First Gen: Inspiring Stories Of MBAs Who Beat The Odds

Josue Chavarin-Rivas

University of California Berkeley, Haas School of Business

Class: 2019

Hometown: Salinas, California

Fun Fact About Yourself:  I once participated in a nationally televised interview with the news station Univision. I also have an award-winning basset hound name Jefe.

Undergraduate School and Major: Political Science

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: The California Endowment, Program Associate

What did your parents do for a living? My father worked in farm labor. My mother was a homemaker.

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

father? Trade school

Which of your family members is your biggest inspiration? Why? My father is my biggest inspiration. With his salary alone, he managed to financially maintain our seven-member household. With his perseverance and consistency, he set an example for my siblings and me. He never took a day off, he never complained. He would set goals, disregard negativity, and work hard until he accomplished his objectives. All of my siblings and I have followed this same example. We all set high aspirational goals for college. We all persevered and went on to universities (three of us to U.C. Berkeley).

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? When I was thirteen, I spent a summer working as a farm laborer. I worked alongside grown men and teenage high school drop outs in the blistering heat. After this experience, I realized that there was not much else to aspire to if I did not go on to college. At this point, I realized that if I wanted to drastically improve my life, I needed to go to a university. With this realization in mind, I entered high school with only one objective: perform exceptionally well academically in order to be competitive for scholarships to attend a university. For the next four years, I worked diligently in my high school and concurrently took college level courses in my local community college. My efforts were eventually rewarded with admission and scholarships to attend U.C. Berkeley’s undergraduate degree program.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? Throughout my journey to college, I often interacted with people who tried to discourage me from applying to college and attending. I would largely disregard these comments. However, when my high school counselor told me that she did not believe that I could succeed at U.C. Berkeley, those words stung. 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.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? Like many first-generation college students, I entered U.C. Berkeley lacking the social, cultural, or economic capital to succeed. I believe that the most challenging part of getting my undergraduate degree was not having someone from my background to guide me through the academic experience. To accomplish my goals, I often had to engage in a lot of trial-and-error to navigate the university’s bureaucracy, develop my own study strategies, and seek out mentors along the way.

Thankfully, my efforts were also aided by the resources and networking opportunities I was offered as an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley like Summer Bridge, a college immersion program for incoming freshman, the Incentive Awards Program, a merit based scholarship to attend U.C. Berkeley, and the Public Policy and International Affairs Fellowship, a graduate school prep program for students interested in government and non-profit policy work.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher education experience that you

wish they would understand better? My parents do not speak English. As an undergraduate student, it was often difficult to relate the experiences and opportunities that I had to their daily lives. For instance, as a freshman in college, I participated in a public policy and social impact program at Harvard. I struggled to communicate to my parents the reasons why I was traveling to Boston to learn more about public policy and what the program content was going to be.

Several years after receiving my undergraduate degree, I was admitted to the Fulbright Scholars program to conduct work in Brazil for one year. When I shared the news of this opportunity with my parents, I was encouraged to turn down this opportunity because, from their perspective, I was giving up a well-paying career to work for next to nothing in a distant country.

Perhaps this is more reflective of my struggles, but the reality is that for many first-generation college students, 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.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? Having spent the majority of my career working to benefit marginalized communities through government and non-profit work, I realized that an MBA would provide me with the technical expertise to comprehensively evaluate budgets and to manage complex teams. I believe that these two components are among many that are critical for successfully effectuating change.

How did you choose your MBA program? I chose to apply and attend Haas because I saw clear alignment between my commitment to social change and Haas’s demonstrated commitment to social impact through their Institute for Business and Social Impact. Through the resources available in this institute, I have been able to further refine my technical knowledge of topics like accounting, finance, and statistics in the context of accomplishing positive large-scale social change.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? My lack of familiarity with the MBA application process and my non-traditional background, made me concerned that my prior work experience in government and non-profit work would not resonate with MBA admissions staff reading my applications. This was certainly the case for some of the MBA programs that I applied to. For others, my background was well received.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first-generation student? I financed my MBA primarily through scholarships and part-time employment.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? My advice to other first-generation college students would be to aspire to become your own biggest advocate and an advocate for people like you. Whether you are a high school student or an aspiring MBA student, there are always circumstances that can derail you from accomplishing your goals.

Often times, people with parents and family members who went to college have the social connections, resources, and advocates to help them reach their goals. You likely do not have this luxury. You have to seek out individuals often outside of your immediate family who are invested in your development and advocate for them to play these roles.

Also, regardless of your current situation, it is your responsibility to work and advocate for other first-generation college students to also gain the opportunity to succeed. I myself am the benefactor of the Galloway Fellowship, a fellowship created by Scott Galloway, a first-generation immigrant who attended Haas, and wants to assist incoming first-generation immigrants in the MBA program.

It is also important to note that your contributions to other first- generation college students do not have to be financial. I most recently illustrated this advice in my MBA program when I worked to benefit other first-generation college students through the student-led Racial Inclusion Initiative. I conducted research about my program’s admissions practices and specifically recommended to admissions staff that they include socioeconomic status in their admissions application.

I followed this work up by co-leading a successful effort between MBA students and staff to change Haas’s admissions policies to now include socioeconomic circumstances in their general application. Haas is the first top MBA program in the country to do this. I advocated for this change on behalf of the first-generation college students that will come to Haas after me because I believe that one’s ability to overcome significant socioeconomic hardships should be viewed favorably as a predictor of future success in MBA programs.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? I plan to use the skills that I have learned to address health in underserved communities through a variety of positions. Ideally, I would like to head a non-profit organization or foundation and potentially engage in policymaking and collaborations for social good with corporations.