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Breaking Stereotypes, From The Bronx To Buffalo State

Marlin Santana is a first-year student at SUNY Buffalo State. Her post is the first in a series by students and counselors from Bottom Line, a nonprofit that aims to bridge the college-readiness gap by supporting high school students as they transition into college.

Three days. It only took three days for the perception of me at Buffalo State to go from “the innocent girl” to “the girl with the rough upbringing.” All I had to do was answer one simple question, “where are you from?” As soon as I answered “the Bronx,” gasps and wide eyes filled the room.

I was asked questions like, “Have you ever been shot?” or “Are you or anyone you know in a gang?” I was even told stories about how children in Buffalo are taught that the Bronx is “hell on Earth,” and that those who misbehave will be sent there as punishment. At first I couldn’t help but be furious. I wanted to yell at them that they shouldn’t believe every scene they see in movies about graffiti-covered walls and gun shots being fired from black tinted windows. In fact a lot of the people in the Bronx are just like me: a teenager who, like other teenagers, has grown up in a loving home surrounded by supportive friends. But instead of getting angry I decided to free them of their ignorance and use their questions to teach them the truth.

What better way to help explain where I grew up than over dinner. I offered to cook a very well-known meal in the Bronx, plantain with salami. To my surprise some of my new friends didn’t even know what a plantain looked like, and I loved watching their sighs of relief when they realized they liked it.

Throughout dinner I couldn’t help noticing how different I am from most of my floor mates and how different the environment that I’m in is from home. I have to deal with so many drastic changes all at once. I no longer have the convenience of using my slang from home without having to explain what it means afterwards. Compared to the 10-minute wait for a bus in the Bronx, the hour wait here is hard to adjust to. The quiet nights here make me miss the sounds of cars honking at all hours of the night back home. As different as Buffalo may be I still love it here. The spicy food, the clear night skies with billions of stars in it, the clean streets, it’s all amazing and new to me.

Both Buffalo and the Bronx have their pros and cons but Buffalo is missing one key component: diversity.

In the Bronx, there are so many different cultures and languages coinciding with one another and I never realized how beautiful it was until I was the only Dominican girl in my group of friends here. This is one of the reasons that college is so unique. Not only am I learning inside the classroom but there are also so many opportunities outside the classroom to meet different people and learn about each other.

College has shown me a valuable lesson; there are people who want to help you succeed. I went to a high school where most of my peers were satisfied with just earning their high school diploma. It’s easy to fall into the temptation of just settling for what’s expected of you. However, I always dreamed of reaching goals bigger than what my neighborhood was supposed to limit me to.

I attended Peace & Diversity High School in the Bronx where I got a lot of support from teachers, staff, and friends.

Entering senior year, I knew that I needed to set up meetings with my guidance counselor who always seemed too busy to help me. After being turned away a few times, I had to constantly remind myself that I was one out of sixty students that she had to help every day. I knew that I had to look for help elsewhere. That’s when my math teacher encouraged me to apply to Bottom Line’s College Access Program. It was the best decision I ever made.

My counselor, Ginette, helped me apply for both college and financial aid, and helped me choose the college that was best for me. For the first time I had an outlet for all my questions and honest concerns about college. Although I was assigned one specific counselor I knew that everyone in the office had my back. They had truly become my family away from home.

Buffalo State College has given me the same outlets. There are writing centers, tutors, RAs and professors who always show a willingness to help me when I need it. There’s a sense of comfort in knowing that if I fall off track there is always some where I can go for help.

My goal throughout my time at Buffalo State College is to incorporate a few of the things from home into my daily routine so that people here won’t have assumptions about people from the Bronx anymore. I want to teach people to ask questions and to not rely on the media or ignorant people as their source of information about where I grew up. And I’d also like to learn about Buffalo culture as much as I can and fully immerse myself in the college experience. Maybe when the question, “where are you from?” arises again I won’t be “the girl from the Bronx who’s probably been shot,” I’ll just be Marlin.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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