While research from the last few decades shows college enrollment was much higher for children of higher-income families, as of 2016, lower-income children are enrolling at a higher rate than ever before. Cassandra Pernia is one such case, and she's made it her life's mission to always pay it forward. In partnership with SoFi, we're proud to bring you Cassandra's inspiring and triumphant story, as told to Melissa Kravitz.
I grew up in South Jersey in a suburban town called Washington Township, where I lived with my three siblings and my single mom. My mom was an undocumented immigrant who came here from the Philippines in 1981, when she was 19 years old. She came to visit family and ended up staying to take care of them. For over 30 years, her immigration status was a big family secret, but her green card finally went through last summer — after eight years of me petitioning — so I can finally talk about it.
My mom worked as a nurse and even ran a successful nurses agency. But after 9/11, identification laws got stricter, so she had to close her business. She did whatever she could to help support us — nannying or cleaning houses. Whatever business connection she could utilize in order to make money for us, she used.
We frequently moved into different homes and would often be separated between multiple homes of aunts and uncles across South Jersey. My family has always been really close and taken care of each other, but the politics of money still exist. And we were always the ones without it. As much as I was grateful to have a home and shelter to be in, at times I didn’t feel equal: I had to earn my keep and prove my worth to ensure I had somewhere to stay. I’d help cook and clean, stay up studying until 3 or 4 a.m., and then go to school the next morning. Through everything, I knew this much: Education was going to get us out of our situation.
Education was going to get us out of our situation.
Going to college was never a question in my mind. My mother sacrificed a lot to keep us in a district with good public education. Since we had no money, I worked hard through middle school and high school, getting good grades and taking honors and AP courses to help propel me to this goal. Nothing was going to stop me.
At one point when I was applying to schools, my great aunt sat me down and asked me why I was applying to colleges while I was poor. She equated money with opportunity and believed that since I was poor, college was an unrealistic goal. Sure, money creates feasibility, but I studied too damn hard to not go to college. That conversation put a fire in me to prove her wrong.
Being the first of my siblings to go through the financial-aid process was a journey. There was a lot to figure out. With my mother’s legal status, a big concern was having to include her information on the forms. Would she get in trouble because she was undocumented? Would they find and deport her? We were scared about submitting our information but knew that without financial aid, there wouldn't really be a chance for me to attend school. Luckily, my mother had a valid social security and had been filing taxes, so everything processed successfully and I was approved.
I applied to every school that I wanted to get into, looking at which scholarships and grants I could obtain, which would ultimately dictate where I would enroll. I ended up getting into a state school, which thankfully offered to cover tuition and room and board.
While the major costs were taken care of, I still needed to buy books and food. I was also leaving my younger siblings in different households and didn’t know the best way to help, financially and emotionally, if I wasn’t around. Despite those concerns, I took everything I owned out of my aunt’s house, moved into the dorms, and figured out how to live from my new home.
I was lucky enough to get into a student leadership program that provided jobs for students and moved up fairly quickly. I started working at a café and got promoted to facilities manager, helping my family with the income I made from the on-campus program. Initially, I wanted to study business and planned to major in economics and finance, but I fell in love with women’s studies and the way the theory makes you consider a problem in different ways. I switched my double major to econ and women’s studies. After summers interning at Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs, I was hired at Goldman following graduation.
If this were a movie, it would end right there — but reality didn’t. I was the first one in my family to graduate from college, and I wanted to find a way to support them and bring us together. I had landed a good job and was making a decent salary for a recent grad, but it was still tough to disperse that across a family of five (my mom and three siblings). On top of that, I had loans I had taken out while in college to help with various expenses that I needed to start paying back. I also took on the hefty process and legal fees for my mom’s green card (helping her become a legal citizen was one of my biggest goals upon graduating).
It was a struggle for a while, paying bills and loans while also supporting my family and living check to check. Something needed to change, so I began researching debt solutions. I came across SoFi about four years ago and made the decision to consolidate and refinance my student loans. They had offered me a low interest rate and quicker pathway to a debt-free life. After consolidating my loans into one, I was able to see an end goal: I'd be completely done paying them off by 2020.
My whole dream is being able to pay it forward. Beyond my immediate family, a big group of my friends are marginalized women, and we want to find ways to support each other in business ventures that we want to launch. We’ll do that through micro financing, which is essentially funding a project through a community, so everyone has a stake and wants it to succeed. When the first venture becomes profitable, we’ll then invest those funds into the next project. The first idea we have, which we’re still developing, is creating an event space and networking opportunities for queer women, because there’s not enough of that in New York City. We want to connect marginalized people who may not come from a background where you can just borrow money to start your own projects. We can all support each other in getting our ideas accomplished.
My whole dream is being able to pay it forward.
If I hadn’t gone to university, where I was surrounded by people from different backgrounds and spaces of the world, my mind wouldn’t have been opened to all the ways that you can do things and who you can do them with. My mom had everything against her — she was an undocumented single mom raising four kids with no support. My drive to always want to do something, no matter how impossible it seems, comes from her, and I thank her every day for always believing in me, pushing me to get an education, and encouraging my dreams.
In this current climate we're in, there are tons of people with similar obstacles in their way: first generation, low income, minority (and for me in particular, queer and a daughter of an undocumented parent). But the truth is, all of us will face obstacles, and we will always find a way through. For me, finishing my education was the first of many major milestones that have allowed me to move forward in my career and life. With each new step, there were countless times where it would have been easier to turn back around and give up, but having the belief that anything is possible if you think positively and work hard kept me going.
My personal journey has motivated me to pay it forward and find ways to help those who don't feel they have the “necessary upbringing,” network, money, or other advantages to achieve their goals. I want people to know that nothing should ever hold you back — not your status, background, lack of income, or fear of debt. If you follow your dream, you will achieve it.