PAW Tracks

Aida Pacheco ’77
Courtesy Aida Pacheco
Aida Pacheco ’77 came to Princeton from a predominantly black and Latino high school in nearby Trenton, where teachers said she wasn’t cut out for the Ivy League. Her early experiences on campus reinforced that fear. But when Pacheco was on the verge of dropping out, a supportive friend changed her mind.

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Brett Tomlinson: Nearly every Princetonian who sits down for a PAW Tracks interview remembers the people who helped them make it through their college years — a coach, a professor, or in the case of Aida Pacheco ’77, a fellow student. Here’s her story.

Aida Pacheco: I grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, which is 20 minutes away from here. I came from an inner-city school, predominantly black, with a growing Latino population. When I was accepted — and it was early decision, I remember — that was the first time I actually stepped on campus. And I was astonished how someone had approached me and actually remembered what my essay was about. I wrote about my mom.

But prior to that, a couple teachers, a counselor, told my mom, because she worked at the high school, “We give Aida less than a year. She’s not going to make it.” And so it was very disheartening, because these were the people that were supposed to be inspiring and supportive. It was really hard to enter this University with people in your home, the place you grew up, that really didn’t believe in you, that you were going to make it.

Culturally, coming to Princeton — I mean, academics was challenging, of course. But I think more, for me, was the whole cultural-social adaptation. People, like one woman said, “Where is Puerto Rico?” A Princetonian asked me, didn’t know, and I thought oh! So, there was that mutual education. But there was a lot of, I think, feeling not welcomed. And it was just very tough to adjust to Princeton, in the beginning.

I remember I decided, my second year, to go into sociology, I entered the — I think it was the introductory course. I remember the professor. And it was a large class, because most of the introductory courses are larger. And we had three papers to do, a midterm, and a final. And I kind of freaked out, because I didn’t have the preparation, I think, a lot of the other students had. But I did my first paper, and I remember agonizing over that first paper.

When he came before the class, he said, “These papers were terrible.” And he said, “You’re going to have to do the next two papers. I’m not going to grade them.” And he was the head of the department at the time. And I said, well — I internalized that. Although he spoke to the entire class, I kind of internalized that. So, of course, I had this mental block. So, I went to him. And I was 18. I was a sophomore, but I was 18. And I went up to him, and I said, “You know, I’m just having this mental block.” And I was there to seek guidance. And what he said to me was, “Well, why didn’t you — why did you apply to Princeton? Why didn’t you apply to Mercer County? Why don’t you go to Mercer County Community College?” So, I was like, oh, my God. And see, I already had a little bit of that lack of confidence. And so, for someone who’s the head of the sociology department to tell me this was just, like, oh, my God.

So, I call Mami, and I said, “Mami, you need to pick me up. I’m not going to make it here. I think — a couple of the teachers have approached me and they — they’re right.” So, I packed my things, and I had a very best friend, who’s here, we’ve been friends since freshman year, kept in touch through years, more like a sister. That year, she roomed next to me. And I don’t know for — it was — I don’t know. I don’t know what it was. But she happened to knock on the door. I had my bags packed already. And she saw my bags, and she says, “Aida, what are you doing?” I said, “Well, I’m packing. Mami’s on her way.” I say, “You know, Daphne, this is what — this is what happened, and I don’t think I’m going to make it here. So, I’m going to go, and I’ll go to the community college and see what...”

And she said, “The hell you are. We’re going to get — make this through together. You’re not leaving me.” And so, she — when Mom came, she made me unpack the bags, and I stayed, and I — we both graduated.

And it’s so funny. I think it’s because she used to check on me, because I — I’m a procrastinator, and I’d like to sleep. She was so — she was so good. And she happened to be there at that time that I was making that decision. Who knows what would’ve happened if she hadn’t been there at that moment.

Because of the similar background — she was from Newark, I was from Trenton — we really created this close bond. And some other students. And I think that really helped. That’s — level of support really helped me make it through Princeton.

BT: After graduation, Aida returned to Trenton as a teacher and later worked in the mayor’s office, where she started the first Hispanic human-services agency in Mercer County. Today, she lives and works near Richmond, Virginia, and serves on the governor’s Latino Advisory Board.

Our thanks to Aida Pacheco for sharing her story. Brett Tomlinson produced this episode. The music is licensed from FirstCom Music.