Getting in Was Difficult, But Then What?

Three recent high school grads are making the most of college
At Suffolk Community College in Riverhead, Santiago Saldivar is thriving academically and as a leader of the college’s student government. Emily LeRolland

For three South Fork high school graduates featured in this paper in June, the path to college was not the gilded walkway it is for so many young Americans. Life for this trio was defined by setbacks, and after a semester at college it seems that success can be determined by the ability to rebound. 

During the winter break, The Star caught up with Francesca Denaro, Santiago Saldivar, and Cristina Guadalupe Espinoza Paucar.

Francesca, a native of East Hampton who graduated from East Hampton High School in June, entered Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in the fall and is studying finance. Francesca’s mother died when she was 2, and her father followed during her freshman year of high school. Her brother, then 21 and a fisherman, was thrust into the role of parent, a responsibility he took very seriously and for which Francesca is eternally grateful. 

Getting into college meant relying on a financial aid package, and it took the then-17-year-old all the skills she had learned as the family bookkeeper to present Marist with a strong case for the financial help she needed.

“The first two weeks was definitely the hardest,” she said, sitting in Starbucks in East Hampton. “Mostly because you don’t know what to do with yourself when you’re not in class.” 

At home during the break, she worked at the Hampton Chutney Company in Amagansett, where she has been employed for several years.

At college, she played intramural soccer and joined the business club, as well as an outdoor club with which she hikes the surrounding area. The extracurricular activities soon meant there were many familiar faces around campus.

She was lucky, she said, that her roommate is not only personable and fun to hang out with but respectful, too, of her personal space and the need for separate time.

“Most of my free time, though, is spent working. The workload is heavy, and I did really well at the end of the first semester.” 

Somehow, that doesn’t come as a big surprise. 

Santiago graduated from Pierson High School in Sag Harbor after a life of curveballs: His mother left when he was 5, and his father was an alcoholic. Santiago had to work since the age of 10, and home was three cramped rooms in Sag Harbor shared with nine family members from Mexico. 

With the help of dedicated guidance counselors and teachers — especially Linda Sendlenski, his math teacher whom he credits with turning him into the “total math geek” he is today — Santiago got into a two-year program at Suffolk Community College in Riverhead through the State University’s Education Opportunity Program, which offers academic support and financial aid to those lacking the grades necessary for a four-year college but who show academic promise. 

He dived headfirst into college life, beaming as he told of his role as vice president of the student government. The position requires that he visit the various students clubs on campus, discuss students’ needs, and attend meetings for student governments from the college’s other two campuses, in Selden and Brentwood.

“It’s a great way to meet people,” he said. “It’s funny, once I started to get to know others here I could see how many people really struggled in their lives. Suddenly, my story didn’t seem that unique at all.”

With several teenage mothers on campus, Santiago is especially proud that he convinced the college to install a changing table on the premises, before which, he said, young mothers would take their babies to their cars to change their diapers.

He was also instrumental in leading a fund-raising effort for victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in which the student government raised $600.

Academically, Santiago was aiming for a 3.5 grade-point average in order to apply to the Alpha Beta Gamma business honors society. He fell just short, he said, with a 3.2, because “my accounting class was brutal.” On weekends, he works at Wolffer Kitchen in Sag Harbor.

Will he try to raise his grades next semester? “Absolutely!” he said. “I know I can do it.”

And this from a student who ended 11th grade with a C-minus average.

When Cristina arrived from Ecuador and started attending the Bridgehampton School in 10th grade, she spoke no English. Yet with the help of the small school’s intensive immersion program for English language learners, she graduated on track last year and enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan as one of only 25 students selected for the textile/surface design program.

“Everything is going very well. My teachers were the best for my first semester!” Cristina wrote by email from Ecuador, where she spent her winter break. One of the advantages of attending college in bustling Manhattan, she said, was that she has made many new friends from all over the world. 

English continues to be her biggest challenge, especially at the college level, she said. But she was encouraged to find that “I was not the only one in this situation, and that gave me strength and courage to communicate with my teachers and friends.”

Cristina conceded that she misses her Bridgehampton teachers and friends, and admitted that homework in high school was nothing compared to what’s assigned in college. “But it’s okay,” she wrote. “I just have to do it. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that if I work hard and put effort in what I like to do, the results will be rewarding.”

At a time when high school seniors around the nation find themselves in the swirl of admissions mania, and the frenzy to garner college acceptances grows ever crazier and more corrosive, here are three recent high school graduates who regard college not as a fortress to be conquered but rather a land to be inhabited and tilled for all it’s worth.

Francesca Denaro at Marist College found that by taking part in the college’s extracurricular offerings she got to know her peers and made friends. Melissa DiMartino