Hope, Determination and Courage: 7 Inspiring Stories From First-Generation Latino Graduates

As the Class of 2017 graduates this year, beaming parents and loved ones will look on with pride. But perhaps no one will feel this joy as intensely as the families of first-generation grads. Not only are they seeing their children succeed, they’re seeing them push their entire family forward.

While Latino enrollment in two- and four-year colleges has risen from 22 percent in 1993 to 35 percent in 2014, many roadblocks still stand in the way for our community – meaning that Latinos lag behind Asians and whites when it comes to receiving a bachelor’s degree or higher. Low-income, first-generation students also face these barriers; only 11 percent graduate within six years. So the journey is especially difficult for first-generation Latino students.

We wanted to learn more about how first-generation Latino students – those who are the first in their families to graduate – navigated these uncharted waters. We interviewed seven undergraduate and graduate students, 6 women and one man between the ages of 21 and 30, to understand what it takes to succeed at institutions that are often not equipped to support first-gen students. While their circumstances widely varied from one another, we found that they all credited their families and the connections they made during college as key to their success. Their stories are backed up by research, which shows that embracing cultural differences and the right kind of support can help first-generation Latino students thrive.

This is how they beat the odds.

Emily Rivera

Salvadoran American

University of Maryland

Melissa Mora

Mexican American

CUNY School of Law

Amanda Ybarra

Mexican American

Dominican University

Alonso Vega-Herrera

Mexican

Berea College

Jazmin Valenzuela

Mexican and Guatemalan

UC Santa Barbara

Thea Thais

Colombian, Mexican, Greek, Native American

University of Southern California

Sirena Mota

Mexican-American

University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign

Photo by Sabrina Holder for Remezcla

Emily Rivera

Age: 21

Background: Salvadoran American

School: University of Maryland

Location: Gaithersburg, Maryland

Originally From: Washington DC, but grew up in Gaithersburg, Maryland

Degree/Major: Bachelors in Communications with a minor in Information Technology

I saw people wearing college sweatshirts or I’d see college license plates, and I never knew what that was.

Growing up, college was never in the conversation for me. Neither my parents or my grandparents discussed it with me. None of my uncles, aunts, or cousins tried to go to college. I went to school in DC until fifth grade, then I moved to Gaithersburg, which is a kind of suburban town. I saw people wearing college sweatshirts or I’d see college license plates, and I never knew what that was. I think it was about my junior year in high school that I was asked by my guidance counselor if I was planning on taking advanced placement classes. I didn’t know what that was or what the point of these classes were. I had always taken regular classes. She explained that they’re college-level classes that save you money, so that when you go to college, you already have some credits. You don’t have to pay for those courses. I told her that I never really thought about going to college. I thought after high school you started working, and she really explained the whole process to me, the benefits of higher education, and what you can do with a college degree. From then on, I actually started thinking about college. I looked up majors and universities and scholarships.

I kind of let my mom know, “Hey I want to apply to these universities. What do you think?” Because my mother arrived here when she was 19 years old, she didn’t go to high school in the US and the possibility of college wasn’t in her future. When I told her about college, she was very open to letting me make my own decisions.

Emily Rivera (center) with her parents and siblings in their home in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Photo by Sabrina Holder for Remezcla

I took it upon myself to fill out my FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). I would ask my mom about income statements and our tax documents and things like that, but I filled out my FAFSA mostly by myself. My older sister didn’t go to college. She went straight into the workforce; she does medical billing. I give her a lot of credit for teaching me how to read tax documents. But Google was my best friend at the time. I Googled everything, and I was lucky to have a guidance counselor in my high school who could help me. But most of it was by myself, and it was very scary because I didn’t realize how tuition worked either. I would see the numbers per year, per semester or room and board, books, and fees, and I was so scared. I thought, “These numbers are huge. I don’t think I can afford this.” My counselor was also very helpful during the scholarship process. I never had good grades in high school, because I didn’t really think I was going to go to college. It was hard to find scholarships that weren’t merit based.

I looked at schools in Maryland, even though I live about 15 minutes away from DC. We would have to pay out of state tuition for DC universities, and it was just not in my budget. It’s insane. I’m closer to DC than I am to Baltimore, but I would have to pay out-of-state tuition for any DC-area school. My family couldn’t pay that, and I didn’t want to take out a bigger loan. I also had to take commute into consideration. I wasn’t going to be living on campus. It was just very expensive for me, and when I came to the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, I really liked it. The campus is beautiful, and I really fit in. I felt that way when I first came to campus. I really like this. I feel I’m supposed to be here.

