorm room.

Chastity offered some advice for the road-weary commuter student: “Bring snacks.” 

And make room for “down time” during the day. For Chastity, that usually meant meeting Solanlly for lunch in the school cafeteria. The two friends snapped photos of each other’s schedules and kept them on their cell phones so they would always know where each other was.

Chastity said commuting from home had its upsides, too: her mother’s home-cooked dinners, which mom would leave on a plate in the fridge if Chastity got home late. Living at home meant Chastity got to have her own room, while Solanlly shared hers with two students. And “I didn’t have to walk around in a towel and have people see me,” or worry about disturbing a roommate by being too loud, Chastity noted.

Ask For Help

Solanlly and Chastity both moved to Connecticut as kids without speaking English. Solanlly moved from Colombia at age 12; Chastity came from Puerto Rico at age 9. They worked extra hard in school to teach themselves the new language, which they now speak fluently.

Reading and writing in their second language is still a challenge. They both have sought out writing tutors to proof papers for grammar and spelling errors, which routinely crop up. And they still encounter words they don’t know.

“I’m still learning,” said Solanlly. She goes by the trusty mantra, “Always ask for help.”

Melissa Bailey File PhotoCase in point: Solanlly sat down to take a test in her psychology class and encountered a word she didn’t know. It wasn’t a psychology term; it was an English word she wasn’t familiar with. She got the question wrong because she didn’t know the term. As she often does, Solanlly headed to office hours consult a professor on the questions she had missed. Her professor realized Solanlly knew the material, but had been thrown off by the foreign word

“It was the English word that was stopping me from getting the answer,” she recalled.

Solanlly and her professor worked out a new pact: The next time Solanlly saw a strange English word on a test—not a psych term she was supposed to know—her professor would help her with the definition.

The “ask for help” mantra has carried the young women to where they are today. Though she was valedictorian of her high school, Solanlly almost couldn’t go to a four-year college because her immigration status bars her from accessing federal financial aid. She lobbied for a larger financial aid package—and solicited a benefactor to pay for her room and board. Chastity also successfully lobbied the university to increase its financial aid so she could afford tuition. 

Take Risks

For spring break, Solanlly and Chastity boarded a van with some fellow students and headed south to Georgia. They didn’t know quite what they were getting into, Chastity recalled.

After a 15-hour drive, they showed up in Atlanta. They spent a week working as volunteers with refugees through the International Rescue Committee.

They met people from all over the world—people who, like them, had shown up on the mainland U.S. in search of a better life.

“We can relate to them so much” in the way they had to “start over again” and learn a new language, Chastity said.

Hearing the refugees’ stories put their own struggles in perspective, Solanlly said. One had left a career as a chemist in Africa to come to the U.S., where he found himself learning basic words such as “green” and “shirt” from a college freshman.

Less than a decade after they showed up in Connecticut without speaking any English, Solanlly and Chastity found themselves in a role reversal: Now they were teaching English to the newcomers. They took care of the refugees’ kids and helped the adults navigate an unfamiliar world. The group took a trip to the shopping mall, where Solanlly and Chastity helped the newcomers work through a scavenger hunt designed to teach them how to locate items they might want to buy.

Along the scavenger hunt, Chastity pointed out a green purse with passing admiration. One of the refugees adamantly tried to buy it for her as a gesture of gratitude. Chastity declined the gift—and returned home deeply touched that he wanted to spend some of the little money he had to thank her.

Culture Gap

Back on campus, it wasn’t as easy to connect with fellow students.

“I’m still trying to adapt, culture-wise,” Chastity confessed. Besides the service staff, which is mostly Hispanic, there are few people who look like her or hail from a similar background. Only 1 in 13 students are Hispanic; 17 of 1,000 students in the freshman class are black.

“I talk to everybody,” Chastity said, “but I wouldn’t consider having really good friends”—besides Solanlly, of course.

She said most of her friends are “hi-and-bye” friends, not people she would count on or confide in.

Some students are “really nice,” she said, but “some don’t want to talk to you because you don’t look like you have enough money.”

Melissa Bailey File PhotoChastity recounted how she stopped at a table to buy some earrings from a visiting jewelry vendor. The vendor took a look at her and asked her, “are you here on scholarships?” and “do you commute?”—code words for “you don’t fit in.”

Chastity said she didn’t take the comments to heart because she has grown accustomed to that attitude.

Solanlly said she also feels she has no new close friends, mostly just “people you say hi and bye to.”

“Maybe Fairfield needs a little more diversity?” she wondered aloud. “I don’t know.”

Chastity said she has treated college like a job more than a social experience: “I felt like I was there to learn and get my education.”

Be On Top Of Everything

As high school students attending college classes at UNH the previous academic year, the duo got an early start navigating course catalogues and impenetrable math lectures.

They discovered that unlike in high school, UNH students are on their own to seek help when they’re struggling and to organize their lives. That remained true at Fairfield, Chastity said.

“You have to be on top of everything,” she said. “Nobody’s going to be on top of you.”

Melissa Bailey PhotoAn aspiring teacher, Chastity plans to major in English, with possible minors in education, Latin American studies, African-American studies and philosophy. Solanlly plans to double-major in psychology and international studies. She just got accepted into Fairfield’s honors program, which she plans to begin in the fall.

Solanlly and Chastity helped each other through calculus class, studying together for six hours before their final exam. Chastity slept over in a spare bed in Solanlly’s room the night before the exam. They showed up—and couldn’t believe how easy the test was, because they had studied so hard.

Despite the challenges, both said they never considered transferring or dropping out—as many students do from their backgrounds. They said they’re happy at Fairfield and are proud of their academic performance.

“I tried to do well in all of my classes,” said Solanlly. “And I did.”

Past stories on Solanlly and Chastity:

• Chastity Hunts For The Key
Solanlly’s Tale Sways UConn
New Haven Rallies For Solanlly & Chastity
College Start “Overwhelms” Star Seniors
15 Seniors Head To College Early

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posted by: citoyen on July 1, 2014  10:34pm

This has been a terrific series of articles, with this one maybe the best so far (hard to choose among them!).  An inspiring story of these young women, and very nicely presented.  Gives me faith in the young, and hope for America.

posted by: jepadilla on July 2, 2014  6:25am

Congratulations to both these young ladies.  Do not doubt that you belong where you are! You got there through your hard work, and you will succeed the same way. I know first hand how lonely a school like Fairfield can be, but take advantage of everything it has to offer and do not ever let anyone try to tell you that you don’t belong there.