RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And here is a sound that conjures up the first day of college.
(SOUNDBITE OF CARTS ROLLING)
MONTAGNE: Hear that? Rolling carts outside a resident hall on a hectic morning - a new arrival wheeling a plastic cart full of belongings. Freshman move-in is a major rite of passage, and for some students, it is also a gift. NPR's Neva Grant sent us this postcard from New York University.
TALIA OLIVERAS: Whoa, there's so much. Where do I start? I took up the whole room (laughter).
NEVA GRANT, BYLINE: Talia Oliveras is the first person in her family to leave home for a four-year degree. Maybe that explains why on move-in day at NYU her dorm room is full of family.
FANNY: Now the first thing - everything that she doesn't need has to go back.
GRANT: There's her aunt Fanny.
FANNY: No, the suitcase is in the trunk.
RAFAEL: You mean she's not going to live out of a suitcase for a while?
GRANT: And that's uncle Rafael.
ZUNILDA ZORRILLA: Talia, what side you want?
GRANT: And here's Talia's grandmother.
ZORRILLA: (Speaking Spanish).
GRANT: She raised her family in Spanish Harlem before they moved to a suburb just north of the Bronx.
ZORRILLA: Talia, do want us to say bye to you right now?
GRANT: When things quiet down a little, Talia talks about the two people who aren't here - her father, who she never knew, and her mother, who got pregnant with Talia when she was 20 and then couldn't manage a baby, so her grandmother stepped in to raise her.
OLIVERAS: Well, my grandmother had to work two, sometimes three jobs. And therefore, she wasn't really home to help me if I had a problem with homework. So I kind of had to figure it out myself. And I remember second grade, I was almost failing.
GRANT: So the question is, how did Talia get from there to one of the country's top universities? Well, start with the grandmother, Zunilda Zorrilla. She was raising Talia and her own children as a single mom and was also, it turns out, kind of a force.
ZORRILLA: I don't give up. I didn't grow up with my parents - I grew up here by myself. So by the time that I was here, a teenager, and I was already pregnant, I never learned to look back and say, boy, I can't do this. That's what I'm putting in Talia - don't give up.
GRANT: So Talia didn't. She started to get better grades. She was good at singing and acting, so her grandmother pushed for her to get into a community arts program. And much later, her high school counselor saw Talia's AP grades and pushed her again to apply to the top colleges, even though they both knew she couldn't afford them.
OLIVERAS: No matter what, I couldn't afford it. It could have been 5,000 dollars a year, and that still would've been out of reach - not out of reach as 71,000, but still it would've been a stretch.
GRANT: Yep, you heard her right - 71,000 dollars a year. That's the total cost of her theater program and fees at NYU. But Talia got a four-year scholarship plus grants and a loan. A lot, she says, is riding on this.
OLIVERAS: I am the oldest of my generation in my family, so I was the firstborn. And I just really wanted to be a role model. Not that I just wanted to be - my family kind of made it seem that I had to be a role model for them, and there's just something in me that just wanted to be the best.
GRANT: And maybe that's a lot of pressure for a 17-year-old. But Talia seems to like acting the best.
OLIVERAS: Come take a picture.
ZORRILLA: You want me now?
GRANT: Here is how she teases her grandmother when they take this goodbye photo.
ZORRILLA: This is a picture between Talia and I. Come on Talia.
OLIVERAS: It's an object. It's Talia and me.
ZORRILLA: She's correcting me already, she's a college student.
GRANT: Then it's down to the car for a final flurry of hugs.
ZORRILLA: Remember no sex, no drugs, no alcohol.
GRANT: Neva Grant. NPR News.
ZORRILLA: Study hard.
OLIVERAS: Of course.
ZORRILLA: Stay away from any distractions. Call me.
OLIVERAS: I will. Love you guys.
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