In Our Words: How It Feels Being the First in the Family to Make it to College

Juan Carlos Cano Martinez
Year and Major: 3rd year
Country of Origin: Mexico
Parents’ Country of Origin: Mexico

Unique Challenges: My experiences in pre-med courses weren’t the best during my first few semesters, however with the help of Biology Scholars Program, Undocumented Student Program and Educational Opportunity Program, I’ve slowly overcome and excelled in my courses. Although I felt that my high school background did not prepare me well enough, I’m grateful for the teaching me to seek resources; this is what has helped me achieve my goals here at UC Berkeley. With perseverance, dedication, and resiliency I will make my berkeley experience one of kind. My community background (including my friends, mentors, family, etc.) serve a foundation for my inspiration to continue in higher education regardless of the barriers. For example, during the time I commuted I sought spaces to study overnight, one of them being a space the Biology Scholars Program has for students, and my families struggles to bring me to this country serve as backbone to continue studying those nights. Due to our immigration status, I’m unable to have my father with me during these tough times, however I know he is there spiritually.

Particular Surprises, Experiences or Epiphanies, Good or Bad: UC Berkeley has showed me that it does not matter how slowly you go as long as you don’t stop. I strongly believe that if you are persistent you will find tremendous amounts of resources. I realized that most of courses were competitive in a sense because of what many are here for. Some pre-med, pre-haas, etc. and the competition, unfortunately is there. However, I wanted my friends and I to perform well, thus we formed study groups and helped each other out.

Personal Insights: The Undocumented Student Program has reinforced my passion toward continuing to reach my goals and aspirations. I’m particularly grateful for the support from the counselors who provide warmth, encouragement, and reflect the passion towards helping students regardless of their immigration status.


Mayra Esther Lozano
Year and Major: Freshman, intended double major in political science and legal studies
Country of Origin: Guerrero, Mexico
Parents’ Country of Origin: Guerrero, Mexico

Unique Challenges: Being an undocumented student with undocumented parents has been a constant challenge . My parents immigrated to California in 1999 and soon after when I turned 3, I also immigrated to California. My parents have been working factory jobs that most of the time don’t even pay the minimum wage. Living in a household where driving to work or even driving me to school became nerve wrecking moments of fear took a toll in my life. Often times my parents did not let me participate in many school events that they thought put me at risk. At such a young age I did not understand that I was not like my classmates, that I was different. I knew everything they did if not more, I loved school, I loved what I believed to be my home. It wasn’t until 5th grade when I finally understood why my parents were so scared. As the top student of my class I had the opportunity to attend a full paid fieldtrip to the San Diego Zoo and Resort. I remember being excited to attend but more than anything I was proud of my accomplishment. I went to my parents thinking they would be happy for me. Instead they told me to forget about going, that I couldn’t go because San Diego was too close to the border. They explained what the border was and why I had to fear it. As a child the border represented the geographical line that had the power to take all my dreams from me. From then on school became my biggest priority but at the same time my parents began to make it clear that college “was not for me”. Years later as college applications were out, my father did not allow me to apply to colleges. If he saw me working on a college application on my computer he would take the computer from me. College seemed so close to me now and my father was making it hard for me get there. I had to do most of my college applications after school without him knowing. The day of the deadline as I looked over my applications for final review, my father noticed and took my computer from me. I begged for him to understand that going to school was not only my dream but my everything but it proved useless. His only response was “put your feet on the ground”. Later that day, I sneaked out of the house and walked to my friend’s house to use her computer. I was able to submit my college applications on time. It really is odd to think about how I had to sneak out to go to college. I sneaked out of the house to go to Berkeley, to make my dreams come true.

Particular Surprises, Experiences or Epiphanies, Good or Bad: One of the most amazing surprises of my life happened on June 15, 2012. This date marked the day that the Secretary of Homeland Security announced that certain people who came to the United States as children and meet several guidelines may request consideration of deferred action for a period of two years, subject to renewal. They are also eligible for work authorization. Deferred action is a use of prosecutorial discretion to defer removal action against an individual for a certain period of time. DACA gave me new hope and reassurance that going to college wasn’t impossible for me. It gave my parents a reason to start believing in me. I would have never imagined that I would be where I am today. I grew up bouncing back and forth between Compton, Watts, and South Central and violence was the only thing that was always constant. Getting lost in that type of lifestyle is what society had envisioned for me. I will not say it has been easy but it sure has been rewarding to keep my dreams up high.

Personal Insights: Obstacles will always be present but your dreams can outweigh them. Life can be harsh but you are stronger and can fight back. In 2010 my family and I became homeless due to financial burdens. We lived in a wooden car garage for over a year with no bathroom, kitchen, and with cement floors. Money was so scarce that I can still remember the nights I went to sleep hungry. My family had hit rock bottom, but I continued to do good in school. I used every single struggle, every single tear and fear as motivation. Here I am today typing this at UC Berkeley’s Moffitt Library as an undergraduate.


