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We’re Greater Together

From couch surfing to college graduate, Leandra Couto ’23 discusses her path as a first-generation student at Santa Clara.
November 7, 2023
By Matt Morgan
Leandra Couto sitting on brick wall on Santa Clara campus with sky in background

Leandra Couto ’23 does a little bit of everything at Pacific Housing Inc., a local nonprofit that supports low-income communities. 

Couto connects residents in her assigned residential community with health and employment resources. She helps kids with homework. She speaks three languages so she runs ESL workshops. This month, a woman wanted to learn Excel, so Couto is learning the software alongside her.   

There are certainly places Couto could make more money—and it would certainly come in handy to pay bills as she finishes college—but as a first-generation student, Pacific Housing fits her spirit. 

“I'm in a position where I go to work and I'm happy getting there. And I'm even more happy when I leave, knowing I made a difference,” Couto says. “That's the goal, right? However I can give back and do what was done for me, I’m happy to do that.”

Couto’s path started where some might’ve ended. At age 14, Couto wasn’t getting along with her grandmother or mother and left their home in San Jose. As an unhoused youth, she bounced from couch to couch until she found a rental situation she could afford. 

Amid the upheaval and trying to find her next meal, the one constant in Couto’s life was school. Her grandmother grew up in Brazil, one of 16 children, and always wanted an education, but it wasn’t an option. So when Couto was young, her grandmother emphasized the importance of an education. So, even though she was on her own, dropping out wasn’t an option.

“In that situation, you can pick one of two paths. I just saw the other path and I didn't want that for myself. I had to go and do something different.”

High school wasn’t perfect. Couto admits she expected it to be like High School Musical—it was not, she laughs. Her teachers didn’t know what she was going through and she didn’t always make good decisions, Couto says. 

But she kept showing up and enjoyed learning. “It looked a bit different and it was hard, but it kept me out of a lot of trouble, truthfully,” she says. 

School as an escape

After graduating in 2017, Couto enrolled in Mission College with the goal of going to a four-year institution. 

In high school, Couto didn't participate in programs like AVID, but at Mission College, she quickly found sources of support and thrived. 

“School was my escape,” Couto says. “I loved my community college experience. I was able to focus and, halfway through, I realized I was doing really well. I had almost all A's and I saw my potential because I had student support programs that were behind me.”

Before applying to a four-year institution, Couto contacted a middle school teacher who attended Santa Clara University. The teacher told her about the school but insisted that if Couto ever went to SCU, she join the LEAD Scholars Program for first-generation students. 

Four people stand with two bulls and take a selfie in the woods

Leandra Couto (top right) on a LEAD immersion trip in Costa Rica.

With her heart set on Santa Clara, Couto started researching the San Juan Diego Scholarship, which goes to one student per year who was active in the Sacred Heart of Jesus church or involved in their community.

“I started to manifest that,” Couto says. “I did everything I could to at least make it a possibility.”

Couto didn’t get the scholarship, but she was a runner-up. When the student who was the recipient decided to go somewhere else, Couto got a call. 

“Everything happens for a reason,” she says. 

Keep moving forward

Couto has been involved with LEAD since she got to Santa Clara, and she’s thankful for it. Feeling a part of campus life can be difficult as an older transfer student, but LEAD held events on nights and weekends, many of them free so everyone could participate.

“I immediately felt welcome,” Couto says. “I felt a sense of community and family.”

Despite her happy ending, Couto stressed that college is full of ups and downs, good grades and bad. She calls the first-gen experience a “beautiful struggle” that is different for everyone. 

But she has found people from similar backgrounds sprinkled throughout the University, happy to help. Thanks to people like Erin Kimura-Walsh in LEAD, Cindy Tirado and Stefani Blanco in financial aid, and Katherine Heintz in communication, she’s never gotten too down on herself and, most importantly, she’s kept moving forward. 

Couto tries her best to pass that perspective on. In addition to her classes, internships, and working at Pacific Housing, she previously served as a peer educator in the Department of Communication and is currently a LEAD transfer peer educator for the second time. 

Without that shared experience, college can be isolating for first-generation students, Couto says. She recalls times when mentees have been in a panic over a bad grade. Not just about what the test means for their GPA or grad school chances, but if they’ll lose their scholarship money or run out of funding because they’ll need an extra quarter. 

The good and bad news is that Couto has flunked tests and knows what it’s like. It’s important to feel your feelings, she says, but it’s not the end of the world. Go to the professor and create a plan. 

“I don't think there's one mistake or one failed attempt that is a defining moment in your undergraduate career. If anything, it's defining in the way that it's going to lead you to ultimately where you need to be.”

In the years since high school, Couto has reconciled with her mother and grandmother. She lives even lives next door to her mother and sees her grandmother weekly. When she graduates in December, Couto plans to visit family back in Brazil for two months. She’s excited to celebrate her grandfather’s birthday in person for the first time. 

When she returns, Couto is interested in working at Santa Clara and attending graduate school in the evenings. She also might continue working full-time for Pacific Housing. Regardless, she knows she wants to continue to help others. 

“The reason why I am where I am now right is because people have taken the time to encourage me,” Couto says. “If I can just continue to support other LEAD scholars coming up behind me, that’s important to me. I think that’s the secret sauce to this whole first-generation thing—we are greater in numbers. We’re greater together.”

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