At age 18, Vanesa Freire left her homeland of Ecuador alone and moved to the U.S, where she had no friends or family, in search of opportunity and stability. 

With help from a RU-N to the Top scholarship, and other support, she found those things at Rutgers-Newark, where she will be a senior majoring in finance at Rutgers Business School.  

“It’s a sense of community here. It makes me feel like I’m in a safe place,’’ she says. “We are getting support as a community that often sees adversity throughout the experience of college.” 

Freire, a student in the Honors Living-Learning Community (HLLC), said that aid she received as part of that program also made it possible for her to attend RU-N. “The HLLC’s housing and meal plan brought me housing security and stability, allowing me to be able to thrive.” 

Always self-sufficient, Freire settled in Paterson after arriving in the U.S. Later, she moved to Clifton and worked a series of jobs in bars and restaurants to make ends meet. “I didn’t have the mentality that I couldn’t do something because I was alone,’’ recalls Freire, who is also a member of the National Guard. “When I came here I was able to be independent.’’ 

She initially enrolled at Hudson County College, where the curriculum didn’t have the finance programs she sought. She learned they were offered at Rutgers-Newark, but a four-year college education seemed unattainable. Then she learned about RU-N to the Top, available to eligible students whose gross adjusted family income is between $0 and $100,000.  

“I was nervous about applying, seeing if I was going to be able to afford it, but it was a great experience from the moment I started my application and saw all the resources available,’’ she says. “I was very relieved to see I was receiving a hand in terms of financial stability. That was really amazing, being a citizen who was an immigrant, came here by myself and was not able to have support from a family member.” 

The Financial Aid office made the process easy for her and offered guidance when she needed it. “They’re always there to help if something goes wrong,’’ she says. “You get taken care of.”  

At the HLLC, Freire minors in social justice and is interested in real estate and development. Her goal is to make housing and home ownership more accessible and affordable to people who may not have the knowledge or resources to find what they need. “I want to do this for my community. I want to give,’’ she says. “I was able to find that path here and nowhere else in New Jersey. It’s amazing how I’m learning and growing at Rutgers-Newark.’’