First Gen: Inspiring Stories Of MBAs Who Beat The Odds

Denice Gonzalez-Kim

UCLA, Anderson School of Management

Class: 2019

Hometown: Los Angeles, CA

Fun Fact About Yourself: My husband is Korean-American, hence the hyphenated last name “Kim.” People always laugh when they find out that we met when I interviewed him for a nonprofit volunteer role—and voted not to hire him! Fortunately, my Executive Director loved his good nature and overruled me. I definitely owe her one.

Undergraduate School and Major: UCLA, Global Studies and Public Affairs

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: EY, Summer Associate

What did your parents do for a living? My mother was a seamstress and my father was a clothing delivery driver.

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

father? My mother went up to 9th grade while in Mexico. My father studied up to the 6th grade in Mexico then completed 7th-8th in Los Angeles.

Which of your family members is your biggest inspiration? Why? My parents are my biggest inspiration because they are hard-working, humble, and incredibly loving. My mother always taught me to reach for the stars and that I could be anything I want in life. She instilled in me never-ending hope for my future and made sure I never had a victim mentality. My father also taught me that I could be anything I want, but that I would have to work harder than anyone else to do it. Their combined advice has allowed me to be strong and confident while remembering that I always have to work hard and earn my stripes.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? I remember sitting next to my mom one night in a factory when I was about five years old. She always worked nonstop; that day she had been working hunched over a sewing machine for hours on end, and I could tell she was tired and sad. At one point she stopped, turned to me, and said, “Daughter, you need to work hard and get a good education so you can have a better future.” This memory still brings tears to my eyes. I decided I wanted to pursue a higher education for myself, but more than anything I wanted to help my parents and make them proud.

What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? I was more excited than worried, because UCLA was a dream school and it was exhilarating to be the first to go to college. I didn’t think about the impending challenges then because I didn’t know to expect any. I was definitely naïve, but I’m glad in retrospect because worrying would have been a waste of time.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? The psychological challenges of being a first-generation student were what affected me most. I was fighting the challenges of financial instability and not knowing what I didn’t know, while always feeling out of place, like I didn’t belong. Since undergrad, I’ve realized that these fears of not belonging are usually self-imposed, but it’s hard to overcome impostor syndrome in the moment.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher education experience that you wish they would understand better? My parents worried about my health in high school because I would often stay up studying for several days in a row to understand my AP Calculus or another challenging class. Fortunately, they did understand that the hard work was necessary for me to succeed. Then once I was in college, my mom struggled to understand why I couldn’t visit her every weekend—though I think most moms feel that way when their child goes off to college!

Also, my extended family would sometimes say that I thought I was better than them because I went to college. 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.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? A few years ago, I was mentoring high school students around South LA and teaching them about the importance of financial literacy and college preparation. They asked a lot of questions about my own goals, and that challenged me to think more about my future and what I was doing for myself. Really, they were my inspiration to pursue an MBA.

How did you choose your MBA program? There were many factors that led me to decide to attend Anderson. Mainly, I wanted a program with a reputable global brand and smart but humble students—plus I couldn’t do snow! Anderson lived up to all this and more.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? My biggest worry other than the financial risk was the concern that my impostor syndrome would come back. It was challenging during my first quarter, but my classmates are so humble and nice that I was able to quickly self-correct. It also helps that I’ve grown a lot since college, so I know more about life and my self-worth.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first-generation student? I am financing 95% of my MBA through private loans.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? “Think fearlessly” is a pillar we have at Anderson that really resonates with me. This is the advice that I would give to other first-generation college students. Don’t let fear get in the way of your greatness.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? I plan to pursue a career in consulting post-MBA. I also want to stay involved in nonprofit boards and my Anderson community, especially around the topic of diversity and inclusion.