Emily Rivera with her vinyl collection. She credits music for helping her get through college. Photo by Sabrina Holder for Remezcla

Originally, I was an international business major. I wanted to focus on public policies on an international basis, because my grandparents and both my parents immigrated here in 1988. They were escaping the civil war in El Salvador, and my parents didn’t really like to talk about it. It was more my grandparents who would tell me how children were being chosen as child soldiers back in the day. I didn’t want that to ever happen again in Latin America or Central America. But once I got into my classes, I realized that a lot of my peers were not Latinos or minority groups. They were mostly white, and their ideologies weren’t really aligning with mine. I felt like my voice wasn’t being heard.

So I spoke with my guidance counselor, and she really couldn’t offer a solution. She just kind of told me that’s pretty much how life is. I could keep fighting for it, but if I didn’t feel comfortable, she recommended that I change majors. Communications was brought up to me as a very broad major that you could do a lot with. I sat in a few communications courses at my university, and I really, really, really liked it, so I went ahead and changed my major. My school requires each Communications major have a minor in something. I had always been drawn to technology. I was really good with computers, even at a younger age, so I added Information Technology as my minor.

Emily Rivera holds a portrait of herself alongside her grandparents at her high school graduation. They couldn’t attend this graduation shoot, but she made sure to acknowledge them. Photo by Sabrina Holder for Remezcla

For other first-generation Latinas, I would say, don’t let anyone’s expectations dictate your own path in life.

The first year, I had to take out a loan because I wasn’t eligible for a lot of the scholarships. I was able to receive Pell grants from the FAFSA, so I was grateful for that, but it didn’t really cover too much tuition for my first year. I had to take out a loan and that was another process that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was 18 years old and not really understanding the implications of what I was doing. After I realized I was taking out so much money, I really got my act together and ended up with a 3.5 GPA. I had good grades. I was on the Dean’s List the entire year. After that, I began to get more merit-based scholarships.

The first two years I wasn’t really involved on campus, because I live at home and my commute is like 35 minutes on a good day. I didn’t have enough time to spend on campus, but I do have a really big group of friends back home. They kept me grounded and my family was also a huge support system. I’m always at my grandma’s house every Sunday in DC. We get together and have a cookout – a carne asada and other typical Salvadoran food.

Once I started my internship last year on campus, I became very involved in the Latino student association. I gained more friends that were either STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), communications, or medical majors. They really helped me acclimate to being a first-generation college student. Many of them were first generation as well, so we had something bond over.

Emily Rivera with mother Nohemy and father Alfredo. Photo by Sabrina Holder for Remezcla

I’m the first one in my immediate family. My older sister is 25, and my younger sister is 10. It’s just us three girls. When I was in my first year in college, all my cousins said, “Oh my god. You’re the first girl. How do you feel?” I was like, “What do you mean, how do I feel? I’m a girl. I can go to college. That’s not anything new. I can do it. You can do it.” I think in a lot of Latino communities, there’s this emphasis on when a woman’s going to get married or start a family. So for other first-generation Latinas, I would say, don’t let anyone’s expectations dictate your own path in life. You’re in control. You’re in the driver’s seat, so do whatever you want.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo by Itzel Alejandra Martinez for Remezcla

Melissa Mora

Age: 26

Background: Mexican American

School: CUNY School of Law

Location: Harlem, NYC

Originally From: Santa Ana, California

Degree/Major: Juris Doctor

When I was growing up, I always envisioned myself as a lawyer, despite there not being any examples of Latino lawyers around me. It wasn’t something that was super common or expected in my family or my community, because my parents didn’t graduate. They made it to like the third grade. They both dropped out of school in order to work to help their families.

I finished undergrad in 2012. One of the big struggles then was having to work while being a full-time student. This definitely wasn’t the case for a lot of my peers. They were able to get support from their families. My reality was that I had to work in order to pay my own rent, my own food, and my own gas.

Melissa Mora with some of her Latino classmates outside the Kupferberg Center in Queens before the graduation ceremony. Photo by Itzel Alejandra Martinez for Remezcla

I worked at a bank for two years after undergrad. And mainly, I kind of fell into banking, because I had already worked for that company throughout college. I really wanted to move out of San Diego, and I was able to stay on with the company and transfer to New York. I began law school in 2014. I’ve actually always kind of known that I wanted to go to law school.

It was hard the first year not being able to go home for holidays or not being able to join my friends or my family for get togethers.

