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‘I’m really thankful’

Perez relates experience navigating Harvard

By Anna Jauhola
When Dani Perez made her final decision to attend Harvard University and navigated through her first year, she realized she wasn’t prepared for the nuances of elite campus life.
The 2017 Kittson Central graduate discovered Harvard’s First-Year Retreat and Experience program, or FYRE, last spring. Thinking of her own experiences trying to navigate the Ivy League campus with little or no help, feeling isolated because she had few people with whom she could relate, Perez decided to join FYRE and become a mentor.
“So thinking about the challenges I faced in my first and second years at college, it felt extremely rewarding to be a mentor to incoming first-year students,” Perez said.
Perez almost didn’t take this route. Since middle school, she dreamed of attending an Ivy League college. But in her last years of high school, she found the idea daunting, expensive and overly competitive.
“I didn’t think I had a shot at getting into one,” she said. “But toward the end of my college application process, Stacie Johnson … convinced me that I needed to apply, otherwise, I would regret not doing so.”
Perez was accepted to Harvard in March of her senior year at Kittson Central. She applied to six other colleges across the country but wasn’t accepted to all of them. She was set on attending Augsburg University in the Twin Cities, but decided at the last minute to accept the invitation to Harvard.
“It was a month and a half of going back and forth, and second-guessing whether I should go to a school like Harvard or whether I belonged there,” she said. “The idea of moving across the country by myself, going to this highly competitive, many times highly-isolating college, was terrifying.”
In the end, she chose Harvard, knowing if she didn’t like it she would never regret trying it and could attend another college.
FYRE, of which Perez is the co-chair, is geared toward first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students, including those from extremely rural areas such as Kittson County. The program gives first-year students a sense of community, introduces them to different sources of support and opportunities, and conversations with each other about experiences, identities and seeing those as assets, not deficiencies.
“I really had no idea about these things. I didn’t know they existed when I was in high school,” Perez said of FYRE. “But they have made my experience at Harvard, not easier, but less isolating and less discouraging.”
She said FYRE has been the most rewarding part of college.
As she has worked her way through the thick of Harvard campus life, she also found a program called “Return to High School.” It prepares students to return to their hometowns and speak about their college experiences. This program specifically encourages underrepresented students to relate to their high schools the importance of higher education.
“I think one of the things I’ve been most passionate about during my time at Harvard is to make this kind of higher education more accessible to students who might not come from a place where it’s normal to go to an Ivy League school,” she said. “I really knew I could have definitely benefitted from hearing from somebody who had applied and gotten in and been there a few years.”
Perez came from Venezuela to the United States with her family when she was 6 years old. They moved to Hallock when she was 10 and in fifth grade. She returned home on Friday, Dec. 20 to speak to seventh through 12th graders about her own path to and expectations for college, programs that prepared her for it and the application process. She also delved into what she wished she had known when applying for different schools.
“Most of my focus was on trying to debunk a lot of myths I believed about the college application process, such as you have to be a genius to get into an elite college, or you have to have a lot of money to pay tuition or be involved in everything,” Perez said. “A lot of these things are true for a lot of people at Harvard, but definitely not something I feel is true about me.”
She said students do not have to be wealthy, super-involved or well-connected to attend an Ivy League school. She focused on the fact that students, like her, who were low-income or come from an underrepresented background can qualify for some pretty significant financial aid. For Perez, the majority of her college is paid for through Harvard’s financial aid program, and she will pay back a small amount.
“I’m really thankful,” she said.
Since joining FYRE and helping others navigate college life, Perez has become even more passionate about education. She is double majoring in history and literature with an emphasis on Latino and Latin American studies, and art, film and visual studies with a focus on film and photography. She hopes one day to become an educator.
“Something that really interests me is community arts education,” she said. “I’d use what I’ve learned about Latino and Latin American studies, as well as using what I’ve learned about film and photography, to engage in programs that make art more accessible in Latino and underserved communities.”
She’s not sure what she might teach in a school setting but does know she wants to teach in a way that empowers underserved communities.
Perez said growing up in Hallock, in a low-income family, she has always been grateful for the teachers at Kittson Central for their hard work, passion and support.
“Without the many incredible teachers I had growing up, I definitely would not be here (at Harvard),” she said. “I would definitely not have the kind of passion I have for learning and teaching others, for serving others. I’m especially thankful for the teachers I had at Kittson Central because they were everything for me.”
Although Perez felt she received a great education in Hallock, she said small, rural schools like Kittson Central are still really underrepresented in Ivy League institutions. She hopes her talk encouraged students to look beyond what is normal and explore the possibility of attending a school like Harvard.
Her advice for students preparing for college, whether they are seniors in high school or seventh and eighth graders, is to dream big, find your passion and never believe you are limited. She said all students can find great opportunities from directly entering the workforce to attending a two-year or four-year program.
“Pursue the opportunities that feel best for you and the ones you feel most passionate about,” Perez said. “Even if you can’t see in the moment how they might unfold. Even if it feels really scary to make that decision in the moment. Many times if you pursue things you’re passionate about, you’ll get to where you need to be.”

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