Alumni Spotlight: Harvard Grad Works & Volunteers Abroad

Selena RinconSelena Rincon graduated from YES Prep Southeast in 2013 and from Harvard in 2017. In college, she double majored in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Romance Languages and Literature. She studied French and Arabic and traveled abroad throughout her four years at Harvard. Now, she teaches English in Morocco.

How was your transition to college? What obstacles did you face and how did you overcome them?

I was really happy and excited to go. Once I got there, I realized how difficult it was. It was hard to catch up with students who had done so much– research, working in hospitals, publishing papers. And there I was unable to get a good grade on my chemistry exam. It was overwhelming, but what pushed me was how excited I was for the journey. Grades really became secondary to me, and I spent more time thinking, “Am I making the most of my time here? Am I utilizing all the resources and opportunities?”

What were some of those resources and opportunities?

I traveled a lot in college. I studied in France for two months the summer after my freshman year. I went to Bolivia and Israel my sophomore year. I studied abroad in Jordan for a semester my junior year. The summer between my junior and senior year, I traveled to Morocco. My senior year, I went back to Bolivia. It was a mixture of academic programs and volunteer opportunities. For example, in Bolivia, I helped build latrines and set up health programs. In Jordan, I took classes for the first two months and then did independent research. In Morocco, I was doing research for my senior thesis.

It sounds like you love to travel and learn languages. Did that start early?

Oh yes, I’ve loved learning languages since I can first remember. The summer after my sophomore year in high school, I went on my first international trip outside of visiting Mexico. I fundraised at school and went to France for the first time. The summer after my junior year of high school, I applied to the National Language Security Initiative for Youth and studied in Morocco. I really fell in love with the country then.

What are you doing in Morocco now?

I’m teaching English through an NGO that I studied with when I first came to Morocco. When I was in college, I studied a different dialect of Arabic, so now I’m also taking classes in Moroccan Arabic. Next fall, I plan to apply for law school.

What would you like to do after law school?

I’m interested in international and human rights law. I want to work for an NGO that focuses on the well-being of women and children.

Why are you interested in this type of work?

It all started when I was a senior in high school. I was the student aide for a 6th grader with Down Syndrome. I really bonded with him and saw him grow as a student. Then, at Harvard, I volunteered at an elementary school for special needs children. I was a teacher’s aide and got to do fun activities with the kids. When I was studying abroad in Jordan, my independent research was on the resources for children with special needs. I interviewed families and found out what was available through the government and private companies and what families with very little money could access. In Morocco, so little is done for children with special needs, so I’m trying to volunteer with an NGO that works with them.

What is one lesson from YES Prep that you still carry with you?

In high school, they always told us that college would be difficult and that we had to develop the study skills now. I’m always trying to think ahead and develop skills that will help me in the future.

Who were some of the YES Prep teachers that had an impact on you?

There were so many. Teachers are the most important thing about YES. I met teachers that truly cared about me, but I didn’t know that they cared so much until I was a sophomore. I was having a lot of personal problems at home and was starting to fall asleep in class and have other issues. I emailed my teachers to explain what was happening. After that, so many teachers reached out. The day after the email, Ms. Lee hugged me and I was like, “Wow, thank you for caring.” Mr. Sheridan reached out as well. He was such a good teacher and helped me love literature more.

Mr. Green is one of the reasons I made it to Harvard in the first place. When I was in 7th grade, people told me I was crazy for even thinking about Harvard. Mr. Green bought me a Harvard pin that I still keep in my room. He told me that if I wanted to go to Harvard, I could do it. If it weren’t for him, I think I would have said, “No, everyone is right. I can’t go to Harvard.”

What advice do you have for current YES Prep seniors about their transition to college?

  1. Get out of your comfort zone. When I left for college, I was ready for diversity, seeing new things, and experiencing a different culture, but it took me until sophomore year to join groups where I’d be around people who were different from me. I wish I’d done that earlier.
  2. Find a mentor and focus on creating a meaningful relationship with him/her.
  3. Study what you want. Don’t make the decision about what to study based on your family or money. There are so many jobs that didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago, so do what you love.

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