September 11, 2017Vol. 48, Issue 1

Face-to-Face with First-Gen

The poster for the 1st Generation and Proud awareness campaign to support the first-generation community here at Chico State from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. 

With more than 50 percent of our students the first generation in their families to complete a four-year degree, this fall the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is launching an awareness campaign to support the first-generation community here at Chico State. Faculty, staff, and students who are first-generation themselves participated in the campaign, showing their diversity, solidarity, and support of students who are striving toward the same goal. Here, three participants share their stories about what it means to be first-gen:

Cecilia Lapolli, First-GenName: Cecilia Lapolli

Hometown: St. Helena

Role on campus: Study Abroad Advisor, Office of International Education

Years on campus: 1 year, 3 months

Education: BA, Latin American Studies. I am hoping to start a master’s degree in spring.

Why did you choose Chico? I love the community and the campus environment. Most of all, I love the nature aspect of this city, as I spend most of my time getting lost in Upper Bidwell Park. Hiking and swimming is my happy place.

What first sparked your interest in a college education? I’ve always been inspired to go to college because of the community I grew up in—it was normal to expect to continue on to get a higher education. I consider myself very fortunate to have been raised with encouragement and support from my family and friends to continue on to college, even if a large part of my family does not have a college education.

What were some barriers that prevented others in your family from completing a four-year degree? Some of the biggest obstacles include a language barrier (native Spanish speakers) and immigration to the United States later in life.

Who can you point to as a mentor or inspiration in your pursuit of a four-year degree and why?  My biggest mentor was my mom. She moved to the states from El Salvador when she was only 14 years old and worked very hard to learn English fluently. She continuously reminded me that having a college education is crucial. She started school two years after I did—now she has a nursing degree and is one of the most successful bilingual nurses in the Napa Valley.

What does being first-gen mean to you? It means that despite having many barriers (financially, culturally, emotionally), anything is possible. I paid for my own education and even got to study abroad. If I can do it, anyone can. You just have to be motivated, resourceful, and determined.

What challenges do you struggle with or have you overcome as a result of being first gen? While most of my friends in the dorms had their parents guiding them through the whole process, I really had to figure things out on my own. I didn’t know how to manage my own financial aid, I wasn’t sure how difficult classes were going to be, I had no idea how to ask for guidance or seek out resources offered at Chico State. Having gone through this, I am stronger and have so much more confidence when life throws me curveballs.

What is your wildest ambition? Complete fluency in five different languages! I currently speak three fluently: Spanish, Portuguese, English (of course), and am working on French.

What message do you want to send other first-gen students? Don’t be afraid to ask for help! There are so many resources on campus I wish I had known about when I first started college; there are a plethora of professionals who are happy to help you through navigating life at Chico State. Don’t give up when things get difficult.

Michael Doris, First-GenName:  Michael Doris
Hometown: San Diego
Role on Campus: Student, double major in physics and electrical engineering.
Years on campus: 1 year, 6 months

Will you continue your education beyond a four-year degree? I was on the fence for a long time. I also felt like I wasn’t good enough or smart enough for graduate school. However, thanks to the many people I’ve met at Butte College and Chico State, I now see that I can do this, and that everyone deserves to be a part of higher education. I decided to pursue a Master of Science degree in electrical engineering and a PhD in physics.

Why did you choose Chico? As a first-generation student from a low-income family, I had no support system. Chico State was close to where I was already living and working, and the tuition was low enough I could feasibly afford it with employment and financial aid. Also, the faculty and staff were incredibly friendly and demonstrated a passion I rarely see. You’re not just a student or ID number with a grade; you’re a person they want to get to know and help, to ensure that you can achieve whatever you aspire to. 

What first sparked your interest in a college education? I didn’t want to let others define who I was or what my future would be. I wanted to make a difference in the world, and to do that I needed an education. 

What were some barriers that prevented others in your family from completing a four-year degree? Coming from a low-income, single-parent household has placed a large burden on the ability of my siblings to pursue college. My father was a military man, and he dropped out of school to enroll into the US Army. Although he went back later to get his high school diploma, he never went to college due to his commitment to the military and his family.

