First Gen: Inspiring Stories Of MBAs Who Beat The Odds

You don’t forget being homeless. You don’t shake the trauma that comes when you don’t know where you’ll sleep or how you’ll eat – especially when you’re just 12 years old. That was Yasmin Serrato-Muñoz’s fate. Before she was a strategy consultant and a Wharton MBA candidate, Serrato-Muñoz lived in a cramped motel room to stave off the homeless shelter. While she’ll always remember the sting of poverty, she’ll also never forget the example that her mother set for her.

“My mother is my biggest inspiration because she embodies scrappiness and perseverance,” Serrato-Muñoz shares. “For months, I witnessed my mother rise at 4 a.m. and work long hours. Every day, she laced up her shoes and did not complain. She always remained positive and inspired me to do well in school in order to make her proud.”

Her mother wanted more than just good grades. Like any parent, she dreamed of her daughter pursuing her passions and reaping the benefits of a good education. That’s why she set the expectation early that Serrato-Muñoz would be the first in her family to go to college. “It was seen as a way out of poverty and a path towards the American dream,” Serrato-Muñoz explains. “Even though I was young, I saw the contrast between people who had an education and those who did not. I decided that if I wanted to help my family, I needed to go to college because it opened doors to opportunities.”


The Wharton School’s Yasmin Serrato-Muñoz

Her inspiring story is just one of many in Poets&Quants’ debut look at first generation students. In all, 21 MBA candidates share their life-transforming journeys. Their stories demonstrate the enduring value of higher education to lift people from poverty, to open doors to a different world, to help them live more fulfilled and productive lives. They also provide a convincing, counter argument to the increasing number of doubters who believe that higher education often fails to deliver on its promise.

While there are no guarantees in life, the pursuit of a graduate degree almost always leads to a job where people can do their best work, a place where work becomes a passion and a calling and does not merely lead to greater income potential. And these benefits are especially true when it comes to professional degrees, particularly the most popular graduate degree in America, the MBA.

The first generation students we profile are an amazing group of individuals who’ve earned degrees from schools ranging from Princeton to Texas State. Upon graduation, they went to work for such organizations as JPMorgan, Nike, and the U.S. State Department. It wasn’t an easy path getting there as a first generation student, however. Many didn’t know people who had college degrees, let alone an understanding of how the system works or a means to pay for their education. As a group, they bore the intense pressure to excel – and the burdensome “why me” guilt of leaving so many behind. Some even faced the agonizing choice to either go to school or stay home to support their families. Once they arrived on campus, their world was often far different than what they’d expected. For these students, there was a bruising choice to make: Do I twist myself to fit in with everyone else – or stay true to my identity?


The secret to their success? More than being brainy and bold, it stemmed from their parents putting them first. Each day, they rolled up their sleeves and performed the jobs most take for take for granted. Their parents are truck drivers, secretaries, bank tellers, construction workers, cashiers, and farm laborers. They are the unsung heroes who cooked our meals, cleaned our houses, fixed our cars, and delivered our packages. They gave up their time, foregoing life’s little luxuries – and even their health –with the hope that their children would someday be ‘pulling the strings’ from the c-suite and beyond.

Serrato-Muñoz wasn’t the only one who endured hardship on the way to business school. Xavier Vargas’ mother “crossed the desert” into the United States as an undocumented worker. Growing up, Vargas watched his mother care for his older brother, whose severe cerebral palsy required him to be “fed, bathed, clothed, and changed” every day for 30 years. While his parents never made it to college, they continuously “promoted the idea” to their son. Sure enough, their prodding paid off as Vargas earned a Gates Millennium Scholarship that enabled him to attend Georgetown University.

Once there, he discovered that higher education wasn’t quite what his parents envisioned. In fact, these new norms often diverged from their values. “Physical proximity for immigrant families means literal survival – to be able to “make it” in this country with those closest to you,” observes the MIT Sloan second year. “As I entered a world where 18 year-olds drove their parents 6-series BMWs to class, I was at a constant clash with my parents as to what our norms should be…To that end, I struggled during my first two years to acclimate to a changing world exposure – all while remaining true to my cultural upbringing. My parents came here to raise a family in America, but now their children were becoming American very fast. This was a scary dissonance for all of us.”