When I first started at CUNY, I stayed away from immigration. It hit a little too close to home. Both of my parents, along with many of my family members, are immigrants. I started doing housing work, and then, I ended up taking an immigration class during my second year of law school, and something clicked.

I paid my tuition with loans. My law school thankfully has discounted tuition, because we are geared toward careers in public interests. CUNY’s mission is to provide representation to underserved indigent communities. In our third year of law school, we do what are called clinics – which function as in-house legal service organizations. On top of classes, we also have cases and clients that we represent as student attorneys. We’re constantly working upwards of 20 to 30 hours a week on real immigration cases. We’re going to court, we’re writing, we’re filing legal documents, we’re conducting interviews. And then, we’re also expected to do a little bit of community outreach, so we conduct know your rights workshops at local community-based organizations. We’re not getting paid, because we are public interest and we don’t expect to get legal fees for these services.

Melissa Mora sitting at her dining table. She’s lived in Spanish Harlem for five years. Melissa looks forward to practicing immigration law in New York in the foreseeable future. Photo by Itzel Alejandra Martinez for Remezcla

It’s incredibly demotivating when you feel like you’re the only Chicana in your class, or the only brown person working at this law firm.

That was hard for me, because I had been working, making money, and traveling a bunch before law school. I was able to live comfortably for at least a couple years. But when you go to school, you’re kind of broke again. You have to take loans. You can’t travel – not only because you don’t have the means to travel but because you really can’t take any days off. We also don’t have summers off. You’re expected to work 10 weeks in the summer, so every week of your life is accounted for.

It was a really big lifestyle change and it was hard the first year not being able to go home for holidays or not being able to join my friends or my family for get togethers. But it got easier.

I’ve been so blessed that I have such a supportive family. My family is very, very close and very large. My mom is one of 15 and my dad is one of nine. When I’m stressed or feeling sad, I can just talk to my mom and she calms me down. I’m lucky to have the people I have in my life.

Melissa Mora with her parents, siblings, and her aunt, who she considers a second mom. Photo by Itzel Alejandra Martinez for Remezcla

I had 22 people come out for graduation. I’m humbled that so many people traveled across the country. They’re all so excited, because I am the first one. I’m gonna be the first attorney in the family, and they’re beyond proud to have been part of my journey.

I’ll be taking the bar in July, and I start my prep course in a couple of weeks. I will be studying 12 hours a day for the next two and a half months. I definitely want to continue working in immigration law. I really can’t see myself doing anything else besides this work. Being able to change my clients’s life is something that is really special and I want to continue to do immigration law – perhaps in a legal services organization that provides pro bono representation. If that doesn’t work out, I’m thinking about opening my own practice and becoming a solo immigration practitioner.

Melissa Mora’s family flew in from California to attend her law school graduation. They saved all year to come to New York. Photo by Itzel Alejandra Martinez for Remezcla

Throughout school and work, the biggest obstacle for me was not seeing people who looked like me. It’s incredibly demotivating when you feel like you’re the only Mexican American, you’re the only Chicana in your class, or you’re the only brown person working at this law firm. I would tell others to never give up on your dreams and to acknowledge and have pride in the fact that they are really changing the face of college and changing the face of higher education. They’re the reason why the workforce will one day have more equal representation.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo by Carolina Sanchez for Remezcla

Amanda Ybarra

Age: 21

Background: Mexican American

School: Dominican University

Location: Logan Square, Chicago, Illinois

Originally From: Logan Square, Chicago, Illinois

Degree/Major: Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and Diplomacy

For about a good year and a half during high school, I was really uncertain about whether or not I’d be able to go to university. My mom was diagnosed with a genetic malformation of her brain stem. She had to undergo very extensive surgery. At the time, we’d just moved into our first home – the first one that she had ever owned on her own. And it was just me, her, and my brother. Once that happened, we had to move back in with my grandmother. While it was a very loving and stable place to be, it felt like we were having the carpet yanked out from under us, and it was really hard to try to balance my school work and how to answer my little brother’s questions, answers that I didn’t even have yet. I didn’t know what the success rate of her operation was, I didn’t know how severe it was, I was kind of kept in the dark by my family just so that I wouldn’t feel extra strain – even though that’s exactly what happened anyway.

Amanda and her mother in the living room of her grandma Eloise’s house, located in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. Photo by Carolina Sanchez for Remezcla

My mom started working at my high school, because the financial aid package I received wasn’t enough.

I had a bunch of different universities that I wanted to go to. A lot of them were actually out of state, but that was prior to my mom becoming sick. Once I knew that she was ill, I wanted to make sure I stayed close to home to help her, to help my brother, to keep some sense of stability in all of our lives. So I moved my area of focus. And what I was really looking for was a place that I felt I belonged.

