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In The Nation's Service and The Service of Humanity: What Princeton Means To Me

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

With the school bell ringing and the bustle of backpacks filling the hallways, my high school counselor sat at her desk, paperwork askew. Administrative asks and parental complaints had filtered through this repurposed office all week, and the stresses of the new school year were visible in her smile. Unbeknownst to me sitting before her on that fateful day, I had walked into a room where my future was already being determined.

I was a freshman asking questions about the college admissions process, and I was already deemed a nonpriority. With my class nearing 900 students that year, my counselor kindly and sincerely accommodated me, but she could not possibly fill in the knowledge gaps that plague first-generation college students with so many other students needing her time. In my case, I felt doubly doubted because, on the page, I was not college material. I lived in a low-income, single-parent household on "that side of town," and I had attended an unaccredited private school for six years. These facts were noted to me straightforwardly, and I left the office unclear why they mattered.

Thomas Ray Garcia's high school portrait
High school picture day

Taking matters into my own hands, I Googled general questions such as, "How to get into Ivy League schools." When I learned what Ivy League universities actually were, I searched, "How to get into Princeton." It was then I discovered Princeton University's need-based financial aid policy, which would cover the cost of attendance for students with households incomes of $60,000 or less. (Since then, the policy has increased to $100K).

This information changed my high school experience. In short, I worked harder, joined sports, spearheaded service projects, entered leadership positions, and strived to become the "well-rounded student" so sought-after in the college admissions process. I knew my life was changing when the principal called me by my name as I headed to English II on another bustling day. He congratulated me on my high grades and shook my hand. Slowly, the private school kid who struggled to talk was becoming well-known throughout his school.

Despite making many friends and positive memories during this time, I did not enjoy my senior year of high school. In fact, I hated it. I was bullied verbally by my peers on a variety of topics, from my socioeconomic status and my academic ranking to my involvement in many activities. I was perceived differently from bully to bully, from a "peasant who wants to go to Princeton" to "the opposite of a role model." Unfortunately, the bullying trickled upward to a select few teachers, who I presume enabled and participated in the gossiping to appear more favorable to their students.

Thomas Ray Garcia rehearsing high school graduation ceremony
Rehearsing our graduation ceremony

It got to me. The walk from the student parking lot to the campus gates would fill me with anxiety and dread, and I caught my mind ruminating on that week's drama instead of paying attention during class. My college application process was soon imbued with a sense of urgency. I needed to leave this school. I needed to leave this place behind. I needed to leave the Rio Grande Valley and never come back.

My acceptance to Princeton University felt like a triumph over my circumstances. When I opened the digital letter at my kitchen table, my mother and god-father saw my eyes widen with possibility. From then on, I blasted the Helloween song "I Want Out" every morning on the way to school as I counted down the days to graduation.

Little did I know I was experiencing the early symptoms of persistent depressive disorder, which I would carry with me as I delivered my valedictorian speech ("we, as a class, cannot let negativity and bitterness blind us"), as I stepped off the Dinky onto Princeton's campus, and as I met inspiring classmates from all over the world.

My diagnosis did not come as a shock, but more as a revelation. Finally, I understood why I struggled to focus as I read hundreds of pages per week, why I had undereaten in high school and began to overeat in college, and why I maintained my distance from the social scene. I was hurting from perceived injustices inflicted by my own community, and I felt hypervigilant toward protecting myself against future harm in my new community.

In many ways, Princeton healed me. I did not have health insurance prior to Princeton; my financial aid package covered my student health care plan, and I could finally access high-quality services. Moreover, my time away from home immersed me in an entirely different world of studying, socializing, and surviving on my own. Whereas students often encounter newfound mental health struggles after they transition to college, I experienced the opposite.

But what, exactly, healed me? I do not believe in the adage, "Time heals all wounds." I also do not believe throwing myself into the Princeton workload distracted me long enough to distance myself from high school memories. Partly, it was the collegiate environment. Working hard in high school was always a means to an end: college acceptance. Even when the environment became hostile, I still persevered in student organizations where I felt unsafe in front of my peers because I knew my involvement would matter during college admissions. When I finally arrived at Princeton, I faced a new but exciting challenge: Why should I work so hard, now?

On one level, I felt challenged in all the best ways at Princeton. I could study subjects like Greek history, Mexican-American literature, Latino public policy, and social media algorithms all in one semester. I was no longer studying for an exam or a grade; I became a student of life, connecting my knowledge across new disciplines I had only learned about because of Princeton. I learned how to learn, which involved going beyond rote memorization and toward engaging with my peers in discussions during our precept periods. I loved immersing myself in books and lectures, and to this day deep reading soothes my racing mind.

