Raised in Watsonville, Alexandra Rocha-Alvarez is a junior at Yale University (Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Alexandra Rocha-Alvarez had a realization in 2018 when she moved away from Watsonville for the first time for her freshman year at Yale University.

“I came in with this feeling of, ‘Yes, I am a first-generation, low-income student, but I am just as capable, and I have everything that everybody else here has,’” said Rocha-Alvarez, now a 20-year-old junior at Yale majoring in American Studies. “Very quickly, my first year, I realized that that was not true.”

She had another realization this fall — back in Watsonville, attending classes remotely from the housing center of the apartment where she was raised, from which her parents still leave early each morning during harvest season to the strawberry fields that surround it.

“In the Yale ecosystem, I was probably one of the most underprivileged undergraduate students there,” Rocha-Alvarez said. “But at home, man — I just couldn’t stop thinking about how lucky I am to be rolling out of bed at 6:30, logging on to Zoom, staying in my pajamas, and learning, and having that be my quote-unquote job.”

Rocha-Alvarez lives in the Jardines del Valle apartments. It’s an 18-unit complex that used to be called Murphy’s Camp, a name that still sticks. Before it was renovated in 1998 by nonprofit developer MidPen Housing, the complex was considered to be among the most rundown labor camps in the state.

Raised in Watsonville and a graduate of Watsonville High, Rocha-Alvarez is the first in her family to be born in the U.S. Her two parents and older sister — who preceded her at Yale, graduating last year — immigrated from Mexico.

Her family moved into Jardines del Valle after its renovation when she was 4 years old. Before that, they’d bounced around on relatives’ couches, she said. “This is my first home that was, like, ours,” she said.

This past week, she began her spring semester at Yale, her second straight semester learning from afar. She may consider herself lucky, but it’s not the kind of luck that comes easily.

Rocha-Alvarez is challenged by the same digital divide as her 8-year-old brother and thousands more students across Santa Cruz County. She’s also taken charge of her little brother’s education, helping him connect with his teacher each morning before signing in to her own classes.

When her parents come home from work, she tries to have food waiting for them. And while they work, she worries constantly for their safety as they leave each day to pick berries for $5.75 an hour, plus $1.50 per box, no matter the conditions of the pandemic, or the smoke that hung thick in the air as historic wildfires raged nearby this summer.

“It’s just a constant challenge of trying to meet like those logistical things that I need, while also, I’m at home dealing with the emotional baggage of always worrying for my parents who are in danger, and worrying for my sister who is immunocompromised, and being in charge of my little brother’s education,” she said.

Jardines del Valle has no high-speed internet access. Rocha-Alvarez began her junior year attending class by using her cellphone as a hotspot. Eventually, she upgraded to a cellular WiFi hotspot, but connection problems persist.

“I try not to feel embarrassed by it,” she said. “Sometimes if I’m in class and my internet fails — I know that it’s on me.”

Rocha-Alvarez has more than a few thoughts on Yale, too — the path of opportunity offered by its Ivy League prestige, the mantle of responsibility she feels it places on her shoulders, and the litany of systemic shortcomings she said she has personally observed.

She was able to push through a feeling of imposter syndrome her freshman year. Her closest friend on campus didn’t and dropped out. So last year, she became a counselor, offering advice to disadvantaged students at risk of falling through the same systemic cracks.

“I think Yale doesn’t completely, as an institution, recognize the diversity of student experiences — especially students who are studying from home,” Rocha-Alvarez said. “There are a lot of students in my classes who are studying from home from mansions, places where they have all of the support in the world.”

“I’ve also come to realize that, with that degree comes a big amount of privilege about who listens to you, and what you can do to uplift the voices of those who are not listened to at these elite institutions,” she added. “And so it’s always about like, where can you cause a little bit of trouble?”

Back in her childhood home and with all of those pressures simmering, Rocha-Alvarez decided to put pen to paper this fall. The result is a heart-wrenching essay published in Yale’s The New Journal on Christmas Day that was the proud talk of social media channels in the Pajaro Valley.

“I’m the product of all those sacrifices that they made,” she wrote of her parents in the essay. “And I carry those with me. But at the end of the day, those are their sacrifices, that’s their pain, and that’s their story. And so I couldn’t stop thinking about, how am I going to study at home here and learn about institutional racism and these power structures, as if they were theoretical, when my parents are living with them every single day?”

Nick Ibarra covers higher education for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.