I was born in Brooklyn (Crown Heights) and raised in Queens (Corona/South Ozone). Born to Dominican parents who were divorced by time I was 4. I was raised by a Dominican mother and a Nuyorican father who have always valued familia and learning.
I graduated from high school at 16 with an understanding that I would go to college but with no clear idea about where or why. As a first generation to go to a four year college, I attended Brooklyn College for two years before traversing on a journey to answer the age-old adolescent question- “who I am I if I am not my parents”. The quest took me north to SUNY New Paltz. There I majored in Black Studies, became an RA, all the while fulfilling my hereditary obligation to play shortstop on the school baseball team.
While at New Paltz I met my future wife (Evelyn Velazquez) and we were married soon after graduating in 1994. By 2001 we had added 4 children (Sara, Jose, Isabel and Mateo) to the family. During this time we moved from New Paltz, to Hartwick College, to Boston College (where I did my MA), to the University of Miami, to NYU and finally to Vassar College (where I am the Assistant Dean of Students/Director of Res. Life). I am a Doctoral Candidate at the University at Albany’s Educational Administration and Policy Studies program. My research and teaching interest include sports, rap music and the educational plight of young men.
Being a first-generation college student, I had no idea how to navigate my campus. I had been lucky enough to have a college counselor in high school who helped me through the application process. Once I got to campus, I was lost. My journey through undergrad was 5 years and for so long I thought that meant I had failed. I went into the field of Student Affairs and wanted to work at a college as an administrator because administrators in my life helped me get to graduation. I wanted to pay it forward and help students who are first-generation and from low-income backgrounds just like me. If I could give once piece of advice to my first-year self it would be, “ask for help sooner”. I got to college and thought I had to pretend like I knew what to do. I needed help academically and with the adjustment socially to college, but I didn’t ask for it until later. I would have been much happier if I had been honest with myself and those around me. #proudtobefirstgen
I am a first generation college graduate. Both my parents came from working class immigrant families.They tried attending college night classes while working but found it too hard to continue. As a result, they always encouraged and expected me, to get a college degree, and they were extremely supportive. Going to a school like Rutgers made it easier to be first generation as many students there were just like me. I worked part-time while I was there, as did all my friends, to help cover expenses for school and to earn a little spending money. It helped to have friends in college whose experiences were like mine, but it was also incredibly eye-opening meeting people who were completely different from me in their upbringing and other experiences. I grew a lot in those four years.
There were times I realized how students with college-educated parents had some advantages that I lacked. For instance, when I applied to colleges, (understandably) there was little guidance my parents could give me, and even less when I applied to grad school. As a result, I felt like I was flying blind on where to apply and what to say in my applications. In retrospect I was lucky to have gotten into good schools. I was also not very familiar with many aspects of academic life. When I received word that I had been chosen for Phi Beta Kappa, I had no idea what it was at first and didn’t think it was worth the membership fee! (Actually, I think my mom had more of a clue on that one than I did.) In many other ways, though, I am grateful to be first generation. It taught me not to take anything for granted and the value (and expectation) of hard work; I also learned how to rely on myself and figure things out, which is a like-long skill. There was no comfortable safety net for me if I didn’t make it work.
My advice to first generation students is not to be afraid to find what it is that you want to study and to embrace it, even if your family doesn’t initially get it. When I’d see my aunts and uncles at gatherings, and they heard I was a History major, they’d often ask “What are you going to do with that?” Had I listened to them and found a more “marketable” major, I wouldn’t have enjoyed college half as much or performed so well academically. It helps to follow your passion and to be open to the possibilities of where it will take you rather than settle on a path that isn’t your choosing. Your parents will be proud no matter what — mine were, even though I didn’t go to law school like my mom always expected.
Last piece of advice as a first-generation student and as a faculty member: never feel like you can’t come to your instructors for extra help, guidance, clarification, or advice. It doesn’t mean you are weak or unintelligent. On the contrary, it shows us you are thinking hard about your work and care. We really want to help!
