First Gen: Inspiring Stories Of MBAs Who Beat The Odds

Jeannette Paulino

Columbia Business School

Class: 2019

Hometown: Miami, Florida

Fun Fact About Yourself: I learned how to kitesurf in the Red Sea in Egypt during a holiday weekend on a work trip.

Undergraduate School and Major: University of Florida, Political Science with a concentration in International Relations

Most Recent Employer and Job Title:

MBA Summer Internship: Inspiring Capital, Social Impact Consultant
Prior to MBA: Nathan Associates Inc., Associate (International Economic Development Consulting)

What did your parents do for a living? My dad has worked in the travel and hospitality industry. For over 25 years, has owned a small travel agency in Hialeah, Florida. My mother has worked in administration all her life in multiple industries including construction, health, and retail.

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your father? My father has a high school degree and my mother attained a secretarial diploma from a vocational technical school.

Which of your family members is your biggest inspiration? Why? It is difficult to choose just one because, I believe I have benefitted tremendously from every relative that has been an integral part of my life. Nonetheless, I believe that living with my father in my formative teenage years taught me principles that I carry with me today.

As a dedicated father to my brother and I, he not only worked hard to provide us with many privileges like moving to a district in suburban Miami-Dade County to be able to access a better public-school system, but he also made time for us to ensure we were raised in a harmonious loving environment. To him, I owe my intrinsic compassion and kindness towards the world and humanity. His entrepreneurial persistent spirit with managing his travel agency taught me to never give up. In an era when traditional ways of doing business is transitioning to online services, my dad has managed to maintain and scale his travel agency as a result of his unyielding attention to providing high quality customer service. His clients treasure his advice and trust his management of business operations. I have also observed my dad’s implementation of innovative revenue-generating strategies.  While some have failed, his optimism and perseverance kept him going. Having this exemplar businessman, as a father, keeps me going. His creative way of thinking, his positivity, and his self-confidence has helped me navigate tough times and empowered me to achieve my vision of a successful future.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? Going to college was always part of the conversation at home. My immigrant working class parents always encouraged my brother and I to “pensar en grande” or “think big.” At a young age, I became thirsty for knowledge. My mom wanted me to have opportunities she didn’t have growing up, and ever since she helped me learn vocabulary words at a higher level, I knew that becoming a good student was aligned with a higher purpose. As I became enamored by the possibilities of becoming a doctor, a lawyer, or a diplomat, I quickly learned that no matter what dream I pursued, it would require a college degree and possibly additional years of studying. However, I despondently became aware how much a zip code can affect one’s chances at success. When I was supposed to go to my designated public high school that was assigned an “F” grade, I not only worried that my growth potential would be limited to the quality of education I received, but I also worried that eventually colleges wouldn’t even glance through my application when it would be time to apply. So, I pleaded to my father to move to a better district. After he spoke with several members of my middle school faculty, he learned the gravity of the situation. My father found a new home that he could afford in the district with a better public high school.

While in high school, when I had the choice to decide which classes to take, I understood that in order to get into college – especially a highly respected institution – I needed to be a well-rounded stellar student. I constantly had to explain to my immigrant parents why it was so important to balance my time between academics, sports, and extracurricular activities. They often didn’t understand the stress, effort, and time that came with taking AP courses, becoming a varsity cheerleader, and being involved in student clubs. I justified that all the effort – the all-nighters, the exhausting practices, and the never-ending hours of studying – would serve to guarantee my mobility up the ladder of academic success. It was certainly my hope.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? Paying for tuition was my biggest concern because I could not rely on my low-income parents. I didn’t even think of asking if they could spare any funding. The guilt of imposing this burden upon them was not an endeavor I could ever imagine. Therefore, I spent the second half of my senior year in high school incessantly and desperately applying to FAFSA and private scholarships. I did not know that taking out federal or private loans was even an option. I didn’t talk to anyone about this. I didn’t know I could.