On another level, my friends at Princeton elevated me toward becoming a more whole human. My true education was not in the lecture halls, but rather the dining halls, where I sat for hours with peers from all over the world. I absorbed their diverse perspectives on the world, stories about their cultures, and passionate drives. I sat across brilliant minds defined not by their test scores or socioeconomic status, but rather their intensity on their interests. Most impressive to me were the students who had already mapped out their prospective impacts on society, from mitigating climate change to forming life-saving start-up companies.

Thomas Ray Garcia with Team U shirt
After a half marathon with Team U

One fond example: Joe Benun '15 and the team behind Team U, a student organization-turned-nonprofit that continues to amaze me. Long-distance running and fundraising for a children's hospital in Africa? College students who truly care about making a difference in the world? Simply having a meal with Joe was always an uplifting experience. At age 19, he was clearly a changemaker whose energy and resolve revitalized me at a time when I needed to believe in getting involved in the community again.

Slowly, I observed how my Princeton peers carried with them intrinsic motives for learning, for attending Princeton, for becoming members of society. Even peers who confided in me their imposter syndrome --- which afflicted nearly everyone I knew --- stood out to me for their precociousness and clear intelligence on a number of subjects, many unacademic.

While I am by no means an Ivy League exceptionalist, as the experiences I have described can occur at many higher education institutions, I believe Princeton is one of the few places where I could have met so many likeminded peers in this intimate, engaged, and structured academic setting. The Residential College system, coupled with the University's focus on undergraduate education and attention to its first-year students, ensured that I would interact with a mixture of peers from diverse backgrounds. It is exactly what I needed, given my mental state.

Informal motto on the Princeton University shield outside Nassau Hall. Photo by Danielle Capparella

Princeton healed me by helping me find meaning in my educational journey and in why I do the work I do. In all I have done, I have strived to live up to the informal Princeton motto: "In the Nation's Service and the Service of Humanity." Until my graduation in 2016, only the first half of that phrase, attributed to President Woodrow Wilson, was considered the informal motto. The second half of the motto by Justice Sonia Sotomayor was added only months after I graduated, symbolizing to me its significance to my post-Princeton journey.

As a Princeton freshman, I founded my life's work: The College Scholarship Leadership Access Program (CSLAP). The familiar pitch is: I want to give students what I did not have in high school, so I founded a college access program to teach lessons on the college admissions process and connect near-peer mentors from the region to high school students. All students should have a mentor, especially one who was recently in their shoes. CSLAP believes in college access for all, which means no student gets written off; we treat every student as college material, and if they choose not to attend college after all, it is not because they lacked information, mentorship, or resources. On the contrary, they become more informed about all their post-secondary options.

When I pitch my nonprofit organization, I do not delve into my mental health challenges, my lack of mentorship in tough situations, my many college application obstacles that could have derailed my life. I do not wax poetic about how Princeton changed my life. But my story is the driving force behind all our work and why I continue to lead CSLAP programming to this day. Returning to the Rio Grande Valley, the place I vowed never to return, was how I addressed the root of my pain: I could ensure my students would not go through what I went through.

Thomas Ray Garcia mentoring a CSLAP student
Mentoring a CSLAP student

In my view, CSLAP is how I am in the nation's service and in the service of humanity. CSLAP would not exist without my attending Princeton, nor without the many students and professors I met during my time there who, unwittingly, motivated me to pay my Princeton education forward.

Princeton is not perfect, as is no higher education institution; my experiences advocating for reforms as a first-generation, low-income college student speak to that. But it was at Princeton where I realized students like me deserve a chance to attend college and rise above their circumstances. In my case, attending college was not simply a ticket to the middle class or a status symbol; it helped me find myself again so I could proceed to become a better version of myself, a borderlands boy-turned-scholarship boy.

Exactly what that better version looked like, I did not know then. And, honestly, I truly do not know now. In the words of that infamous Princeton dropout, F. Scott Fitzgerald, which adorn a wall in the Frist Campus Center: "It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being."

I am proud of my 10 years working in college access, directly impacting the lives of 1,421 students through CSLAP's various programs and indirectly uplifting so many more. I am proud of my various forays into K-12 and higher education, from family engagement programming to high school teaching to adjunct instructing. I am proud of my 2022 campaign for the Texas Board of Education, District 2. As I near the age of 30, I do not know where the rest of my life will take me.

But I do know that, in all the work I do, I will continue being in the nation's service and the service of humanity.

Thomas Ray Garcia on Princeton Graduation Day
Walking through the Fitzrandolph Gates

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Excellent and very touching!! Congratulations on your accomplishments and thank you for sharing your wisdom with the students who will follow in your footsteps to greatness!! Blessings dear heart ❤️!!

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