I am a first generation college student and 2003 graduate of Scripps College. My education meant everything to me and opened so many doors. I had never been around such articulate, smart, driven and curious people people. They actually loved to learn and the professors loved to teach—who knew these places existed? Growing up, my public schooling was very much the opposite. It was hard at first to be at such an prestigious place. At times I felt like the only one who had to take additional courses and visit tutors just to get on equal footing with my peers academically. I had to work on campus more than others which really gave me a different type of life on campus. I felt like I could never relax and enjoy my college experience because I was always working or studying. Still, a door was opened to another life and I am forever grateful. I truly think about the world differently after my liberal arts experience. It is worth every struggle along the way to truly learn how to think.
The last child of working class parents, I always felt that there was something beyond a small town along the Hudson River. I did not want to become a nurse’s aide in the local hospital, a secretary for IBM or Texaco nor settle for a military position. At the time, they were the top-hiring companies.
I purposely did not attempt to excel in the non-AP track assigned. I focused on being my best and became the “first” in my family to go and finish college. For this reason, it was important for me not to passively settle into an undesirable educational path.
A community leader gave talks at our high school and church about college educational opportunities for first generation/low income students. He invested time, financial resources, and energy on us, thirteen African American and Latino graduating seniors. He discussed the college application process, financial aid, SAT preparation and college resources. He took us on college tours and gave us the tools to discern the college culture. We attended debrief meetings, practiced admission and interviews. Then, he challenged us to test our resiliency in college.
I nervously accepted the challenge by applying to several colleges and later elatedly opened multiple admission acceptance letters. I selected the college that offered the most social and emotional support necessary for this sheltered seventeen-year old to strive in. I also enrolled in a pre-college program and reluctantly took a study skills course. Importantly, this study skills training eventually led to a professional teaching career at my alma mater.
Armed with the pre-knowledge about college resources, how to access them and motivation to succeed, I chose to work with peer mentors. Their support helped me to make sense of the transition challenges. They helped me navigate the college, handle homesickness, strengthen confidence in my abilities and to explore options for paying it forward.
As I emerged into the cultural awareness programs, I learned how to constructively manage complex challenges. The most memorable challenges were maintaining a feeling of belonging despite my unique path and learning how to co-exist in classes. Frank discussions with peer mentors helped me neutralize most discomforts.
In retrospect, I would advised my first year self to diversify peer-to-peer interactions. I acknowledge the imbalance between the maintaining familiarity and what felt emotionally safe forfeited some opportunities.
The sum of my experiences and perseverance eventually motivated me to pursue a Master of Education in Educational Administration and the resiliency as an advising practitioner at Vassar for many years!
Within my immediate family I am the first-generation to attend college in the United States. Previous generations of family members valued education and were very well-rounded individuals but did not attend college. Instead, they were entrepreneurs and professionals who acquired their training through apprenticeships and specialized training schools. Only when we relocated to the United States did it seem necessary to acquire a college education to enhance economic and social mobility. Therefore, my first-generation college story is also my immigration story.
Given what I know now I would salute my first-year self for taking advantage of all of the orientation, honors, and college success programs and strategies that were offered by my undergraduate institution because they helped establish a firm foundation for my continued success throughout all four years.
During my final year of college, my family experienced job displacement and that had a negative effect on contributions towards my tuition and other expenses. By working closely with the financial aid office I was able to secure an additional loan to carry me through to completion. I am also grateful for the emotional support that I received during this time and assurances that everything would be alright. I was told that in 10 or 20 years, the additional debt would be outweighed by the total investment, knowledge and experience gained from my college education.
