Achieving the college dream
You don’t need to be rich to attend a top school
Q and A with Maria Carla Chicuén
Interview by Ariana Gainer
María Carla Chicuén didn’t know it at the time, but a simple stroll outside her high school, Felix Varela Senior High in Miami, Florida, would set her on a path to Harvard, graduate school in Europe, a fascinating career and a book authorship. And it all started with Key Club International.
Key Club magazine caught up with María Carla Chicuén to talk about where she is now and how Key Club was there for her along the way.
When and why did you decide to join Key Club?
I joined Key Club in 2002 and remained an active member of the organization until 2005. In my book, “Achieve the College Dream,” I explain that my participation in Key Club was one of the highlights of my high school journey. Excerpt from the book: “I first discovered Key Club during the second semester of my freshman year. One afternoon, I noticed a particularly excited crowd in the school’s backyard. One girl was standing on a lunch table, talking very loudly and fast to a large group of enthusiastic listeners. I got close and realized the girl was describing a series of events that would take place very soon: Horse-riding therapy sessions for children with disabilities. Neighborhood feasts. Toy sales for low-income families. Visits to local nursing homes to entertain residents. Everyone seemed genuinely engaged with the news, and I was instantly convinced that I wanted to become part of this special group. So I joined right away. The following year, I was vice president. And by the time junior year arrived, I was the president.”
What did you enjoy most about Key Club?
Some of my favorite memories from this time include volunteering on Saturdays at Kiwanis Horses & Handicapped, where I would train children with disabilities in horse riding. I also enjoyed volunteering at local nursing homes and the annual Hasbro Toys sale.
When did you decide that you wanted to attend Harvard University?
As a recent immigrant, I had little knowledge about my higher education options, and never thought that a prestigious university like Harvard was within reach. I must have imagined those colleges were reserved for the rich and the geniuses. It was not until late into my junior year when I was fortunate to reconnect with an old friend who had just been accepted to Harvard. He convinced me that I had the academic and extracurricular experience to be considered a strong candidate for selective universities and opened my eyes to the generous financial aid available to help my family cover the costs of tuition and living. Most importantly, he introduced me to his guidance counselor, who became my fairy godmother and guided me through every stage of the application process.
Did Key Club help you reach your new goal?
Without a doubt, my participation in Key Club enhanced my chances of admission to top colleges. During my years working as a student recruiter for the Harvard Admissions Office, I learned that prospective applicants should prioritize quality over quantity as they pursue extracurricular activities. Colleges particularly value long-term activities that cultivate and reflect leadership, commitment to genuine passions and service to the community. As I led Key Club throughout most of my high school career, I gained unmatched experience in team building and project development, which in turn prepared me to contribute actively to the student community at Harvard.
Once at Harvard, how did you work toward a career?
I have been fortunate to combine my passion for education and international development since the early stages of my career. Even as a college student, my summer internships and part-time jobs at organizations as diverse as the Harvard Admissions Office, the New York-based nonprofit New Alternatives for Children and a Ministry of Finance provided valuable exposure to future pillars of my work, such as higher education access and government relations. That early experience proved to be excellent training ground for my future work at international organizations like the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (where I served as a consultant in operation areas such as education and integration), as well as at academic institutions like Minerva Schools and Miami Dade College.
After you graduated, you chose the London School of Economics for your graduate studies. Why did you head across the Atlantic?
I wanted to study in London and experience life in Europe. Also, my undergraduate thesis explored relations with the UK, and I was planning to continue my research during my master’s program. The scholarship LSE provided me also eased my decision.
What are some of your favorite achievements?
In particular, I am proud of the work I have done to help youth achieve their potential. At the World Bank, for example, I was part of a small team that drafted a proposal for government reforms in Chile that gave university students in the country more financial aid options. Through my work at the Harvard Admissions Office, I advised hundreds of students and families on the path to college. My book also has the potential to touch the lives of many, as it is the first guide to selective universities especially designed for students with limited resources, a group that is underrepresented at these institutions.
What made you decide to write your book?
The motivation to write “Achieve the College Dream” originated in my own journey to Harvard, as well as my experience working at the Harvard Admissions Office. As a student in high school with few resources and a limited understanding of the U.S. higher education system, it was very difficult to find the proper guidance to navigate the college application process. For most of my high school years, I ignored that, with my academic and extracurricular achievements, I could be considered a strong candidate for even the top universities in the country, or that generous financial aid was available to cover my tuition and living expenses. Although college guides existed, I had yet to find one that combined expert advice with the inspiration and encouragement necessary to help me overcome my initial skepticism. These were the essential ingredients I was determined to include in my book: comprehensive guidance to find and afford the right college for each student, as well as an inspiring message based on my own experience as a college applicant and higher education professional.
What advice can you offer students who want to go to college but don’t think they can afford it?
Students should never forgo their higher education because they think they won’t be able to afford it. In the United States, there are many forms of financial aid available to college students. Universities, even the most expensive institutions, usually offer merit or need-based scholarships. Some of the most selective institutions such as Harvard have generous aid policies that allow students with family incomes below US$60,000-$65,000 to attend at no cost. Students should pay attention not to the official tuition costs, but to their individual estimated payments. In order to explore these estimates, they can use the net price calculator, a digital tool available on each financial aid website.
Outside of the aid provided by universities, students may also request loans from the state and federal government, and they can search for external scholarships as early as ninth grade. With the help of external scholarships from organizations like Ford, BrandsMart USA, Univision and Toyota, in addition to generous financial aid, my college studies were extraordinarily affordable.
Who have been your biggest supporters?
My family has been a constant source of support and motivation throughout my life. Even in childhood, my parents instilled in me and my younger sister the confidence to seek our goals and a love for education. During my teenage years, they made the difficult decision to leave our native country, Cuba, to search for greater academic and professional opportunities for all of us. Even in times of scarcity and despite the many obstacles we encountered as immigrants, my parents made enormous sacrifices to prioritize our education, ensuring I could devote my time to my studies and my extracurricular development. Their own arduous journey to exercise their professions—as a physician and an engineer—in the United States always inspired me.
What goals do you still want to achieve?
My greatest professional aspiration is to reduce barriers to college access, especially among underrepresented groups such as ethnic minorities, recent immigrants and those living in communities with limited resources. I am especially inspired to make a positive difference in Miami, Florida, the city that welcomed me when I arrived from Cuba and where I currently reside. At the same time, I hope to continue writing and publishing, creating books that inspire and empower as much as they educate.