In grade school, it was a little bit off. In high school, I didn’t always feel totally like I belonged there, and I wanted a new place that really felt like they accepted me. So when I was going through my university choices what really struck me was Dominican’s motto: Caritas et Veritas. It means love and truth. When I did my school visit, I walked through the front doors, and it instantly felt like home should feel.

Amanda Ybarra inside St. Hyacinth Basilica, a Roman Catholic church located in Logan Square. Growing up, this is the church Amanda attended with her family. Photo by Carolina Sanchez for Remezcla

When it came time to apply to college, my mom was able to help me. She started working at my high school as a freshman, because the financial aid package I received wasn’t enough to cover the full cost of my tuition. She wound up taking a position as the president of the school’s secretary. I was lucky enough that from her having that position, the school and my counselor really worked together to help better inform me on what I needed to do – like this is when application days are, these are the forms that you need to have filled out – so in that way I wasn’t totally on my own. But it was still pretty hard to navigate.

I also found multiple scholarships and that covered the majority of my tuition, so the burden on my family was very small. Part of the decision to live at home was that I didn’t want to have that added expense of room and board fees. The other part of it was that I’ve always been able to concentrate really well on my studies at home and I feel like pushing myself into an environment that was now going to be new would have been detrimental to me.

Portrait of Amanda Ybarra sitting on her grandma Eloise’s bed. Faith plays a big role in her and her family’s life. Photo by Carolina Sanchez for Remezcla

In some ways, there wasn’t much of an adjustment from high school to college. In regards to school work, I was very used to having to plow through just tons of homework, and I felt very prepared that way. But as a commuter student, it feels really hard to engage in the overall university community. There would be events either too early or too late on campus so I do feel like I missed out in that way. But the school’s a great community of people who are determined to make a change for the better in the world, so I do feel very connected.

After graduation, I want to start working with the non-profit Horizon for Youth. They’re offering resources to kids who come from my same neighborhood, who look jut like me. 

Dominican has also helped me flourish. When I started grade school, I was very quiet and very shy, and I didn’t really know a lot about where I came from, what my mother’s story was, what my grandmother’s story was. Being in college has led me to become much more vocal about my beliefs, about who I am, about what I want to do in life. And taking courses to teach me more about myself and culture – taking a Latin American women’s studies course, taking all these different political science classes – have led me to broaden my horizons about “Hey, this is what politics, not just in America, but around the globe, look like.” It has made me a much different person, and I’m very thankful for that.

Participating in mock trial for my AP English class revved up my interest in law. Once I got to Dominican, I had set it in my mind that I was going to be a lawyer. And it’s still pretty much the same track, except that now I’m focused on the global community, and I want to be a foreign service officer, and work with the US Department of State. After graduation, I want to start working with the non-profit Horizon for Youth. They’re based in Chicago, and they provide scholarships to inner-city children. Actually, my brother is one of their scholars. They’re offering resources to kids who come from my same neighborhood, who look just like me. It’s great to have that idea of, “Wow, I could really turn back and work with people that I know and care about.” Then, my other track is I want to take the test for the foreign service officer. My hope with that is to have a broader global impact by being stationed in Rwanda.

At the end of the day, I’m very happy that I get to carry my family forward with me and their legacy. My grandmother only went to third grade, and my mother completed secretarial training at Robert Morris University. Knowing that I took this next step forward is really great, especially because of my little brother. I feel like when he sees me work hard, he knows, “Hey if she did that, I can do it, too.” It’s also inspired my mother. At the beginning, she had less of an understanding of what the academic process looked like, but now she’s right there with me. In fact, she started going back to school. She registered at our community college, Wilbur Wright, and she’s taking classes to start off and hopefully finish up her own degree.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo by Tyshawn Smith for Remezcla

Alonso Vega-Herrera

Age: 23

Background: Mexican

School: Berea College

Location: Attended school in Berea, Kentucky; Lives in Dalton, Georgia

Originally From: Jerecuaro, Guanajuato, Mexico

Degree/Major: Bachelor’s Degree in Agriculture and Natural Resources with minor in Sustainability

In the first few years of my life, I learned you either grow your own food or you don’t eat. I learned to grow corn and beans, and that’s how I got interested in agriculture. I was born in Mexico and arrived in the United States in 2002. We came to Dalton, Georgia. We actually crossed the border illegally, and we didn’t get our citizenship until about 2009.