Looking back on my entire education, I see that I faced many challenges as a low-income, first-generation student. I say “looking back”, because at the time, I didn’t realize the extent to which my experiences differed from others’. Neither of my parents earned college degrees and knew how this affected their earning potential. As a result, it was made clear to me that I would absolutely be going to college and earning a degree, in any subject. It was simply expected. With my family’s finances, it was also made clear to me that I would need to somehow pay for school myself, either through grants, scholarships, or work study. I think this forced me to push myself much harder academically, even as early as elementary school. By the time I was in high school, I was under even more pressure to do well in school. And yet, I didn’t always have the tools I needed. As the oldest of 4 children by several years, there were several times I was made to stay home and miss school in order baby-sit a sick sibling while both my parents worked. I also missed many school field trips because we couldn’t afford the fees. When I did finally go away to college I took on nearly the entire burden of paying for it. I worked several jobs over those 4 years. As a senior I worked 40 hours a week at 3 different jobs. By the time I graduated, I was tens of thousands of dollars in debt, but I hadn’t really given much thought to how that might affect my future because as far as I was concerned, the degree was the only thing that mattered.
Being a first-generation student also affected me in unforeseen ways. I’m sure my parents felt that they were helping me immensely by pushing me to do well in school from a very young age. However, this meant that by the time I was in high school I was doing classwork that my parents didn’t understand and they couldn’t help me with it. This forced me to be very self-sufficient, which was a good thing at the time. It’s easy to be self-sufficient when the work isn’t too challenging. However, this also meant that I didn’t know how to ask for help, or work in groups when the work got harder in college. I struggled academically those first couple of years before I learned how to ask my classmates or TAs for help. I NEVER asked my professors for help directly because as a student at a prestigious college, I assumed that the professors didn’t have time for someone like me. I see now that my parents’ lack of college experience hurt me there too, because my first suggestion to my own sons is always, “have you gone to talk to your teacher about this?”
Looking back on those years I think I have a few pieces of advice I’d like to pass on:
– Don’t be afraid to ask for help, either when it comes to academics or how to do laundry or how to stick to a budget. Professors, administrators and many others on campus are here to help. Know where to go if there is anything you need.
– Keep in mind that college is more of an experience than a destination. My parents didn’t realize that there was so much more to college than just the classes and the grades and made me feel guilty about every minute I spent away from my work. But you’re here to do so much more than just go to class and graduate. Join clubs, explore the city (especially if you aren’t from the area), and take advantage of everything there is to do in the Hudson Valley. Hiking is nearly free and you don’t know where you may end up when you leave college, so try something new.
– Realize that no matter what your background is, everyone has challenges in college. It’s easy to assume that people who don’t share your background somehow have it easier, whether it is financially or academically or socially, but everyone has their own challenges.
– Beware of self-doubt. After getting a particularly bad grade on a test or paper I would have moments of self-doubt (today this might be called imposter syndrome), wondering if I was only at that school because of X,Y or Z. This is especially hard for students who have always been a stand out at their high school. This is also the case with many first gen college students, having been praised by extended family for academic achievements from an early age. Rest assured that every student here deserves to be here.
– Lastly, don’t forget how unique your background and experiences are. Celebrate your differences and embrace them.
I never really grasped what a college education meant for me as a student from a low income background until I owned my financial anxieties during my senior year of college. Working in a high paying job wasn’t as huge of a concern for me—that’s why after attending a Math/Science/Computer Science program in middle and high school, I decided not to pursue STEM fields in college. However, I realized that stability and regularity were really important to me. I didn’t need a high income, but I needed to know that I would be able to have something coming in regularly that I could budget how I see fit. My college education helped me not only realize my interest in higher education but feel like I had the ability and strength to pursue a field where I could feel financially stable. My low income upbringing led me to believe that pursuing a career working in colleges was beyond something people like me were able to accomplish, a feeling I recognize is really problematic but does grasp where my headspace was at. Now, I feel confident that such a pathway is attainable for me.
On commencement day my father asked me if we could take a walk over to the main gates of campus. As we approached the Admissions Office he said he wanted to take a moment to pause in this exact location because this was where we made a promise to each other: He would support me both emotionally and, to the best of his ability, financially if this was where I wanted to pursue our shared dream of higher education. He thought it was important on the day of my graduation– as the first college graduate in my family– to go back to that place and “make right” on that promise.