First Gen: Inspiring Stories Of MBAs Who Beat The Odds

Northwestern Kellogg’s Katie Parks

HOT SUN AND HARD WORK MOTIVATES FIRST GENERATION STUDENTS TO HIT THE BOOKS

Northwestern Kellogg’s Katie Parks is most grateful to her grandmother, who only earned a third grade education while working her family’s farm in rural Poland. “After surviving unimaginable situations in Germany during World War II, she moved to the United States with my grandpa,” Parks says. “Not knowing English, she worked her way up in a factory while also caring for three children. She eventually saved enough to purchase a home in Chicago and later became a US citizen. In my mind, she is the definition of the American Dream. I contribute all of my educational opportunities to the groundwork that my grandma laid for my mom and in turn, me.”

These first generation students were also driven to pursue higher education by their formative experiences in the work world. At 13, U.C.-Berkeley’s Josue Chavarin-Rivas spent his summer working on a farm “in the blistering heat” alongside high school dropouts – a searing memory that reminded him of what awaited if he didn’t attend college. As a high school student, Izaak Mendoza watched helplessly as his father was passed over for promotions, never earning the pay and respect he deserved. From that, Mendoza took a lesson to heart: do something you love – advice that led him to study public policy and eventually enroll at the University of Minnesota’s MBA program.

Justin Long’s rite of passage also came during high school, when he joined his dad on a construction crew. While he found reward in turning an empty space into a dwelling, he also witnessed something else. “My father enjoyed his work, but it was also something he chose because his options after high school were somewhat limited,” writes the Michigan Ross first-year. “Watching his body break down after so many years of tough manual labor was very eye-opening for me. Working with my dad, I realized that pursuing a college degree would create so many more opportunities for me, so I really buckled down in school to make sure I had that option.”

NOTRE DAME PROF RECALLS HIS DAYS AS A FIRST GENERATION STUDENT

Notre Dame’s Brad Badertscher

It wasn’t just today’s first generation students whose parents’ hardships made college so attractive. Twenty five years ago, Brad Badertscher was wrestling with the same decisions as his students. Growing up on a farm in southeast Nebraska, he watched the farm crisis unfold. Eventually, it claimed his family’s farm…along with those of many of his relatives. Witnessing the financial and emotional toll from these events instilled a desire to go to college in Badertscher, who is now a professor of accountancy and PwC faculty fellow at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

Like many first generation students, Badertscher also faced institutional obstacles that he couldn’t anticipate. For one, his high school, which had just 35 students in his graduating class, offered little support to college aspirants. For another, he wanted a college where he could excel, noting that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln – which had over 30,000 students – would often “eat up” students from smaller communities like his. Eventually, he settled on the University of Nebraska-Kearney, a smaller program that offered the personal attention he would need to finish his degree.

“The hardest thing is getting that sense that you fit in,” Badertscher notes. “You have never done this as a first generation student. You want to feel like you have a seat at the table when you go. As a first year student, you’re just trying to figure out where you belong.”

A HIGH-PAYING JOB…OR A CAREER I’LL LOVE?

Fitting in ranks among the biggest worries for first generation students who plan to pursue college. For Meron Tecle, a first-year at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, there is often a cultural divide that separate first generation students from their peers. “My biggest worry was that I wouldn’t be surrounded by people who could relate to me, or if I could bridge that gap,” he admits. “Understanding “the other side” for lack of a better term became second nature for me because assimilation and understanding were goals my parents instilled. Without a vested interest of where I came from or who I was, would “the other side” be able to relate to me?”

Not surprisingly, finance was another major concern. Harvard’s Ashley Terrell, for one, points out that she didn’t have anyone around her who could answer her questions. “As a first generation college student,” she says, “I couldn’t ask family or friends how to finance my education, how to apply for loans or financial aid, or for advice on a reasonable interest rate for student loans.” At the same time, these first generation students – who often grew up in poverty – struggled with the push-pull between choosing a major with a high payout or one that truly stirred their passions.’

“It took some time to realize that I was the only one in my life setting crazy expectations for how I would use my degree after graduation,” says Kellogg’s Katie Parks. “After taking a step back, I realized that everyone who cared about me would be supportive of whatever path I felt was right, regardless of prestige or salary.”