I think in high school I just started realizing that without a college degree, I wouldn’t have many opportunities. I saw my mom and dad and how hard they worked and how much they struggled. My parents work in a carpet mill. I also worked in one during the summer. It is hard work and the pay is not very good. I didn’t wanna end up in a job like that, and I also wanna help them get out of their job.

In the first few years of my life, I learned you either grow your own food or you don’t eat.

But college was something that was really not in my head when I was growing up, just because I heard stories about how expensive it was. I never thought I would be able to pay for it. I knew my parents couldn’t pay for it. Once I got to high school, I really took my studies seriously. I figured out that I could get into colleges and get scholarships. I actually got a full ride to Berea, so that was a blessing.

I got a postcard from Berea, which said if you got in, it’d cover full tuition. So I applied and I got in. I had gotten accepted to other colleges, but they were too expensive. And I didn’t really apply for their scholarships, so I thought Berea as my best option at the time. My mom didn’t really approve, but she supported me. She wanted me to stay here in Georgia, but I just felt like it was where I was gonna be better off. It was hard on her. I was the first one to leave in my family. I’m the oldest. I have a sister and two brothers. So she didn’t really expect me to go all the way to Kentucky. Berea’s not really far; it’s four hours away. But for her, it was really far. I would come home for Spring Break and my Christmas break.

Alonso Vega in his garden on the side of his house. He became interested in agriculture as a child living in Mexico. Photo by Tyshawn Smith for Remezcla

My high school was like 50 percent Hispanic. But when I first started at Berea, there weren’t many Latinos. It’s now accepting DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students, so there’s more Latinos. Berea was also a bit of a culture shock at first. It was a whole different state, and college is something that no one in my family has experienced. So it was just hard for me to adapt. But I was involved in this program called ESP – Emerging Scholars Program – that really helped me out freshman year. They helped me out with making schedules and applying for FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). At first, it was really difficult for me. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I feel like I got better and better each year. I learned to create my schedule, and I think I became good at not wasting time.

It was hard on my mom. I was the first one to leave in my family. I’m the oldest.

One of the requirements at school was that we work. Every Berea College student works. Freshman year, I worked at the college cafe. My sophomore year, I worked as a peer writing consultant. And then my junior and senior year, I worked at the college greenhouse. My favorite job was working at the greenhouse. I was a student manager, and we grew fruits and vegetables for the cafeteria for students to eat. Also, we have a farm store, where we sold our produce. It was the closest to what I want to do. I want to work with migrant farm workers – maybe at an organization that helps fight for their rights.

Alonso Vega with his two siblings, Monica and Johnny Vega, in their house in Dalton, Georgia. His graduation cap reads “First but not the last.” Photo by Tyshawn Smith for Remezcla

As for classes, I really liked this course about the history of Spain. The professor was actually Latino. He’s from Peru, and it was like one of the very few professors who are Latino at Berea. And I took a farm-to-table course, where the final project was to come up with a food that could be made from what we produced at our farm. So I made tamales, and that was really cool for me.

But one of the best experiences I had was studying abroad. I visited Honduras, an island called Utila. We learned about preserving coral reefs, and we also did surveys of fish and birds. I got my diving certification.

If I had to do college all over again, I would become really involved in clubs and also try to do more internships, because that might give you a job right after college. I recently applied to an internship doing conservation work, so I’m hoping I get that. And if not, I’m going to apply to other places.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. for Remezcla

Jazmin Valenzuela

Age: 22

Background: Mexican and Guatemalan

School: UC Santa Barbara

Location: Santa Barbara, California

Originally From: Los Angeles, California

Degree/Major: Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology with minor in Philosophy

A non-profit organization called Kid City helped me through the entire college application process. Getting help took a big load off me.

Ever since I was young, I’ve always kind of been an academically minded child. I was instilled with the idea that if you work hard you can achieve anything you want. The idea of college, it was never out of the realm of possibility. So at some point in my high school career, I realized I was going to college and I applied to a ton of schools. I didn’t really have any idea of what I was doing. My parents had no idea how the application process worked or how college even worked in this country, and neither did I.

I was on my own for a little bit trying to figure it out, but there was this non-profit organization called Kid City. I am eternally grateful to them for helping me throughout the entire application process. And they helped me with personal statements. They helped me with my SAT scores, and just prepping for the test. It felt like a big load off of me when I was able to come to someone else and get some help. And I successfully got into UC Santa Cruz, which was my dream school. Unfortunately, because of financial constraints, I couldn’t afford to go there. So I chose the option of going to community college. It was devastating at first, because I thought that only kids who didn’t know what they wanted to do or kids who were aimless went there.