Telma Menendez
Year and Major: 4th year, public health
Country of Origin: United States
Parents Country of Origin: El Salvador

Unique Challenges: As a first generation college student from Lynwood, I had a hard time adjusting to the Berkeley community during the fall of 2011, especially being 350 miles away from my family. At first, I found myself questioning my belonging on campus after not feeling welcomed by a few student groups. It was not until I got involved with The Achievement Award Program that I felt valued and welcomed. I was not being judged by the color of my skin or my family’s lifestyle. As a woman of color in the science field, I have struggled through the competitiveness of science courses particularly those that are pre-med prerequisites. Often times, I felt I was at a disadvantage because I did not have a rigorous high school curriculum to prepare me for the intensiveness of UC Berkeley nor did I have the resources to supplement my education.

Particular Surprises, Experiences or Epiphanies, Good or Bad: I had high school teachers that questioned my ability of obtaining a degree from UC Berkeley. Many were surprised upon hearing of my acceptance. They were even more shocked to hear I was accepted on a full scholarship as a Regents and Chancellor’s scholar and a scholar for The Achievement Award Program.

Personal Insights: UC Berkeley has taught me to value my education that extends past the classroom setting. It has taught me the worth of attending a research institution. The achievement of graduating from the number one public university is not just mine but my parents, who only received some grade school in El Salvador.


Ariadne Valadez
Year and Major: Senior, business administration
Country of Origin: Mexico
Parents’ Country of Origin: Mexico

Unique Challenges: One of the main challenges that I have faced was leaving Mexico at the age of 10 to come to the United States to seek higher educational opportunities.  Transitioning was difficult because in order to communicate I had to learn a new language in addition to adapting to an entirely new lifestyle. My family settled in a small farm working community where education is not a main priority and the schools lacked the academic challenge I was seeking. Therefore, I began taking college courses my freshmen year of high school while balancing sports, leadership activities and a part time job.  However, I never saw these challenges as major obstacles and rather as a motivation to succeed and be able to return to my community to help students like myself.  I began my college experience with little knowledge of the expectations, resources, or jargon associated with a college campus. Challenging the status quo I quickly became part of campus life by joining the Latino Business Student executive board, volunteering as a mentor and having a part time job as a writing tutor.

Particular Surprises, Experiences or Epiphanies, Good or Bad: Initially, I did not have an idea of the career path I wanted to pursue but I became very interest in business administration and decided to through the highly competitive process of applying to the Haas School of Business. In November 2013, I sat outside of the Cal Alumni House with a racing heart and shaking hands as I checked the online admissions decisions to the Haas School of Business. I was thrilled to see the Congratulations message that first appeared on my screen. This opportunity has allowed me to expand my analytical strengths by taking courses in accounting, finance and economics. Additionally, my professional and personal growth has stemmed not only from my course experiences, but also from the relationships I have built with my professors and peers. I have been able to further prepare to enter corporate America through my work experience at Deloitte & Touché LLP, where I have gained technical expertise and built a strong support network.

Personal Insights: As first generation students, we carry high expectations and face unique challenges that build us into highly motivated individuals. Being the guinea pig of the family for me meant forging a pathway for my siblings by setting challenging goals for myself and encouraging them to do things beyond those of which I have accomplished. Being the first of the family to take on the challenge of attending a university has incentivized me to always to more than is expected of me and give my greatest effort to everything that I do. Ultimately, being a first generating has not been a set back, rather an exciting journey where I have discovered that personal drive determines intellectual abilities and that opportunities are limitless.


Cesar Torres
Year and Major: 3rd Year molecular and cell biology with an emphasis in biochemistry, and double major in psychology
Country of Origin: United States
Parents Country of Origin: Mexico

Unique Challenges: Like most traditional Mexican families, family played a very important role for me growing up. Since my family and I were really close, it was particularly difficult for me going away to college, especially since I was only 16 years old. Sure you find groups of individuals here at Cal that you consider family, but even they cannot replace your real family back home.

Particular Surprises, Experiences or Epiphanies, Good or Bad: I remember the day my sister Julia graduated from UCI. She was the first in our family to go to college and she did it despite facing various obstacles such as lack of citizenship, working three jobs to pay for tuition, etc. She continues to inspire me to this day.

Personal InsightsYou have to find motivation within yourself. Find whatever drives you and stick with it. Growing up, my parents were either too busy or just unable to help me with my schoolwork. It was up to me to make sure I learned the material, studied for test, and kept up with my schoolwork.


