COLLEGE
09/29/2010 08:17 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Vanessa's Story

Every other weekend, Vanessa DeJesus, an English and sociology major at Columbia University, travels an hour home to New Jersey to help out her family. Although she works two jobs, has two internships and hopes to graduate early, for Vanessa, family comes first. To her 11-year-old sister and seven-year-old brother, Vanessa sees herself as third in command after her mom and dad.

Just because Vanessa's away at school doesn't mean she puts her familial responsibilities on hold. Her father, the executive chef for food service provider Sodexho, manages multiple kitchens and cooks when he can. At least twice a month he has to work on a weekend or take a trip out-of-state to visit a client, and because he is salaried, he does not get paid overtime. Her mother is a social worker for the greater New Brunswick school system, where she serves as facilitator for students with emotional difficulties.

Vanessa sometimes calls herself "the Enforcer" -- the one who makes sure her younger siblings are following her parent's orders. If her parents say that her younger brother, Nathan, must clean his room, Vanessa makes certain that he does.

It is clear that Vanessa has inherited her mother's proclivity for care-giving. On helping her parents out, she says, "The majority of the time I feel super obligated, and if I don't do it or want to do it, I feel really guilty. I've always been the good, responsible one who's always there to help out. My parents have too much stuff to do, so I feel really bad."

This week she went home to babysit her siblings, whom she calls "the kids." Vanessa mentions that when she goes home, she enjoys spending time with her entire family -- she has 38 extended relatives, and visits home often involve stops at the houses of aunts, uncles and cousins.

As she starts her junior year, Vanessa is realizing that she only has two semesters left at Columbia. Even though she dorms on campus, going home so often means putting her school life on pause. This year she hopes that her internship at Dystel and Goderich Literary Management will allow her to land a job in book publishing upon graduation. Still, she is toying with the idea of becoming a nurse and turn her natural ability to care for others into a career.

Although mostly able to switch gears without skipping a beat, Vanessa sometimes finds it difficult to turn off her home-mode and just be a regular sleep-deprived, excited-to-party college kid.

"I like to be the mom type with my friends sometimes -- cooking them dinner, yelling at them to do their work, or even when we're going out I make them get up to get dressed and go."

Still, Vanessa doesn't question her intense lifestyle, and hopes to remain close to home when she gets older.

"I like taking care of people. I'm used to it and I'm good at it...and even helping out my family makes me want to take care of other people."