Jazmin Valenzuela sits outside of her home with father Gualberto and mother Mayra. Her family immigrated to LA more than 20 years ago. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. for Remezcla

To my surprise, once I started attending community college that preconceived notion was completely just obliterated. I realized that everyone has their own story at community college, and it’s a great experience. It helped me with my personal development and growth. It helped me mature a little bit. I learned time management and just how to be financially savvy. And it helped me balance my work and my school. My first semester, I went to Pasadena City College, which is about an hour and a half away from my parents’s house. I had to take one bus and two trains to get there. I really liked going there, but because of work and my commute, it didn’t seem like the best application of my time. Then, I chose to go to Los Angeles City College, which is about a 15-minute bus ride or like a 10-minute drive from my house.

When I decided to apply to four-year universities again, Kid City helped me throughout the entire process. I got accepted into UC Santa Barbara and chose to come here. Transitioning here was a little difficult, because it’s a much faster-paced environment. Instead of being 16 weeks long, we had quarters, which were 10 weeks long. Balancing work and school here was difficult as well.

Jazmin Valenzuela at her home in Los Angeles, California. In June, Jazmin will become the first person in her family to receive a Bachelor’s degree. She applied to college with the help of a non-profit called Kid City. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. for Remezcla

My first year here in Santa Barbara, I had a couple jobs at coffee shops and those required a lot of my time on weekends. I grew so stressed out. It got to the point where I was almost working full time, and that became really unbearable. My grades were suffering. I decided to let my job go for a while and I depended on whatever I’d saved up and on my parents for the last quarter of that first year. Then, coming back for my senior year, I thankfully got a job working as a behavioral instructor. I work with children who have autism. What I do, essentially, is I go into homes, and I work with both the kids and the parents. We implement certain programs or work on some strategies to help kids cope with any sort of social situations or social problems that arise due to the autism.

I hope my story helps expose the lie that community college is 13th grade. 

I actually became interested in psychology because of an AP psychology class I took in high school. I always knew that my life would be dedicated to bettering other people’s lives. I literally just saw a documentary on music therapy and that sort of changed my life and my perspective. People who do music therapy are essentially musicians who give therapy. I will either end up working with folks affected by dementia, or I will work with children who have speech impediments.

I don’t know how I’ll break into music therapy. I actually realized I could have gotten a Bachelor’s degree in music therapy, but at this point, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. I’m glad I’m getting a degree in psychology and a minor in philosophy. I am very happy with the job I have now. It’s definitely a step toward music therapy. I do wanna go back to community college and take more music classes, sort of brush up on my theory skills, brush up on my vocals, on piano, and on guitar. Then, at some point, I’ll apply to a master’s program, either at Berklee School of Music or at a university in Louisiana. I don’t know if it’s a five-year plan, a 10-year plan, or a life plan, but that’s where I’d like to go after this. For now, I think I need a break from academia for a while.

Jazmin Valenzuela holds a rosary in her home in Los Angeles. For her, it symbolizes her love for the community that has supported her journey through college. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. for Remezcla

After I graduate, I want to do some personal growth, like some serious, just figure out what I want kind of growth. I want to live in Mexico City at some point. I wanna do a cross-country trip and sort of see the different ways people in this country live. I also wanna give my parents, at some point, a trip. They’ve both worked so hard to keep me and my sisters under a roof with plenty of food. They’ve sacrificed so much. My mom has always been my rock, my biggest supporter. My dad is a very quiet and reserved man, but his support has never lacked.

I hope my story helps expose the lie that community college is 13th grade. I can’t emphasize enough how much those two years made a difference in who I was, in who I am now, in how I grew. If there’s anything I want people to get out of this, it’s that community college is not a bad option. In the end, I’m still getting a degree. It’s still gonna say UCSB. It’s still gonna be accredited. I’m still gonna get a job with it, and I’m much happier now, because of those two years.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. for Remezcla

Thea Thais

Age: 30

Background: Colombian, Mexican, Greek, Native American

School: University of Southern California

Location: Costa Mesa, California

Originally From: All over California, but her mom lives in Ontario, California

Degree/Major: Master of Communication Management

It was either going to be USC law school or USC grad school for me. There was no in between. I told myself if I don’t get into USC, grad school’s not in the cards for me.

