Willamette has many students from diverse backgrounds and situations. One situation that is often overlooked is of being a first-generation college student. Two of WU’s first-generation students were willing to share their unique challenges that may not be widely known.
Daniel Garcia King (‘22) is a first generation student from Salem. Their mother dropped out of high school and got her GED as a teenager, and their father went to school up until seventh grade. Growing up, there was not anyone to help with homework or to support them academically.
Garcia King never felt too strongly about their education, and felt they were simply coasting through school. In seventh grade, a teacher recommended that they apply to be in Willamette Academy, and they did and were accepted. Through Willamette Academy, they discovered more value in education.
“I found myself through learning and I realized I wanted to do more with my life and to have a higher education,” Garcia King said. “I knew that there’s more that I can do and there’s more to be learned from higher education.”
Willamette Academy provided Garcia King with a mentor who helped them throughout high school. But even with a mentor, there was a lot that they still felt as though they had to learn.
“I had to learn from myself and take my own advice,” Garcia King said. “I spent a lot of time not knowing how to ask for help, not being comfortable asking for help and thinking I should have to do everything by myself. I didn’t really even know tutors were a thing. There were a lot of things I missed out on in life that I didn’t realize I was missing out on.”
Going into college, there were many times when they felt they lacked information that others may have had. Applying for college, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) was especially difficult, as their parents didn’t have the necessary documents for it. On move-in day, Garcia King went at it alone because both of their parents work full-time.
Their parents also don’t fully understand the struggles and schedule of a full-time college student. They note that their parents ask them to come home for the weekend, and often it is difficult for them to drop all responsibilities to go see them. Garcia-King also receives little to no financial support from their family.
“My parents don’t have money and I don’t have always money. At times, I wasn’t sure if I could pay off what I had to pay out of pocket and I couldn’t just ask my parents. It’s a struggle for me to have to make ends meet.”
Despite their struggle to be where they are now, Garcia King feels as though many people do not see that side of it.
“It doesn’t make me feel better to have people sorry for me but they don’t realize and they don’t know how much I’ve had to give up and struggle. I don’t want people to throw a pity party for me. Life is hard work and they don’t realize that other people have to work harder than others to get through adversity. It’s not something you always wear on your shoulder.”
Adriana Escorcia-Lopez (’22) is another first-generation student who faces many of the same struggles as Garcia King. She is the daughter of migrant parents and is the first in her family to go to college. She, like Garcia King, was also a member of Willamette Academy and applied to Willamette as a senior.
“It was really stressful. The reason why I was able to apply was because of my mentor,” Escorcia-Lopez said. “My parents did not know what I was doing. It was hard and it required a lot of time management and looking for resources. If I had a question, I had to wait to talk to my teacher, my counselor or to email my mentors, rather than just asking my parents.”
She also felt as though she was learning and understanding certain aspects of college applications and also having to explain it to her parents as she was doing it, especially in situations like depositing, emailing a professor and staying up late to finish applications during school. Going into school as a full-time student was also difficult for her.
“I felt like a foreigner coming into campus, even though I knew where everything was. I didn’t know how to behave, how to react and I was confused and I still am.”
Escorcia-Lopez also noted that she has trouble knowing what to do in certain academic situations.
“I don’t know who to ask for help for things like declaring my major or going into the financial aid package and getting more help to pay for my college. I feel intimidated going into it. Stepping up and talking to my professors has also been difficult.”
Something she noted as being very significant in her journey of higher education is the support and encouragement she receives from teachers and her parents. If she didn’t have her parents, her teachers and Willamette Academy pushing her along the way, she feels she wouldn’t be here. Her parents are especially proud of her accomplishments.
“Since I was little, they always said it has been in my destiny for me to go to college, so they are really happy. But they are also lost because they don’t know what I’m doing. They’re trusting that I’m doing my best and doing my work. The support that they gave me throughout high school, they are still giving it to me throughout college.”
One of Escorcia-Lopez’s least favorite parts about being a first-generation student is being used as an example in class.
“I tend to feel tokenized in some of my classes and many go to me to hear my experiences to hear about immigration. You could consider that they’re giving you the space but I didn’t ask for it.”
She also feels like first-generation students aren’t really acknowledged here on campus and that there aren’t a lot of easy to find resources or spaces for first-generation students.
Both Garcia King and Escorcia-Lopez both agreed that other students need to realize that they likely come from a place of privilege and not everyone’s experiences are universal. While most students have some prior knowledge and guidance going into college, those that are first-generation face a different set of struggles and challenges.