First Gen: Inspiring Stories Of MBAs Who Beat The Odds

Columbia Business School’s Jeannette Paulino


At the same time, many parents assumed that college was strictly an academic exercise. In reality, says Michigan Ross’ Justin Long, it is a journey – one where growth often happens outside the classroom. That can be a difficult concept for the parents of first generation students to grasp, many of whom often view the college experience in terms of careers and income.

“Since my parents did not undergo the American college experience, it was difficult to understand how challenging, competitive, time-consuming, and necessary it all was, says Columbia Business School’s Jeannette Paulino. “Questions that often arose included: Why are you running for leadership positions of student clubs if you’re just there to study? Why do you have to intern abroad in India? Why are you attending football games? Why are you studying so much? What’s the purpose of a “fun” networking event?”

As a result, Josue Chavarin-Rivas urges his first generation peers to make their own choices. “There can be tension between the opportunities you have in front of you and the perspective of your family. Because of the potential long-term payoff that some opportunities present for your career, you sometimes have to move forward without the full approval of your family.”


The fear of disapproval can be a powerful force. As a professor, Brad Badertscher can often pick out the first generation students. They tend, in his words, to be more “timid.” That’s one reason why Badertscher relays to these students that they’re just as gifted as anyone else in the class. He also directs them to non-traditional tracks to ensure they’re following their passions and fully utilizing their talents.

“The more experienced students will go after the ‘Google’ opportunities in their field, while the first generations are just happy to be there. They’re more willing to accept a more traditional route when I think they deserve to try the other avenues as well. As a first generation myself, I try to help them navigate their careers so they’re not willing to accept something less than what they could achieve.”

Badertscher also believes first generation students enjoy a distinct advantage in business school over their counterparts. Losing the family farm taught Badertscher to persevere – and that made the challenges he faced later on seem less daunting. The same is true for many of the first generation students he teaches at Notre Dame. “I think they are harder workers than some of the non-first generation students,” he adds. “In my experience, they know what college means in terms of their career. There are fall backs for other students, but there are no fall backs for these students.”


What other advice do first generation students have for those who follow their footsteps into business school? Borrowing from UCLA Anderson’s “Think fearlessly” pillar, Denice Gonzalez-Kim implores them not to let fear get in the way of their greatness. In contrast, Harvard’s Ashley Terrell warns against complacency: “Don’t let this “first” be your only accomplishment.” Adding to this theme, Columbia’s Jeannette Paulino sounds the alarm against making excuses. “Do not let your circumstances or zip code dictate what you can and cannot accomplish,” she counsels. “Know that anything is possible and within your reach. Dream big.”

Stanford GSB’s Patrick Despres-Gallagher

More than that, adds Wharton’s Yasmin Serrato-Muñoz, ask this simple question: Why not me? “Surround yourself with people who will cheer you on. I regret not pursuing opportunities because I did not think that I was qualified or that I would not fit in with the people. I think that mentality really closed some doors for me.”

Mentoring was also cited by several first generation students as a big boost to their academic and professional performance. “My mentors opened doors for me that I didn’t even know existed,” says Stephanie Jordan, a first-year at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management. “Don’t be afraid to seek out others for help or advice. When I was younger, I often didn’t want to reach out because people are busy, and I didn’t want to be a burden. What I realized was that I was honored to help when people called me for advice, and others feel the same way.”

Just be careful in choosing a mentor, notes Stanford’s Patrick Despres-Gallagher. “For many students from non-traditional backgrounds, the natural and immediate mentorship networks are not sufficient. I have been given a lot of unintentionally harmful advice that masquerades as thoughtful perspective, but in reality, is an opinion rooted in a biased interpretation of a narrow set of experiences. Learning to understand underlying incentives and biases is important to filtering bad advice.”

At the same time, Yale SOM’s Giovanni Cruz reminds first generation students to pay forward their good fortune.It’s better to serve than to be served. Make sure you help others along the way.”

A final piece of advice for first generation students? Izaak Mendoza doesn’t mince words. In the face of setbacks and loneliness, he advises them to “embrace the suck.” “It can feel like the cards are stacked against you, or that you don’t know who to turn to for guidance,” writes the Minnesota Carlson MBA candidate. “But learning how to adapt to situations, and figuring out how to respond to things instead of merely react gives you the life skills and the grit to manage anything that comes your way.”

Xavier Vargas has a different take. “Keep plugging,” says the MIT Sloan second-year. “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.”

Which first generation student performed at the Super Bowl 52 halftime show? Who declined to hire a job candidate who later became her husband? Who win a trip to Barbados on a national game show? Find these answers, along with in-depth answers on why these students are pursuing MBAs and what they plan to do after graduation in over 20 in-depth profiles of these amazing first generation students.

Student School Hometown Alma Mater Last Employer
Josue Chavarin-Rivas U.C. Berkeley (Haas) Salinas, California University of California-Berkeley The California Endowment
Denice Gonzalez-Kim UCLA (Anderson) Los Angeles, CA UCLA Ernst & Young
Benjamin Strickhouser Carnegie Mellon (Tepper) Biglerville, PA U.S. Merchant Marine Academy U.S. Navy
Sean Roling University of Chicago (Booth) Clinton, IA U.S. Military Academy U.S. Army
Jeannette Paulino Columbia Business School Miami, FL University of Florida Nathan Associates Inc.
Stephanie Jordan Cornell University (Johnson) Moorestown, NJ Princeton University Beacon Accountancy and Business Services
Linda Horner Dartmouth College (Tuck) Kampala, Uganda The Master’s University Aetna
Jeffrey Bonsu Duke University (Fuqua) Dallas, TX Texas State University J.P. Morgan
Ashley Terrell Harvard Business School Compton, CA Duke University EY Parthenon
Jared Garnica Indiana University (Kelley) Chicago, IL Brigham Young University Lighthouse Academies
Justin Long University of Michigan (Ross) Yuba City, CA University of North Carolina Nike
Izaak Mendoza University of Minnesota (Carlson) Cheyenne, WY University of Wyoming U.S. State Department
Xavier Vargas MIT (Sloan) Los Angeles, CA University of Southern California Wells Fargo
Richard Tam North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler) Rosemead, CA University of California-Berkeley Navigant Consulting, Inc.
Katie Parks Northwestern University (Kellogg) Chicago, IL Northwestern University Stephanie Izard Inc.
Stephen Meehan Notre Dame (Mendoza) Philadelphia, PA Notre Dame Beneficial Bank
Norma Torres Mendoza Rice University (Jones) Queretaro, Mexico Rice University IDEA Public Schools
Patrick Despres-Gallagher Stanford GSB East Templeton, MA Johns Hopkins University Deloitte Digital
Meron Tecle University of Toronto (Rotman) Toronto, Canada Laurentian University Electro-Meters Company LTD.
Yasmin Serrato-Muñoz Wharton School Orlando, FL Georgetown University Accenture Federal Services
Giovanni Cruz Yale SOM Carolina, Puerto Rico University of Puerto Rico Teach for America