For many people, obtaining an Ivy League education was always a dream; but for Vikky Urena, a recent alumna of the School of General Studies, it was never even a consideration. “When I was young, I used to pass by Columbia’s gates and walk outside the perimeter of campus, instead of cutting through College Walk,” she remembers. “I’d think, ‘That’s their world, not mine.’”
After graduating from high school (the first in her Dominican family to do so), Vikky’s primary goal was to obtain a well-paying position. She worked a series of odd jobs — as a cashier at Burger King, a telemarketer, a data entry clerk — always with one eye out for a more lucrative opportunity. Eventually, she read a classified ad for a position at a waste management plant. “I saw that I could make a good hourly rate, so I inquired about a position. They kept turning my application down, which only motivated me to pursue it more.” Finally, the Brooklyn plant hired Vikky as a security guard for the midnight to 8 A.M. shift, a position that required her to walk the grounds all night alone. “They were trying to get rid of me,” she recalls. “I was the only female working in the entire facility, and my coworkers did little things to try and make me quit. I’d call and ask for someone to cover me so I could take a break and go to the restroom, and they’d show up an hour later.”
She stayed, determined to show them she could persevere. Vikky’s earnings enabled her to move into her own apartment and buy a car. “My mother didn’t know what to think because, for women in my culture, career success is not important—getting married and having children is.” Eventually, Vikky was promoted to scale operator, and soon after, a former supervisor contacted her to work at a plant he managed in the Bronx, offering her higher pay. She transferred, and after achieving some success at the new job, she realized that there was a glass ceiling for female workers in the waste management industry, and that most of the employees in the top positions had college degrees.
As a result, she decided to enroll at Hostos Community College in the Bronx. While attending Hostos full-time during the day, Vikky continued to work at night, 60 hours per week, taking double-shifts when possible – and always studying on the job in the scale operator’s booth. “I drank a lot of coffee, smoked a lot of cigarettes, and slept anywhere I could,” she recalls. During that time, she received letters inviting her to apply to the Hostos Community College Serrano Scholars Program, a scholarship fund created to encourage students from diverse ethnic backgrounds to enter careers in international affairs and national security. “I received the letters and threw them away,” she said. “I thought I wouldn’t get accepted because things like that just never happened to me.” Finally, a friend at school convinced Vikky to apply, and after some reluctance she did. To her surprise, she was accepted with a full tuition scholarship and book vouchers.
A few semesters later, when the Hostos program received more funding, Vikky received a stipend for living expenses, use of a laptop, and most significantly, the financial freedom to take a leave of absence from the waste management plant in order to focus on being a student. Vikky worked hard to complete her associate’s degree thinking that she would attend the Police Academy after graduation, but during her final semester, she applied for a place in the Serrano Scholars Program at the School of General Studies. “I didn’t believe Columbia was attainable,” she said, recalling the highly competitive application procedure and selection process. “I was so convinced that I wouldn’t get in that I took the Police Officer exam and attended several orientations at the Academy. “When I was accepted, I achieved what I thought was just a daydream. I underwent a transformation the minute I heard the news. I resigned from my job at the garbage company, quit smoking, and began to think about how I could actually make a difference.”
This past May Vikky graduated with a major in history from GS, and after completing another highly competitive selection process, she was selected to continue her academic career as a Serrano Scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) where she will earn a Master of International Affairs or Master of Public Administration. “Dean Scott Halvorson and my friends in the program helped me through many stressful times,” she says. “My fellow Serrano Scholars were so supportive. They’d call on the phone and say, ‘Study!’ and then hang up. And then later I’d call them and do the same. That mutual support is one of the benefits of the program.”
Vikky’s success has already made a difference not only in her own life, but also in her family members’ lives. “When I was accepted to SIPA this spring, I made a believer out of a lot of friends and family who doubted me,” she says. “I’m changing the cycle in my family – Now my little sister wants to be a scientist! I’m raising the bar for other women of Dominican and Caribbean descent who think that getting a driver’s license is only a man’s thing. “Before, I didn’t think outside my 25-block radius, but now I’m interested in what’s going on all over the world because I know that what happens on the other side of the planet does affect me. And I know I’m not measured by how many children I have or how much stuff I own, but by what I do in the world. When I think about it, after all of this, I realize that the phrase ‘I can’t’ is no longer part of my vocabulary.”