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My KIPP + First-Gen Story – and Telling Yours

by Danielle Phan, on Aug 9, 2016 5:00:00 AM


On March 29, 2004, I wrote in my diary, “There’s a school that my parents are planning for me to go to. I think that school is okay, but it has a long schedule each day. They have a lot of field trips though.” The word “long” is underlined three times. I was nine years old.

That school was KIPP Heartwood Academy, and all of this unfolded because one day, as my mom and I were walking home from school, a woman stopped us and asked if we wanted to enroll in a new school she was opening. KIPP Heartwood Academy was the first KIPP school in San Jose, California, and that school changed my life.

I grew up on the East Side of San Jose, in a predominantly Latino and Asian community. Although I couldn’t understand it at the time, there were significant educational inequalities where I grew up. Schools like KIPP sought to close the achievement gap and help us “climb the mountain” to and through college.

Everything in my diary entry is actually true – KIPP balanced a grueling 7am-5pm schedule Monday through Friday (plus school on Saturday) with a reward system that involved multiple field trips throughout the year, all over the country. I actually visited what became my alma mater, Brown University, for the first time when I was in the seventh grade, on a KIPP trip to the east coast.

KIPP opened a world of opportunity for me. It guided me to a private school in the area and later to Brown, where I led the school’s largest service organization, wrote an honors thesis in history, and graduated magna cum laude. I say with every ounce of honesty that I have no idea where I would be without KIPP.

What KIPP did not – and could not – prepare me for was the feeling of isolation once you actually get to college. Brown’s website defines first-gen as “any student who may self-identify as not having prior exposure to or knowledge of an experience like Brown’s.” Although I was not the first in my family to attend college (I attended my dad’s college graduation when I was 5), the world in which I grew up, in East San Jose, provided me with little exposure to an environment like Brown’s. As I navigated what it meant to be first-gen in college, I desperately looked for people who had experiences and stories like mine, both on campus and in my coursework. These stories were few and far between, and in the earlier years of college, it was easier to hide my own story rather than share it.

I straddled two worlds – the experiences growing up in East San Jose and “an experience like Brown’s.” They were not easily translatable to each other, and it was in these liminal spaces that I understood the power of storytelling. Through my history coursework, I learned that if I didn’t see stories I could relate to, I should tell them myself. I ended my college career writing an undergraduate thesis in history about the Vietnamese community in San Jose – my community, my story.

For first-gen, I think the value of storytelling is in confidence-building. Writing this history thesis taught me that there is no shame in where I come from. While it felt easier to hide my stories at first, it was hardly fulfilling. Telling the story of my community allowed me to influence what others understood of the world I came from, from my perspective – the most authentic perspective there could be. My thesis was the ultimate bridge between where I came from – East San Jose – and the person I wanted to be – a changemaker with the power to shape other people’s perspectives through the stories that I could tell.

BMR-facebook-1080by1080-2.pngShare your story to college. When you say your college plans and stories out loud, it helps build the confidence that makes them possible. That’s why Story2 and Better Make Room are partnering for the #TellYourStory campaign to unleash stories of students about why they’re excited about college. Students will receive free college essay mentoring by posting a photo on Instagram, captioning it with the sentence, “I’m excited about college because...” and submitting their photo at We are giving 10,000 students free access to EssayBuilder™ to complete college admission and scholarship essays that tell authentic stories.

Tell My Story

Topics:college admission