But I always knew I had to complete undergrad. My mom would always tell me, “Don’t be like me. Go use your brain. What I’m doing right now is hustle. It doesn’t require any brain power.” At the time, she was in mortgages and real estate. She had a home business that was up and down all the time. It got as far as us losing our house and having to move into – at one point my mom had an office space in Fullerton in Orange County – what was a business space in a residential area. We lived in the back of it, and the front of it was my mom’s office. My dad did quite a few years at community college. My mom if I’m not mistaken, finished her degree in Colombia, but I’m not exactly sure what the equivalent would be here.

Alicia Pinzon, Thea’s mother, helps her get ready for her graduation ceremony at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. for Remezcla

I talked to my mom and said, “I know daddy wants this for me, but I can’t do this. This is not the lifestyle I want.”

When I set out to go to undergrad, I didn’t even want to apply to a Cal State or a UC school, because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to community college to do two years at a cheaper rate, where I could dabble in different electives and figure out exactly what I wanted to do. But my mom being old school was like, ‘No, community college is 13th grade and you’re not a failure. You have to go to a good school.’ So forcibly, I started applying to Cal States, and I got into Long Beach. Then, I got an acceptance letter to Fullerton, and my mom said, “Perfect. Fullerton’s 20 minutes away, you’re going there.”

I don’t regret Fullerton by any means, because that’s where I met my fiancé, Frank Sanchez. The only thing I didn’t like about Fullerton is the lack of sense of community. Fullerton is a major commuter school. Literally, people get there, go to class, leave class, and they’re gone.

Thea Thais, and her mother, Alicia Pinzon, pose for a graduation picture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. for Remezcla

When I graduated from Fullerton in 2010, that’s when the Great Recession hit. Times were really hard. I couldn’t find any positions where I could really use my degree. I ended up at a tutoring agency and I coordinated tutoring programs for kids. From there, I jumped to where I’m at now. I’m actually at a law firm in the business development and marketing department. I’ve been here five years.

I was between grad school and law school for a very long time. My dad, who passed away when I was in high school, wanted me to become a lawyer. That’s a big reason why I took the job at the law firm. I wanted to dip my toes in the legal industry, make sure it was the right fit for me. Once I got here, I saw how overworked all the associates are. And yeah great, they make six figures. But none of them could tell me the last time they took a vacation, like a true vacation, unplugged, not answering emails, not answering calls, nothing. I just talked to my mom and said, “I know daddy wants this for me, but I can’t do this. This is not the lifestyle I want.” And she said, “Do not base your life on your father’s wishes. Tienes que hacer lo que necesitas hacer.”

Thea Thais recently graduated from USC’s Annenberg School of Communication. She is the first in her family to attend and graduate from college. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. for Remezcla

So I stumbled upon this online communications program and it felt like a program made for me. I applied and got in. It took me roughly a year and a half to finish. I worked throughout, and I travel a lot for work. I plan a lot of events. There’s been many times when my clients wanna go off and have a drink after a successful conference, and I’m like, “Sorry guys, I gotta work on a presentation.” So I head straight to the hotel room when we’re out of town and work on a presentation or paper.

On a non-travel week, it’s a 50- to 60-hour work week. I get up at 5 a.m. and read, study, or write until about 7 a.m. Then, at 8:30 a.m. I arrive at work. I usually take my lunch to do some more homework. Then I come home, get dinner going and hang out with Frank a little bit. Try to go to the gym. And honestly, it’s really hard for me to do homework when Frank’s in the apartment, so I literally would wait until he’d go to bed – around 9:30 or 10 p.m. – and then from then on until about 1:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. I would finish my homework. I would only average about five hours of sleep during the semester.

I knew I had to push for more. And that’s a product of my mom.

School was pretty flexible. I did have some live sessions. It’s almost like a Skype session with your professor and all your classmates. I would have two or three of those a week. But the course load mostly consisted of a discussion board. We’d have assigned readings and we had to post about them. Those discussion boards would take the place of class discussions, of lectures. While people think, “Oh, online is so easy.” It’s actually not. I’d say it’s three times more labor intensive. In undergrad, I could get away with not reading everything, because the professor went over it in lecture. Here, I have to do all the reading and read every single thing my classmates posted. It was at least 100 to 150 pages of reading per class. It’s pretty heavy workload on top of regular work.

Thea Thais wears a ring that her mother, Alicia Pinzon, bought when she turned 18. To Thea, it represents all of the sacrifices her mother made to make Thea’s dreams come true. On her other hand, she wears her engagement ring. Photo Miguel Gutierrez Jr. for Remezcla

I left undergrad just unsatiated. I didn’t get the tangible experience that I wanted, so that’s why I knew I had to push for more. And that’s a product of my mom. She masters something quickly, and she always wants to learn the next thing. I think she passed that onto me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo by Natalia Olivares for Remezcla

Sirena Mota

Age: 22

Background: Mexican-American

School: University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign

Location: Champaign, Illinois

Originally From: Chicago, Illinois

Degree/Major: Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology with minor in Latino/a Studies

I was a stereotype. I was the one who got pregnant young. I was 18, and we split apart. I was in high school still, but I graduated. When I came to the University of Illinois, I left my son in Chicago. He’s 3 years old, and his name is Sebastian Mota.