I received several acceptance letters from in-state and out-of-state colleges. In the end, I decided to take advantage of Florida’s Bright Futures Scholarship program, which offers scholarship awards based on GPA and SAT scores. This generous financial assistance relived anxieties and concerns for my family. This opportunity allowed me to pursue a career in international economic development, an industry I knew would not offer salaries of the same competitive level as other industries. Without the financial encumbrance that many college graduates experience, I was able to move to Washington D.C., without the concern of a burdensome monthly loan repayment bill on top of other expenses, and pursue my dream job.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? The most challenging part was understanding what it takes to apply to college. Sure, I had taken the hardest courses offered in my high school and gotten straight A’s; I was an athlete and a contributing writer to my school newspaper; I assumed leadership positions in several student clubs; and I had volunteered over 100 hours outside of school. But I questioned whether that was enough to “make it.” Besides taking Pre-SATs in my junior year, I was not aware of all the available resources to prepare for exceling at college standardized testing. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that private tutoring for SATs and ACTs was a possibility. My parents certainly didn’t know about this. I felt as if I did not have much access to information until my senior year of high school, almost too late in the process.

I also worried about my chances of being accepted into top colleges including Ivy League schools. Attending a 94% Hispanic high school and growing up in a Latino-dominated community, I wondered if we had access to the same opportunities and the same visibility in college applications as other Americans. I am, therefore, thankful for my AP course teachers, who encouraged me to apply to my dream schools and who graciously guided me in the months leading to the college deadlines. I am thankful to the one career guidance counselor, who was responsible for guiding approximately 800 senior students in pursuit of a higher education.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher education experience that you wish they would understand better? Most non-first-generation students, whose parents attended college, have the esoteric knowledge and possibly the safety net to support their higher education path. This is not so much the case with first-generation college students. Most of us have to find and define our own path through pieces of information that we discover through instructors and peers along the way. Since my parents did not undergo the American college experience, it was difficult to understand how challenging, competitive, time-consuming, and necessary it all was. Questions that often arose included: Why are you running for leadership positions of student clubs if you’re just there to study? Why do you have to intern abroad in India? Why are you attending football games? Why are you studying so much? What’s the purpose of a “fun” networking event?

When I announced that I was going to pursue a graduate degree program, again, some family members (particularly my mother) questioned my reasons for going back to school. Some could not understand why a master’s degree in a well-known top institution was required for a particular career path. Any graduate institution sufficed in their mind. Some thought it would it be a waste of time and money. But I had bigger dreams in mind. Unfortunately, it was the more expensive, arduous kind: pursuing an MBA degree.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? Prior to business school, I worked for an international economic consulting firm, managing development projects overseas for over five years. My pursuit of business school embodies a vision to initiate change towards constructing effective business-minded solutions to pressing global issues. I believe that an MBA degree will empower me with the skills and network I need to equip governments, organizations, and individuals with the tools and resources required to achieve growth and economic advancement.

How did you choose your MBA program? Initially, I thought about continuing to work full-time in Washington D.C. and pursuing a part-time MBA program in the evenings. However, a part of me yearned to relive the full-time student experience and gain from the benefits of a two-year program. I applied to several schools within and outside the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management. And when it came down to making a decision, “making it” to a top 10 business school and an Ivy League was such an important feat for me to accomplish as a first-generation Hispanic-American. I felt like I owed it to my immigrant hard-working parents. I owed it to the little ambitious Jeannette who wanted so much to have the same opportunities as her non-immigrant, better English-speaking peers. I owed it to the millions of Hispanics in this country looking for a chance, an opportunity for a better life.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? Unquestionably, finances again. Accepting my offer to Columbia Business School was a decision that caused much anxiety. My parents still could not assist me in funding this expensive endeavor. My savings up to that point were not sufficient enough to even reduce 1% of the tuition fee. Forgoing my D.C. salary and pursuing a full-time program at a top business school in a more expensive city seemed overwhelmingly daunting. I, therefore, dedicated months before school started to applying to private scholarships and learning as much as possible about the different options around financing this costly yet valuable degree.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first-generation student? I am grateful to Columbia Business School for offering me a generous scholarship package. This was a deciding factor between staying in Washington D.C. or moving to New York City. I am covering the rest of tuition, living expenses, fees, and books through substantial federal loans. I am hoping that the compensation package of my post-MBA job will help me repay my loans in an efficient and timely manner.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? Do not let your circumstances or zip code dictate what you can and cannot accomplish. The academic and professional vision that you hold dear in your heart is possible with perseverance, discipline, and some assistance. There are people outside of your immediate circle who are willing to help, but you cannot be afraid to ask. Seek out information and resources. Ask a lot of questions. Know that anything is possible and within your reach. Dream big.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? I aspire to work for a global management consulting firm where I can leverage my international economic development background and my MBA degree.