First Gen: Inspiring Stories Of MBAs Who Beat The Odds

Xavier Vargas

MIT, Sloan School of Management

Class: 2019

Hometown: Los Angeles, CA

Undergraduate School and Major: University of Southern California, History

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Wells Fargo, Business Initiatives Consultant

What did your parents do for a living? My father was an auto mechanic. Mother worked miscellaneous jobs, and later a stay-at-home mom.

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your

father?  My father received his high school education in Colombia. My mother received her 6th grade education in rural Mexico.

Which of your family members is your biggest inspiration? Why? Both of my parents have inspired me equally. Still to highlight my mother, she immigrated illegally into this country. Crossed the desert with a 6th grade education. She (and my father) had to figure out how to raise my oldest brother Bruce, who had the most severe form of cerebral palsy. Up until his recent passing, my mother fed, bathed, clothed, and changed him for 30 years of his life. I am, every day, amazed at her strength, wisdom, and love.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? I am not entirely sure there was a specific moment – at least not one that I can remember. My parents, despite not receiving higher education themselves, always promoted the idea of college. I do remember promising them in 2nd grade that I would be so spectacularly recruited by colleges that they (my parents) would not need to pay for my education. Also, I would even get a free car out of it – I’m still waiting on the free car. Still, college as a concept remained amorphous until my senior year of high school.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? At first, it was the impostor syndrome, one that still grips me at times as I walk the halls at MIT. Quickly, however, it became money. My parents always preached they would do whatever it took to help me pay – including mortgaging the house they had worked so hard since the 1980s for. This paralyzing fear was soothed by a phenomenal high school counselor – Sara Hall – who moved heaven and earth to expose me to scholarship opportunities to apply for. I must have, easily, applied for 50+ scholarships – ranging from full rides to $150 supplies stipends. This guided determination blessed my family with the Gates Millennium Scholarship. I was then, unexpectedly, able to attend a private university.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? The not-so-gradual exposure to cultures and social norms so very different than those at home. Physical proximity for immigrant families means literal survival – to be able to “make it” in this country with those closest to you. 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. What normal was, and what normal wasn’t. 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.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher education experience that you wish they would understand better? Physical proximity does not equal closeness or love. For the longest time, there was pressure to remain close to home: for school, for work, for everything. While my classmates road-tripped 25 hours away from their families, I chose to remain 25 miles away. My parents eventually assimilated to the notion of moving away – but it took 4 years, and an amazing opportunity in New York City to finally convince them moving away from the family unit was the right thing to do.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? I was blessed to join a bank on a leadership development program. The road was laid out to become an executive in the long-long term. Still, 3-4 years in, I had no passion for the product or where it was going. Taking a job at a bank, with its high pay and respectability, was my way of signaling to my extended family that my parents had “made it” and raised us well.

Having crossed that security threshold, I wondered if that was it. I wanted a do-over to “chase my passion” as many of my 18-19-year-old college classmates had done right at undergrad.

How did you choose your MBA program? Quant. Quant. And People. I wanted to bolster my abilities and school pedigree. Coming from humble origins, I also felt MIT Sloan had a “prove it” attitude that coursed through the veins of its students. This appealed to me, and made the program feel closer to home…to how I was raised.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? Money. Money. And Being Exposed. Financial worries came again. I was worried about not having an income, getting into big debt for the first time, and not being able to contribute to my parents monthly anymore. Throughout my first year, I have declined opportunities to travel as much as my classmates. I look back on it with some regret at times, but acknowledge that this is a decision I am making consciously this time around.

Secondly, impostor syndrome is real. I liken it to opening the door to a party that has been going on for generations before you arrived. All the people in the party know each other and received notice for what the dress code is for this party. For some of my classmates, their families have been at this party all along and knew what was expected for them. I am on “house money” – desperately trying to hide my inadequacies in fear of being disinvited to the party after catching a glimpse through the door.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first-generation student? Student loans and scholarship. Fortunately, being born in this country is an enormous blessing God and my parents afforded me. Even if I don’t have the cash reserves, I am welcomed to a unique benefit my international peers unfortunately do not have access to. Secondly, MIT Sloan has been very generous, and I am appreciative of the opportunity to be here.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? Keep plugging. It gets better. The misfit feeling never quite goes away, but your toolkit and horizons expand. Pay it forward – we each are testament that it takes a literal village and a whole lot of luck. Try to push through fears of what is “expected” and “safe” versus what you may enjoy doing. You may not be able to chase your passions 100%. If you can get to 50-75%, you’ve already more than accomplished what your parents struggled through the hot desert for. It gets easier.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? I am working through that right now. The allure of a safe corporate job, with six figures and compensation packages is extremely appealing. Still, I am working on a startup that may have some opportunity for growth. The internal conflict is still in me, but I am much more equipped (and supported) to overcome this time around.