“You’re only here because of affirmative action.”

Those words, spoken several years ago to me by a UCSB peer I didn’t know well, stay with me to this day. Although it was certainly not the first time someone looked at my physical features and made an assumption about me, it was by far one of the most dazing experiences of my life. Despite the fact that affirmative action had been banned for years in California at that point, I still remember feeling paralyzed, not knowing what to say.

Unfortunately, having your intelligence questioned or capabilities doubted is common when the intersections of your identity meet at low socioeconomic status and Latina. It’s a demoralizing, indescribable feeling to have your accomplishments chalked up to leniency or lower standards. It isn’t a feeling anyone deserves — and it stems from a system of inequity that our generation has the power to change.

After I graduated from UCSB, I joined Teach For America to be part of doing exactly that. Growing up, I didn’t have many role models in my community who had gone on to college and been successful, and because of that, I often doubted my own abilities. I entered the classroom because I didn’t want other students growing up in low-income communities to constantly question whether they had what it takes to succeed. I wanted to empower students like me.

So we set to it. In my classroom, I banned the phrase ‘I can’t.’ I knew there was nothing my kids couldn’t do, but they needed to believe that with the same ferocity that I did. As the year went on, they gained more and more confidence. If a student accidentally let an ‘I can’t’ slip out, a chorus of littles voices would shout, “You can!”

Every day, I reminded my kids how important they were. When one of my students, Gustavo, came to class kicking and screaming on the first day of school, I pulled him aside to get to know him one-on-one and figure out what I needed to do to help him feel safe. After a few weeks, he began to trust me. The more I got to know him and his classmates for the individuals they were, the more fun and productive our classroom became.

But as I watched with pride as my students moved on, I also worried: Who would be there to help them through college? So I enrolled in a master’s program in college counseling. My own college experience had been so profoundly shaped by the people who guided me along the way. I want my kids to have that same experience.

When stereotypes and insults fly, it’s easy to get angry. It’s easy to scream or walk away. It’s easy to fall victim to doubts that anything will ever change. But it’s crucial that we act. We have the opportunity to use our education and our experiences to become leaders and shape the stories ourselves. We can help the kids that will come of age in the next decades fulfill their potential and lead the way to a better, more inclusive world. That’s a world I want to live in.

Cristie Granillo is a 2012 alumna of UCSB and Teach For America – Las Vegas. She currently works in Student Affairs while pursuing a master’s degree in college counseling and student development.