Who can you point to as a mentor or inspiration in your pursuit of a four-year degree and why? Most of my family had given up on me. To grow up feeling like almost everyone around you has given up on you, or told that you’re a failure and worthless, is crushing. My father and a family friend were the only ones who never truly gave up on me. They tried to plant seeds of thought that I could do something if I tried. When I went to Butte College and was accepted into MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement) program, it was Nena Anguiano who pushed me to say yes to every opportunity and showed me that I could achieve so much if I really tried. She would always tell me a small choice or change I make, like saying yes to that opportunity I’m afraid to take, can lead to a small shift and eventually expand to engulf changes and experiences I would never have dreamed of having. Then, (at Chico State), the discovery of so many people, with their own unique stories, who share this common thread of hardship and feeling of not belonging, showed me how important it was to not only succeed for myself, but to help others succeed as well. Those individuals who are the first in their family to succeed set an example for the rest of us—they give us hope that we can do this, too.

What does being first-gen mean to you? Hope and the opportunity to show others that you are worth something and can achieve anything you set yourself to. 

What challenges do you struggle with or have you overcome as a result of being first gen? I struggle with the occasional feeling of not being good enough, but I think that is a normal thing for many first-generation students. I pretty much always struggle to balance my finances and time. So, like many students I know, I work outside of class. At one point I was working two jobs at upwards of 50-60 hours a week and doing a full-time load of courses. Programs like MESA, TRIO, and CSC2 helped be that guiding light through the fog and confusion of college.

What is your wildest ambition? I would love it if I could work in some fancy national lab and help produce groundbreaking discoveries or research. I would like to be able to say that I helped the world in some small amount.

What message do you want to send other first-gen students? Please don’t give up, and stay hopeful even when things seem their darkest. Seek out others like you, talk to your professors, or take part in the many support programs available here at Chico State. It can be incredibly difficult at times, and you’ll feel like you don’t belong or that you can’t do it. But you can’t give up and you can do it. When you finally walk that stage with diploma in hand you’ll be so much stronger after the hardships and difficulties you’ve overcome. You’ll be an inspiration to others to follow in your footsteps. Show the world that you are worth something and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Dave Brown, First-GenName:  Dave Brown

Hometown: Riverside

Role on Campus: Professor, Geological and Environmental Sciences

Years on campus: 20

Education: BA in independent Studies with a concentration in environmental studies, MS in hydrology/hydrogeology, PhD in soil science

Why did you choose Chico?  As a transfer student coming out of Lassen Community College many years ago, Chico State was just where everyone moved on to. It wasn’t really a conscious choice. I chose the faculty position here because there was a job offer but also because the town seemed to be a great community in which we could raise our two young sons.

What first sparked your interest in a college education? My family just assumed I would go to college and I didn’t question that. I didn’t become intentional about going to college until graduate school.

What were some barriers that prevented others in your family from completing a four-year degree? Previous generations of my family were in the lower-middle class from farming and trades backgrounds, and they went to work at an early age. I don’t think attending college was in their mindset. I have no siblings.

Who can you point to as a mentor or inspiration in your pursuit of a four-year degree and why?  I can’t recall ever having an advisor until the last year or so in my undergraduate experience. I ended up having to write my own major since environmental studies didn’t yet exist (this was the 1970s). In the Honors College at the University of Oregon, I was blessed to have had a true faculty mentor that guided my growth as a scholar and inspired my interest in academia and learning.

What does being first-gen mean to you? Being a first-gen student meant that I was alone in my family. Beyond a bachelor’s degree, my family couldn’t begin to understand my interest in graduate studies. They loved me but couldn’t guide me in any way. They really wanted me out of school and into a “real” career.

What challenges do you struggle with or have you overcome as a result of being first gen? I am a recovering sufferer of “impostor syndrome.” A very meaningful book I once read was titled, “If I’m So Successful, Why Do I Feel Like a Fake?” It captured me in a classic manner. In my doctoral program at UC Berkeley, I felt like the dumbest kid in the classroom. However, I did graduate and have been gradually improving my self-image.

What is your wildest ambition? I hope I never lose my overall optimism and belief that goodness will overcome.

What message do you want to send other first-gen students? First-gen students need to know that they aren’t alone in the world and especially on this campus. They can find greater happiness and success connecting with and being supported by others.

Cover art of the book Spectators: Flash Fictions, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.


Rob Davidson, English, had his third book, Spectators: Flash Fictions, published in June and it was nominated by the press, Five Oaks, for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Read more.

Miguel Maldonado is one of 800,000 Dreamers affected by the revocation of DACA.

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Despite the planned revocation of DACA, Dreamer and Chico State student Miguel Maldonado says he is not afraid and is here to stay. Read more.