ASKING FOR HELP MAKES THE DIFFERENCE

University of Toronto’s Meron Tecle

Many first generation students also endured ridicule from classmates for pursuing college. Josue Chavarin-Rivas shrugged off such jabs…until they came from the most unexpected of corners. “When my high school counselor told me that she did not believe that I could succeed at U.C. Berkeley, those words stung,” he concedes. “For several weeks after, I reflected on her comments. These reflections prompted me to worry about proving her correct by failing and not setting a good example for my family. Before going for my undergraduate degree, I concluded that she was wrong and did not understand the strength of my character. I entered U.C. Berkeley determined to succeed. I graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors and a 3.8 GPA.”

The transition to college can be even rockier for first generation students. Wharton’s Yasmin Serrato-Muñoz is a case in point. After graduating at the top of her high school class, she expected to take Georgetown by storm. A year later, she was struggling academically and socially, with a GPA as low as her morale. Eventually, she swallowed her pride and did something that often separates degree-holders from dropouts: she asked for help. Reaching out to potential mentors and tapping into academic resources was the turning point, she says. “Being vulnerable in front of others allowed me to be genuine and to be a leader for others with similar experiences.”

For Jared Garnica, the toughest part of starting college was being unable to ask his parents for help. This sense of isolation was only deepened by how he expected his classmates to react if he came forward. “I had so many questions that I didn’t want to ask fearing I would be identified as someone who was there because of affirmative action instead of merit,” writes the second-year from Indiana Kelley. “I didn’t have anyone in my immediate circle in prestigious careers who I could reach out for help and support. I found it hard to relate to some of my peers since I felt there were so many differences – class, socioeconomic status, race, etc. It was difficult to see so many differences, yet try to assimilate for fear of standing out even more.”

WORKING 80 HOURS TO SUPPORT A FAMILY…AND GOING TO COLLEGE

Time management was another unforeseen issue for these first generation students. Notre Dame’s Stephen Meehan sums it up this way: “[I was] learning to manage my time in a less structured, less supervised situation. I was on my own, 500+ miles from my parents, and had no one telling me that homework was due tomorrow.” Some students slack in such situations. Others, such as Kellogg’s Katie Parks, “overextended themselves, saying ‘yes’ to everything for fear of missing out. She wasn’t alone. Rice’s Norma Torres Mendoza lived on coffee and little sleep while holding two jobs, operating a non-profit, and maintaining a high GPA. Stanford’s Patrick Despres-Gallagher was even hospitalized as a sophomore for physical and mental exhaustion.

In fact, Harvard’s Ashley Terrell believes this sudden freedom – and the wealth of opportunities it brings – is actually more difficult to maneuver though than the heightened academics. “I think the biggest challenge was that you’re learning “college” for the first time and making (often uninformed) decisions by yourself all at once—in terms of academics, life skills away from home, professional skills, networking, career choices, etc. In addition, you also think your choice of major and performance in school will dictate all other future opportunities in life (spoiler alert- it doesn’t!). It wasn’t until I reached out to mentors from scholarship programs and participated in summer internships to explore career opportunities that I really began to feel comfortable and confident throughout my college experience.”

Then there are those swift and devastating events that rock first generation students, who often lack the support network needed to dull the blow. That was true for Duke Fuqua’s Jeffrey Bonsu, who had to step up when his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer in college.

“Because I felt obligated to help provide income for my working-class parents, I worked two full-time jobs while enrolled in school and often missed classes because I could not fully dedicate time to my studies,” he explains. Once my father returned to work, I was finally able to assess my decisions. I reduced the hours I worked per week from 80 to 30 and set clear expectations about my academic goals with my family.”

IMPOSTOR SYNDROME…EVEN IN GRADUATE SCHOOL

Now that these first generation students have earned their degrees and proven themselves in the workforce, they must be heading to business school worry-free, right? Not necessarily, says MIT Sloan’s Xavier Vargas, who still feels out of place – even in graduate school. He describes it as “impostor syndrome.” For him, this psychological barrier is all too 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.”

That isn’t the only disconnect that many first generation students still feel. For Norma Torres Mendoza, there was an “assumption” in her family that college meant that she had “made it.” In reality, says the Rice MBA, she was putting in even more hours. “Instead of working in the Houston heat for 60 hours constructing roads like my uncles, I would be working 70+ hours in an office attempting to solve a problem. I would often remind my family that the education piece would many times economically pay off.”

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