Catalina Romero, a first-year student at MIT, bustles in the kitchen of her dorm, quickly putting the finishing touches on her arepas, or Colombian corn pancakes. She has been making arepas with her mother for years. Tonight, she is making them for her classmates at MIT.
Growing up in Gurnee, Illinois, Romero was fascinated by outer space and dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Her parents, who emigrated from Colombia before she was born, worked long hours at Medline, a medical supplies company. When Romero was just six years old, her parents saved enough money to bring her to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, furthering her interest in the cosmos. By seventh grade, she had decided that aerospace engineering — a field where she could build telescopes and satellites that go into space — was way cooler than the astronaut thing.
That same year, she came across the MIT Admissions’ blog and says she fell in love with the Institute, not just for the academics, but for the people and culture she enjoyed reading about. She thought: This place could really be for me.
MIT became Romero’s dream school, but it wasn’t until 2017, when she attended MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) program, that she started to believe it was within her reach. For six weeks during the summer after her junior year of high school, Romero lived on MIT’s campus and took rigorous courses in math and science. At first she was nervous.
“I thought maybe we had to prove a point,” she says. “There was a fear of keeping up and asking questions.”
She quickly realized that everyone at MITES, which has been run by the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs for 43 years and served approximately 2,300 students, was there to learn and help each other, and that, she says, was “really comforting.” Sunday evenings during MITES were “family meeting” times, where students could share personal experiences in a safe space.
“You could just feel the environment was really inviting and everyone was accepting,” she recalls.
She learned an important life skill during those gatherings — how to openly discuss her feelings and confide in others. It wasn’t easy, Catalina says, because she came to MITES with a secret: She and her family were once homeless when she was in middle school. She had never been able to open up to anyone about that experience because of the shame she felt from it.
“But at MITES, other people were sharing similar struggles they’d been through,” she says. “Just being able to talk about it was a huge release.”
Four short months after MITES ended, there was lots of screaming and yelling and tears — the celebratory kind— when Romero, her parents, and her little brother found out that she was accepted to MIT’s class of 2021. Looking back, the road to her dream school has sometimes felt long, but now that Romero is on campus, she looks forward to learning as much as she can while still making time for the things she loves, like cycling.
She also plans to volunteer for MITES so that she can help others, like herself, find a way to MIT, no matter where they started from. “It really skyrocketed my confidence,” she says.
After she breaks bread (or arepas) with her suitemates, she sits in the quiet of her dorm room and reflects on her journey.
“After so many years of telling people MIT is my dream school, all my hard work has paid off,” she says. “I am here, I made it.”