In the Spotlight: AnnaMaria Leal '21 (BA/MA Applied Behavorial Psychology)

Leah Schmerl
AnnaMaria Leal

AnnaMaria Leal's goal of earning a college degree is not just hers. It fulfills a long-time dream of her immigrant parents to see their children walk across a college graduation stage.

AnnaMaria is among the forty-six percent of SFC students who represent the first generation in their families to complete college. A graduate of St. Francis Preparatory School, she was raised with her brother and sister in Queens.

As an SFC student ambassador in SFC's Admissions Department, AnnaMaria gives campus tours and helps prospective students – including many who are first generation like her – understand the benefits SFC provides.

She recently reflected on her experience as a first-generation college student and the aspirations she has for the future.

What motivated you to attend college?

My parents have always emphasized education. My mom was a biology teacher in Brazil. My dad graduated high school in Colombia and went into the military. He took courses at community colleges, but he never graduated from a four-year institution.

But education was a big thing in our household. My parents always said to me and my siblings "you have to do well in school, so you can have more opportunities than we do. You have to be the best students, make your mark, so you can go further and do what you want."

It's your parents' dream for you to be a college graduate?

Yes, for all of us [my sister, brother and me]. My parents didn't understand the college application process, but they said, "whatever you have to fill out, whatever you have to pay for, just let us know what has to be done."

Why did you choose St. Francis College?

I was on a train and saw an ad for a St. Francis College Open House. My mom and I looked at each other and said, "maybe we should sign up for that." We went.

I had applied to 35 schools. My dad didn't want to sway my decision based on what he liked. After I decided to attend SFC, I asked my dad what he thought was good for me. He said, "St. Francis is where you'll end up." He knew I needed to come here and looking back, it makes sense because when we first walked in everyone was so welcoming.

What are your dreams for yourself, family and community?

I really want to become a guidance counselor. I was lucky because every summer, my high school offered what was essentially a crash course on the college application process. It helps a lot of students like me, with immigrant parents. I go back every summer to volunteer. I know it helps those kids to hear from someone who's gone through the process. They need to hear from someone like me, first-hand.

After St. Francis, I want to get my Ph.D. in school psychology and mental health counseling, working in education and in the college admissions field.

As far as my family, I want to have a job that can help my siblings and me take care of my parents down the line. It's a Latino thing: your parents take care of you when you're younger, and you take care of them when they're older.

In my community, I want to advocate for students. To ensure that other first-generation students have the opportunity to go to college.

How is St. Francis College a hospitable environment for first-generation students?

There's not only a lot of other first-generation students here, but a lot of the faculty and staff are first generation too. I work in the Admissions department, and a handful of my supervisors are also first-generation graduates.

The people who are helping you, who are accepting you into college here, they understand what it means to have immigrant parents, to maybe be working a job while going to college. Everything is so family-oriented and friendly.