2020 First Generation MBAs: Kevin Vargas, University of Minnesota (Carlson)

Kevin Vargas

University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management

Hometown: Round Lake Beach, IL

Fun Fact About Yourself: I believe the human body is the world’s most complex machine and biomedical engineering is key to understanding and improving the human condition.

Undergraduate School and Major: Yale University, BS Biomedical Engineering

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: IntriCon Corporation, Quality Engineering Team Leader (or maybe Medtronic, Leadership Development Rotation Program Intern is more relevant as my summer internship).

What did your parents do for a living? My mother works on and off as a house cleaner while balancing some stay-at-home mom responsibilities. My father works as a construction worker.

What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your father? Both of my parents completed some high school in Mexico before immigrating to the United States. My father completed his GED while I was still in school. Neither received any kind of college education.

Which family member or mentor is your biggest inspiration or role model? Why? My grandparents are my role models. My grandfather came to the United States before my parents and began to create the networks needed to move his family to the United States. He immediately recognized the opportunities to work hard and get ahead in this country while my grandmother continued to care for my mother and her siblings in Mexico. I admire their tenacity and willingness to work hard, despite living apart, to ensure their kids had a better life. In turn, my parents did their best to ensure my siblings and I enjoyed a successful life. Whenever school or work becomes challenging, I remind myself of the effort my grandparents and parents put into securing a better life for me as a motivator to continue pushing through the challenges in front of me.

What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? Growing up, my parents allowed me to focus on my studies, which was key to unlocking higher education as a possibility for me. In my father’s words, his job was to go to work every day and provide a roof over our heads while my job was to go to school and succeed. My parents recognized the importance of college in the United States and ensured I had the time to focus on schoolwork and extracurriculars to ready myself for college, even if they couldn’t help directly with the application or preparation process. I needed to go to college to not let their sacrifices go to waste.

What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? The most challenging aspect of my undergraduate years was the unfamiliarity with college. I didn’t have family members or close friends who had attended college before, so I didn’t know what to expect. Sure, American media and academic counselors can give you a sense of what college may be like, but it wasn’t enough for me. Adapting to this new environment where I was more independent and responsible for myself was challenging, but worthwhile because I grew as a student and as a leader.

What didn’t your family understand about the higher experience that you wish they would understand better? My parents were comfortable with my decision to study biomedical engineering in college because they knew my interests and could visualize potential career paths with an engineering degree. However, the biggest uncertainty from my parents came when deciding to attend graduate school because it meant pausing my career (and income) for two years while changing careers away from engineering. My parents trusted my decision, but I knew they were uneasy about me enrolling in an expensive program and moving away from the engineering I loved. I know they understand this now, but it’s difficult for some parents (not just parents who haven’t attended college) to understand the value of a degree in a non-STEM or pre-professional field.

What led you to pursue an MBA degree? After working for four years in the medical device manufacturing sector, I wanted to focus less on how to make the product and more about why we make the product. For me to understand more about the medical technologies we develop, I needed to learn about the different marketing tools and frameworks used to understand the healthcare industry and the companies that operate within it. As I grappled with this, it slowly became obvious to me that returning to school would best prepare me to dive deeper into the industry and make the most impact.

How did you choose your MBA program? The Carlson School offers unparalleled experiential learning opportunities through the Enterprise programs. Since each student will work hands-on with real organizations facing real business problems, students can leverage these experiences to advance their careers and continue building their skillset. As someone who is looking to switch from operations and manufacturing to marketing and product management, the Enterprise programs will be valuable to my professional development and will help me market myself to prospective employers.

What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? I worried about the classroom learnings and networking expectations. I understood the math and engineering skills I picked up in college, but learning about accounting, finance, marketing, and business would be a new challenge to me, especially since I had limited experiences with these topics in my pre-MBA career.

As an introvert who wasn’t used to talking about myself, the idea of networking and information interviews made me a little nervous. However, after my first year of the program, I love networking and getting to know other people, including their backgrounds and passions.

How were you able to finance your MBA as a first-generation student? I was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship from the University of Minnesota to cover tuition. However, the costs to an MBA program go beyond tuition; there are still costs of living, travel, books, and associated fees. To finance these, I used a combination of savings from my career and loans from the Department of Education. I anticipate paying back these loans within a few years after graduation.

What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? As first-generation students, we have had to work harder to seek out information on college and graduate school to catch up with our peers. Because of this, we’ve already developed a strong work ethic, which is a valuable skill for any role, whether in academic, business, or non-profit organizations. This is important to remember, especially when college becomes challenging and we begin to doubt ourselves. We belong in the spaces in which we exist, and we must be unafraid to tell our stories and ask questions.

This also holds true in conversations and networking opportunities with peers. Ask if they know anyone who is also a first-generation student and ask to be connected. Creating a network of people who understand your background is important not only for leveraging resources but also for creating a support system.

What do you plan to pursue after graduation? I hope to return to the healthcare industry to continue making a difference in patient lives. I’m open to a variety of functional roles to understand the different aspects of business, ranging from marketing to finance to strategy. In the long term, I hope to pursue a general management role, so preparing myself early in my career is important for me.

Mentorship is also important to me, so I hope to continue coaching first-generation students through personal involvement in non-profit organizations. I have benefited from programs focused on supporting under-resourced students, so I hope to pass the support and mentorship forward to future leaders.


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