My mom quit her job so that she could help me raise him. So my dad is the only person working. It’s been hard because before it was both of my parents working, so it evened out with the bills. Now, I try my best to help them out too, because I know they’re doing me this big favor that a lot of people may not have done. And I truly appreciate that.

When I came to the University of Illinois, I left my son in Chicago. My mom quit her job so that she could help me raise him.

My parents always told me that I’d go to college. My dad went to high school, and so did my mom, who was discouraged by my grandma from becoming a weatherperson. She had no idea what she was doing with her life, so she opened the Yellow Pages and decided to go to cosmetology school. My dad got lucky with his job. He applied for Blue Cross Blue Shield and he’s been there ever since, in the mail room. My parents have always been very on top of me about school, and they would say, “You have to go to school.”

It wasn’t until like probably middle school – like in the eighth grade – that I understood what college was. My parents told me, “It’s more school after high school.” It wasn’t until high school – where I went to a college prep school – that I fully understood. Senior year of high school, I took a class dedicated just to applying to colleges. In a 90-minute class – they tried to recreate what it was like to be in a college class – they walked us through everything. My school mandatorily made us apply to 10 schools.

During my sophomore year of high school, I actually came to U of I for a whole week to learn about engineering, because that’s what I originally wanted to do. When it came time to apply to colleges, I still liked U of I but I was thinking of going to the University of Iowa. But it didn’t feel like home; U of I did.

I came to the university at first and had to pay $2,000 out of pocket. Now, I don’t have to. I received more government aid. I came to the university without any scholarships. I got scholarships from other universities. This was the only one that didn’t give me anything off the bat, but I still came here.

Sirena Mota with her parents, Alicia and Ramiro Mota, and son Sebastian. With their support, she was able to get through four difficult years of college. Photo by Natalia Olivares for Remezcla

I didn’t end up majoring in Engineering. I went into the liberal arts and sciences college as undecided. I took some of the core classes for Engineering and knew it wasn’t for me. I sat down and looked at all the majors, and saw Anthropology. I didn’t know what that was. I looked into it more and decided it sounded interesting. I fell in love with it.

As for Latinx Studies, my minor, I began taking the classes. I did it mostly because my son is Puerto Rican and Mexican American, and I wanted to learn more about his Puerto Rican side, because when I was with his dad, he didn’t really know anything about his own culture. And actually, it’s a funny story. I went to grammar school with predominantly Puerto Ricans, and they’re like, “You look Puerto Rican.” And I had no idea what that was. So I went home and I told my mom, “Am I Puerto Rican?” She’s like, “No, you’re Mexican. What are you talking about?” But I don’t want my son to favor one side more than the other. I think it should be an equal amount. That’s why I started taking Latin Studies, and then they told me one day, you can just minor in it.

Latinx studies have honestly made me the person I am. I’ve never been more proud to be who I am.

Balancing everything is so hard. I try to find time where I can just sleep. I work at night. I work at Chipotle Mexican Grill. It pays well, and it feeds me. My friends see that I’m tired. I also try to have a social life at the same time. I even studied abroad twice. It’s been a little hard, but I’ve managed for the last four years. If I can do that, I can do anything and be a mom. My parents come down and bring me my son to stay with me for a little bit. Sometimes, I’ll go down for more than a week and stay down at home in the Southeast side in Chicago. He’s living in the house where I lived for most of my life. My mother has lived in that house since she was 12.

For undergrad, because I was really nervous about how people would react if I had to come to class with him, I didn’t have him with me. Whether I end up staying in Chicago or not after graduation, this time, I decided, my son is gonna come with me. I’m applying to the University of Illinois at Chicago’s graduate program for Latin American Studies. Latinx Studies have honestly made me the person I am. I’ve never been more proud to be who I am. I’m a more light-complected Mexican American, so that stereotype of like brownness, that’s not me. But I do consider myself a brown woman, because of my roots. And taking these classes, I just realized, there’s so much that we need to do to come together, especially the black and brown communities. I was able to learn more about other histories, and I was able to learn even just about myself and what it means to be brown and proud.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

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