Joanna Torres
Year and Major: Senior, sociology major with public policy minor
Country of Origin: United States
Parents Country of Origin: Mexico

Unique Challenges: My parents and older siblings were undocumented throughout the majority of my life. Seeing the limited opportunities my family faced due to their legal status taught me not to take anything for granted. I knew I wanted to pursue higher education, but being the first “traditional” student in my family, I was unsure of how to get there, let alone how my family would be able afford it. While many other students aspire their whole lives to attend a prestigious university like Cal, I stumbled across it. My parents did not know where or what UC Berkeley was until I came here. It was during my Junior year in high school when I first left Orange County and took a NorCal college trip with the Save Our Youth Center that I was first exposed to Cal. Once I stepped foot on this campus I could not see myself attending any other college. However, I knew my younger brother, Cesar Torres, who is one year behind me in school, would graduate and attend college shortly after. That had a lot to do with the places I applied and influenced my decision to not apply to Cal since I did not want to place a financial burden on my family. Thanks to the support and encouragement of the directors at the Save Our Youth Center I ended up submitting my application and I was fortunate enough to receive The Achievement Award Program scholarship (TAAP), which helped make my dream of coming to Cal a reality.

Particular Surprises, Experiences or Epiphanies, Good or Bad: At Cal, not only am I underrepresented in terms of race, but also in terms of socioeconomic status. The intersectionality of race and class have given me different experiences on this campus. As a freshman, I had a difficult time adjusting academically and socially. I had been used to starting over in every higher level of education I reached, since early on in life I found my prior schooling did not prepare me for the challenges ahead. However, nothing compared to the education gap I experienced my first year at Cal. I began to question my spot at Berkeley; “did I really belong here, or did I somehow trick admissions into thinking I did?” The competitiveness of the institution did not help my situation, I felt like I had to prove I belonged here. As freshman once you start to interact with new people, the basic questions arise such as major, hometown, G.P.A, SAT score. At Cal I encountered individuals with scores “2000”. Once when I mentioned my “1700” score I was replied back with a “Oh. But your 1700 is like my 2150” because you’re a Latina so they give you free points.” I was shocked and upset by their comment, but I did not let it get to me, I was very proud since I had worked had to raise my score to where it was. I know wholeheartedly I earned my spot at Cal. It is difficult sometimes when individuals constantly question it. Even back home when I mention that I go to Cal people are surprised and answer with “YOU go to Cal?”

Unique Challenges: Although being a minority at Cal can be overwhelming, there are many resources out there. Unfortunately, these resources are not advertised in the major resource avenues on campus.  As a first-generation student my first exposure to “college 101” was Cal-So where they teach you about campus resources and how to choose a schedule. I wish Cal-So had been better prepared to deal with non-tradition college students. The resources advertised did not mention resources for first-generation students such as Bridges Spaces, EOP, Biology Scholars Program…etc. For me, I have been fortunate to be a part of The Achievement Award Program. TAAP has made me feel a part of the Berkeley community and has been critical to my success at Cal. TAAP has empowered me academically and personally, and has allowed me to give back to my community.

Personal Insights: Thanks to the RAZA Graduation I will walk the stage to receive my diploma with my parents this May. I am fortunate I get to share my successes with them. I am grateful for everything my parents and siblings have sacrificed so my younger brother and I can be here at Cal. It is my family that has been my driving force these past 4 years and will continue to do so in the future because everything I have achieved so far has been thanks to them. In the future, I plan to obtain an M.P.P or a J.D. I will be the first in my immediate and extended family to pursue a professional degree. I plan to use my degree as a resource to my community.


The Struggle to Be First

Kids whose parents never went to college often feel compelled to choose between school and home.
By Alina Tugend
Read more »

An exploration of why first-generation college students sometimes feel as if they are being forced to choose between home and school.

From the Spring 2015 Dropouts and Drop-ins issue of California.
Image source: Chris Gaede
Share this article:
Google+ Reddit


This is truly touching. UC Berkeley is transforming lives! Being the first to get into college is really challenging because you don’t know what college life requires. Seeing how Berkeley has given shape to first generation students, I see how rich the spirit and heart of UC Berkeley is.
These people do not belong in college at all, much less an elite institution. It makes me sick that the Marxist administrators are scrambling to use taxpayer money to give these proletarian youths with no cultural connection to anything besides menial labor instead of giving disabled veterans and former officers like me a scholarship. I am a US citizen. My mother’s cousin was a brigadier general and my uncle was a colonel in the Korean military. University is my birthright not theirs. If they stayed in Mexico they would NEVER EVER go to college. Not respectfully, 2nd LT David Yang
I am a first-generation to go to college. I will graduate in the spring of 2021. Need to know the transfer information for Early Childhood Education.
Beautiful life stories, I can’t agree more, I studied economy in berkeley too years ago, it gave me the background to start my personal proyects. Like starting forex trading, if you’re interested in the topic check , thanks again berkeley for making me the succesful business man that I’m now!