Just a few weeks ago, we said goodbye to Javier Fernandez, a United Way Young Civic Leader, as he prepared to leave L.A. and head to NYC for his first year of college at Columbia University. We caught up with him recently to get the DL on all things ivy league. Here’s what he’s been up to!

What has been the most surprising experience so far?

I am surprised by how friendly freshmen, upperclassmen, and advising deans are at Columbia. I had this idea that people at an Ivy League would be mean or unwilling to help, but I am glad I was proven wrong. Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone, but I am really surprised at how Columbia is beginning to act like my second home. As days go by and I encounter more smiles, I am more convinced that Columbia is my playground, my haven, and that one day, it will be my home.

Do you feel like your education, experience with United Way’s Young Civic Leaders Program, or support from your family/community prepared you for the level of rigor in college?

From the classes I have been exposed to, I can say that Columbia’s classes are very intense. My experience with United Way has taught me that it is very important to rely on others when in distress, and I believe that having that mindset (of not being afraid to ask for help nor being hesitant to be a part of a team) is what has helped me survive at Columbia so far. For the sake of sanity, it is comforting to know that there are people who I can rely on when college just gets too hard. I feel blessed to have these people for support: United Way staff, my teachers, friends, and family. How have they prepared me for Columbia’s rigor, you may ask? Through their positivity and words of love, I am reassured that I do belong, that I am powerful, and that I am capable.

Now that you’re in college and have gone through the process of graduating with your A-G courses, what advice can you give to upcoming graduates?

I believe that colleges really want to see one thing reflected in your college applications: you! They want to know who you are and what makes you you. It can be really hard to write an essay about yourself (or go through high school) not knowing your purpose, or most importantly, not knowing yourself. I am not much more experienced than all of you, but if I can share something with you all, it is this: take advantage of high school and all of its A-G courses, extracurricular activities, volunteer opportunities, and vacations to explore your interests. Regardless of how much more time is left until your graduation day, consider every day as a new opportunity to discover who you are and find your happiness. Life is way more beautiful when you are happy. With that said, expand your horizons and obtain the unattainable until you have found your happiness. Once you have found it, prioritize it, because it can be very tempting (and easy) to lose sight of it in college. Be happy!

Do you have plans to continue advocating for education in New York and if so, how do you think you’ll continue to do that?

I believe it is very important that I continue advocating for education in New York. I am still trying to familiarize myself with programs that focus on advocating for education, but one way I would like to continue advocating for education is through volunteer work in primary and secondary schools in Harlem. I could be a tutor, college mentor, or something completely different. I don’t know. I am entering college with an open mind, and I can’t wait to see where my passion for education will take me.

What do you wish you would have known before entering college?

I am not alone and I never will be. There is no need to be alone. One might feel that way, and for certain situations, it is okay to feel that way. But there is no need to feel like that all the time. There is help. There is love. There is happiness. It is just a matter of finding those people who will make you happy. To be honest, I am still in the quest to find my clique and I wish I knew who they were. Until then, I will continue searching for my support group, and I recommend that you all do, too.