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So Much More Than Uniforms and Strictness: A First-Generation College Student Reflects on Catholic Schools’ Impact

Many Americans share the same limited view on Catholic schools that Gisselle Reyes had when she was in sixth grade at a New York City public school. “The only perspective I had was uniforms, church, and the strictness you see in movies,” she explains.

Seven years later, she has a far different view. After her mother transferred her and her siblings to Our Lady Queen of Angels, a Partnership School, Gisselle went on to attend Cristo Rey-New York High School, and she is in her first year at Fordham University. What she finds most valuable about her experiences in Catholic schools at every level resonates with us—particularly now during Catholic Schools Week, when many celebrate these schools, currently educating over 1.6 million Americans, as something special.

At Partnership Schools, we believe that what is special about Catholic education is even more uniquely powerful in the communities our schools serve, which are now predominantly Black and Hispanic. As urban Catholic schools have always done, ours serve primarily striving families like Gisselle’s. In a recent interview, edited here for length and clarity, she provides key insights into what exactly that unique Catholic school impact can be for students managing the hopes and pressures of being young adults now—particularly when they are the first in their families to attend college.

Elementary School: Our Lady Queen of Angels

My mom didn’t even tell me I was going to transfer. I was struggling in public school, and my siblings were, too; I wasn’t doing the best, wasn’t working to my potential. My parents are Catholic, so one of the reasons they sent me [to OLQA] was religion, but also the quality of the education. At OLQA, they encourage you to do the best that you can do, and the teachers won’t leave you behind. To my parents, it meant having a better education to establish a better life and have opportunities.

Gisselle at OLQA with her sister Emily and brother David, now students at Cristo Rey-New York High School.

I saw a big difference. The teachers at OLQA had closer relationships than my teachers in public school. In addition, I had gone to church before, but I’d never taken a religion class; that helped shape my ethics and decision-making. The core values like integrity that Mr. K [religion teacher Steven Kuilan] and the school emphasized—I practice those values today, and they really do help my well-being, because they help me feel proud about what I am doing.

OLQA let me know that just because I come from a low-income or minority family, I’m not going to be behind. I can do it too—I can accomplish anything because I have those opportunities. That’s what my parents were seeking for me.

High School: Cristo-Rey New York

I learned so much from the school, my work-study placements, and being involved in campus ministry. For example, I used to hate math. But I learned I was good with numbers and data analysis, and now I am leaning towards a major in finance, or mathematics. I worked at CM Investment Partners (now Investcorp) and Centerbridge Partners when I was at Cristo Rey.*

Cristo Rey also gave me religion classes, and they encouraged us to build relationships with a higher power. I took world religions and was able to learn about other religions, and how we all have an ultimate goal of reaching fulfillment. Having Mass at school helped me practice my religion at home, too.

My relationship with God was helpful to me in high school when I was building relationships with others. In God’s eyes, we are perfect to Him, but I’m not going to lie; there are times when I compare myself to other images, and I have been insecure. But I have learned to love myself as God loves us—unconditionally—so I am able to overcome my insecurities and avoid comparisons.

The education OLQA and Cristo Rey offered was tied into that. I was able to continue receiving honors in high school partly because of my relationships with God and others.

College: Fordham

It all paid off when I was admitted into college. Just being here at Fordham is a huge accomplishment. It is a big deal for my family; I never thought I would be here. Private colleges have higher tuition, and I thought I would go to CUNY, which would be fine. But I was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship, thanks in part to letters of recommendation from high school teachers who knew me well.

Gisselle and her mother.

One of the things I want the most is for my parents to be proud of me. And because I’m first generation, there is a lot of pressure. I am the oldest in my family, and it feels like everyone is depending on me.

There are a lot of wealthy, advantaged students I think sometimes I am in competition with here. There is diversity, but not as much as I would like to see. And I didn’t know anybody when I came here, so I had to build relationships with teachers and other students. Having a relationship with God helped me learn to face my fears and to trust—to trust that there is good in other people. It gave me faith that I can build relationships with peers, have a good time with them, and avoid the wrong influences that will pull me from the path that I am on.

I’ve also gotten involved in campus ministry here, and I have attended retreats that have helped me build connections with other people and gain insights into religion. And I took theology in the fall. It made me question my faith—not doubt it, but expand it and ask more questions about my religion, shift my perspective about how faith is integrated differently by different individuals. It made me think about why I practice the religion that I practice.

It is possible for me to love myself the way God loves me. I love myself enough to manage my time and to seek the help I need to get my work done, to take self-care days and take care of my mental health. I’m obviously going to try to be my best. Sometimes I go into the classroom and think everyone is automatically better than me. I have to remember: we all come here for the same reasons, and we have so much to learn about each other. With that in mind, I’m able to go about my day, and not feel too pressured, or that my voice isn’t heard. Though I struggle with it sometimes, I can stand my ground in class, and say what I have to say.

At the Partnership, we know that the aspirations students like Gisselle’s require rigorous academics and productive habits to make them attainable. But as Catholic schools, we also know that to be human is to hunger for even more—like connections to a higher power, to other people, and to the best within us, as Gisselle explains. As we celebrate Catholic schools this week, then, we are celebrating institutions that have the capacity to give young people the unique freedom and agency they can only build over months and years in which they encounter meaningfully a single, transformational truth: each of us—even when we are from an immigrant or low-income family, or is traveling an unfamiliar path through the world—is nothing less than the beloved child of God.


*As a Cristo Rey school, all students at Cristo Rey-New York complete work-study as part of their education.