Stephanie Zaragoza

AIken Technical College

"Early College through Aiken Tech was completely free. As the daughter of first-generation immigrants, affordability was really important."

My name is Stephanie Zaragoza. I graduated from Aiken Technical College’s Early College program during high school, and now I’m a first-year student at Harvard University. I’m currently undecided on what I’m going to study, but I’m thinking about clinical psychology. 

How did you decide to participate in the Early College program?

At the time, it was a new program offered through my high school. They told us our freshman year that we could start earning college credits starting the summer after freshman year. I’ve always been academically driven, and I instantly knew I wanted to do that. 

I started taking college credits the summer after my freshman year, and I did them all the way through my senior year. I graduated with an associate degree before graduating high school, which was really cool.

Where did you get your love of learning?

My parents are immigrants. I was born here, but I was the oldest of four, so I had to learn everything by myself. I started off by learning English, and I did that by reading any book I could find. That inspired my love for reading — and learning, by extension. 

What did you know about Aiken Technical College before you started?

The Early College program was really new when I started — I was in the third cohort if I’m not mistaken — so I didn’t really have anyone who could tell me what the program was like.

I knew a lot of people who had gone to Aiken Tech, and they said it was a good school. When I was presented with the idea, I thought it was really cool that there was a partnership between the two schools and that it was completely free. As the daughter of first-generation immigrants, affordability was really important.

A lot of people would ask me, “Oh, you’re taking classes at Aiken Tech? Why not a university?” My response was, “What’s wrong with Aiken Tech?” At the time, I wasn’t really aware there was such a big stigma around it, and I never saw any merit behind those stigmas. I thought it was a wonderful experience.

What stands out to you about your experience at Aiken Tech?

My professors were really passionate about what they teach, and I liked that it had a small class feeling. The professors really try to work with you and help you learn to the best of your ability. It was a good environment for me to learn how to be a college student.

Even at Harvard, I just had a lecture class with 800 students in it, and you really have to work at having a relationship with your professors. At Aiken Tech, it was a little bit easier to communicate with professors and build relationships with them. 

How did Aiken Tech prepare you for your next step?

It helped me develop good discipline towards school. We had classes in the summer, so I couldn’t slack off. I had to always be aware of assignments and homework. I feel like that’s a really good thing that I took with me to Harvard; you have to be organized in order to succeed.

Of course, Harvard is academically rigorous and it’s very different from Aiken Tech, but I wasn’t totally starting from scratch. I feel like I had a little bit of a head start in terms of understanding what college expects of you.

Aiken Tech also introduced me to what I’m studying now. I took an introduction to psychology course and I really liked it. As I approached my senior year, when I got to choose the classes I wanted to take, I asked my Aiken Tech advisor if she could suggest some psychology courses. In the end, I took two or three classes in psychology. I liked what I was learning, and it inspired me to continue learning about it. I’m taking psychology at Harvard, and I think I am going to major in it. Of course, anything could happen, but Early College gave me the opportunity to explore that interest.

What are you proudest of?

I’m really proud of my resilience to get all the way here. Early College was tough at the beginning because I was not used to college classes, and I was not used to what professors expected. Instead of quitting, I kept going. I had to miss out on a lot of things you would usually do over summer because I was always at school. I am really proud of how far I’ve come.

What keeps you motivated?

My family. I’ve seen my parents struggle to get here. I’m just in constant awe of how young they were when they came to the United States to build a completely new life, and how hard they work to support my family. 

I want to have a better future and be in a position to provide for my parents when they’re older. Being the oldest sibling and the oldest amongst my cousins, I aspire to be a role model for all of them so they have someone to look up to. I want them to feel motivated to do whatever they want to do. For me, that’s a big motivation.