Do this and you, too, can achieve the college dream

Maria Carla Chicuen moved to the U.S. as a teenager, and although she was considered a low-income student, she went on to Harvard and then the London School of Economics.
Maria Carla Chicuen moved to the U.S. as a teenager, and although she was considered a low-income student, she went on to Harvard and then the London School of Economics.

Maria Carla Chicuén’s story reads like a fairy tale, an American Dream come true for a Cuban immigrant who knew little English when she arrived in Miami as a teenager but managed, through hard work and brain power, to end up at Harvard.

Now, in her debut book, Chicuén recounts not only how she managed that magical ride but also why that path is open to anyone willing to put in the time. “Achieve the College Dream: You Don’t Need to be Rich to Attend a Top School“ (Rowman & Littlefield) is the sort of guide that does more than offer step-by-step instructions about how to pique admission officers’ interest, how to pursue a rigorous curriculum and how to explore extracurricular activities that don’t empty out the bank account.

“Achieve the College Dream” provides an inspirational message from someone who has been there, done that and wants to inspire — nay, convince — others it can be done.

“I want to get the message out there that regardless of your individual circumstances, these selective institutions, even the most elite, are within reach,” said Chicuén, who was scheduled to appear at the Miami Book Fair on Sunday. “It’s entirely doable.”

In one way or another, Chicuén , 28, has spent her entire career reaching out to students of limited resources. Whenever an opportunity arises, she advocates the importance of higher education as a path to prosperity. In high school, she was selected by the ACT to write a blog about her college application process and she founded a club to help recent immigrants pursue their college studies. In college, she worked as a Latino recruiter for the admissions office. And as she moved on, she teamed up with the London-based startup, Foreign Students.

“I saw how difficult it was for my parents to navigate the process,” Chicuén says. “And I saw how so many people have this false impression that only superhumans should apply for these selective colleges because that’s what [admissions committees] are looking for.”

In fact, Chicuén adds, top colleges are interested in the “holistic application,” even as competition for freshman class slots tightens with more students applying. You don’t need a perfect SAT score or enrollment at an exclusive summer prep program to get in. What a student does need, however, “is to show initiative, leadership, drive, commitment and values. It’s important to show how you overcame personal obstacles.”

Admissions officers want to see a student who took advantage of what she could both in and out of school. Chicuén, for example, took 14 AP classes at Felix Varela High School in West Kendall and also enrolled in college-courses through dual enrollment at Miami Dade College and Florida International University to maximize an already rigorous curriculum. She was active, serving as an officer in various service clubs.

Her advice: Find what you love. “The key to successful participation in extracurriculars,” she writes, “is to engage in what truly drives you, whatever that is.”

And she urges students to find a mentor — a teacher, a counselor, a professional — to provide support and guidance. For those important recommendation letters, don’t necessarily ask the teacher who gave you an A, but the one who actually saw you struggle and improve and has a story to tell about that journey.

The Chicuéns’ journey is remarkable in its own way. They settled in Boynton Beach in 2002, when Chicuén was about to turn 14, and then moved to Miami when she was a high school freshman. After graduating from Harvard, she earned a master’s degree in international relations from the London School of Economics and worked as a consultant first for the World Bank and then the Inter-American Development Bank. Now she’s employed at Miami Dade College as a special projects coordinator in the president’s office. 

Chicuén’s mother is a physician who worked long hours to eventually get her Cuban medical degree re-certified in the U.S. Her father is an engineer for FPL. Her younger sister is currently a student at Stanford. Education is supremely important to all of them.

“I always had a very strong team behind me,” she says. “It was a family effort where everybody contributed in their own way — like a startup.”

While her parents did not have the economic wherewithal to offer her the opportunities many of her Harvard classmates enjoyed, they made sure she had a quiet place to study and positioned her extracurricular activities as a family priority.

“Parents,” Chicuén adds, “underestimate the influence they have on their children and the college application.”