UCLA Anderson’s Denice Gonzalez-Kim

Or consider Jeannette Paulino. Her immigrant parents urged her to “pensar en grande” or “think big.” It was more than cheap talk to them. When her father realized his daughter’s public high school would be inadequate, he moved his family to a district with better schools. Still, there was one area where her parents couldn’t help her. Despite earning straight A’s, playing sports, and leading several clubs in high school, Paulino was oblivious to what really mattered in many admissions decisions.

“I was not aware of all the available resources to prepare for exceling at college standardized testing,” writes the Columbia Business School second-year. “It wasn’t until much later that I learned that private tutoring for SATs and ACTs was a possibility. My parents certainly didn’t know about this. I felt as if I did not have much access to information until my senior year of high school, almost too late in the process.”

The stories of first generation students share many similarities. Their parents treated education – in the words of Michigan Ross’ Justin Long – as a “magic key that would open every door.” They personify the American can-do spirit, ambitious souls who crave “the same opportunities as her non-immigrant, better English-speaking peers,” says Paulino. To borrow from marketing theory, these first generation graduates are the proverbial early adopters, whose achievements often broke barriers and made them role models in their communities.

“My extended family would sometimes say that I thought I was better than them because I went to college,” says UCLA Anderson’s Denice Gonzalez-Kim. “I just tried not to take it personally. Now that I’m older, they respect me a lot because most of my younger cousins went to college after me, and I helped them through the process. I will never forget my uncle telling me that I’ve helped change the trajectory of my extended family. It feels incredible.”

Rice University’s Norma Torres Mendoza has also changed her personal trajectory. In Mexico, Torres Mendoza’s single mom worked three jobs to support her daughter and her parents. “Hungry for a better life,” they eventually escaped to Houston “in the back of an eighteen-wheeler.” Fast forward to now and Torres Mendoza, inspired by her mother’s example, is paying her blessings forward by supporting students through programs like Young Owls Leadership Program, Café College Houston and IDEA Public Schools. She doesn’t plan to stop there, either.

“In the next five years, I have political ambitions to represent Houstonians as we think about creative ways to provide interconnected social solutions that are nuanced in ways that cut across sector lines to expand opportunities,” she says.


Harvard Business School’s Ashley Terrell

The virtues of risk-taking, self-sacrifice, and perseverance were also central to the parents of Dick Tam, a first year at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. In fact, this management consultant still marvels at how his high school educated parents were able to navigate so many obstacles after immigrating to the United States.

“They left their home country with barely the clothes on their backs to a land where they didn’t know the language, culture, or geography, with no family to fall back on in search for a better life,” Tan says. “Knowing they were at a major disadvantage, my parents admitted they needed help and sought out resources around them. They were able to learn the English language from scratch, acquire jobs, and become contributing members of society while being able to send three children to college.”

It wasn’t just the parents who made the difference in the lives of these first gen students now streaming into MBA programs. Ashley Terrell grew up in Compton, California, a community she describes as being “plagued by drugs, gangs, and racial violence.” Whereas Terrell found her freedom through education, her maternal grandfather escaped Jim Crow oppression by joining the Air Force, where he gained the technical training to find work in Los Angeles’ burgeoning aerospace industry. While higher education “wasn’t an option” for Terrell’s grandfather, he made his granddaughter promise to go to college – even investing in Hooked on Phonics taps when she struggled with reading.

“He did not live to see me fulfill that promise,” Terrell admits, “but I know he’d be so proud to know that I not only fulfilled it by graduating from Duke, but I exceeded his expectations by graduating from Harvard Business School.”

Go to page 3 for in-depth profiles for over 20 first generation students who are studying in top-ranked business schools this year.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.