2020’s First-Generation MBAs: The Bold, Brilliant & Big-Hearted

Areeba Kamal’s mother never completed college…but you’d never know it.

After all, she climbed the rungs of Pakistan’s advertising and entertainment industry. Starting as a copywriting intern, Sheema Kamal eventually ran marketing campaigns for Pakistan’s biggest media companies. When health issues robbed her of the ability to walk, Kamal’s mother transitioned to writing television shows – when she wasn’t busy composing songs.

It was quite a feat in a country where many women didn’t have careers…let alone choices.  In Pakistan, women are expected to marry early and devote their lives to their spouse and children according to Kamal – “no matter how unfulfilling, violent or painful it might turn out to be.” Growing up, Kamal enjoyed a front-row seat to her mother defying these boundaries. Her mother’s example set the expectation that Kamal should pursue college so she could define life on her own terms.

“I watched my mother fight these structures her entire life with every ounce of her being,” Kamal tells P&Q. “I watched her courage, conviction and grace, her drive, her hopes for her girls…I decided I wanted more from my own life.”

Sheema Kamal with her daughter, Areeba


That path took Areeba Kamal around the world to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. A first-generation college student, Kamal graduated with highest honors and was chosen to deliver the student commencement address. After a White House fellowship, she moved into finance and later consulting. In 2019, Kamal joined the Stanford Graduate School of Business, earning an internship with Apple in the process.

These successes weren’t hers alone, Kamal admits. They were the apogee of Sheema Kamal’s devotion to her two daughters. More than anything, she valued education, skimping on food and clothing so Areeba and her sister could receive the best possible schooling. In the end, Sheema Kamal understood her vision could only be realized through the gifts and grit of her children.

“My mother passed away earlier this year peacefully in her sleep,” Kamal writes. “Her last words to me revolved, as always, around being brave and hopeful, and holding my own no matter how intimidating or unfamiliar the surroundings. In my education and career, I will always try and emulate her unwavering faith and determination. She is my hero.”


Areeba Kamal is one of the thousands of first-generation college graduates populating MBA programs across the world. They are the pioneers – the firsts – in their families. Many personify the immigrant dream, the product of sacrifice – and the scrapping and planning that comes with it. From humble beginnings, they’ve landed influential roles in blue ribbon companies like Goldman Sachs, Bain & Company, and Disney. Now, they act as student leaders in elite business schools like Harvard, Wharton, Chicago Booth, and MIT Sloan. They’ve earned their way into a spot at the proverbial table. In the coming years, they will become voices for those who’ve been shut out…and examples to those who are only beginning to imagine their potential.

These first-generation college graduates include success stories like Wharton’s Jamaal Wright. Before he had graduated from high school, Wright had collected an associate’s degree – with a perfect 4.0 GPA to match. Yale SOM’s Andrés Lin-Shiu and the University of North Carolina’s Rose Telus have already earned master’s degrees in Architecture and Geology respectively. Before joining Indiana University’s Kelley School, Ashley Johnson served as the regional marketing manager for Feld Entertainment – home of Disney on Ice, Monster Jam, and the Ringing Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus! At the same time, MIT Sloan’s Olga Timirgalieva has balanced a finance career with serving as a U.S. Coast Guard reservist and volunteer firefighter.

Malena Lopez Sotelo, Duke University (Fuqua)

“I got to drive fire engines when responding to 911 calls,” she cracks.

Overlooked growing up, these first-generation students have found themselves in roles making a difference. Before she joined Duke University’s Team Fuqua, Malena Lopez-Sotelo served as the deputy data director for Stacey Abrams’ run for governor in Georgia. By the same token, Jennifer Lopez Ramirez worked as the legislative director for the California State Assembly before signing onto U.C.-Berkeley’s Haas School. Lopez Ramirez also found inspiration through her mother, who took her family from Mexico to start businesses in Los Angeles.

“Whenever I’m faced with tough challenges, I hear her voice in my head saying, “Ponte las pilas,” meaning that I shouldn’t give up on myself and to get creative,” Lopez Ramirez writes.


In Cuba, NYU Stern’s Daniel Rodriguez lived on rice and split peas, waking up at 5 a.m. and walking across Havana with his trumpet for class. In 2007, Rodriguez immigrated to the United States to become a musician, paying his school loans and living expenses with late night gigs and weekend music lessons. Eventually, Rodriguez headed up a music school, where he could share his love of music along with exposing students to the fundamentals of business and leadership. While he could always galvanize his students, there was one person whom Rodriguez could never quite reach.

“My mom was always very supportive of my studies and professional ambitions, although she never understood what I was doing. I remember that when I proudly shared with her that I had had my first performance at Carnegie Hall, she gave me a blank stare and said, “y eso que es?…felicidadez mijito” (“and what’s that? Congratulations, son.”).”

This gap is just one of the challenges faced by first-generation students like Rodriguez. Most often, they were the disconnected, ignored, vulnerable, and powerless growing up. When he was 12, Albert James Rabago was living in a converted garage, watching his parents leave early and return late from their jobs. Similarly, the University of Virginia’s Ana Flavia Dias shared a 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom flat with nine other people when they arrived in the United States. For these students, there was little room for error. Before Columbia Business School, Robago was a highly-regarded athlete who was deluged with calls and letters from college coaches. After badly injuring his ankle, the scholarship offers dried up, making college unaffordable for him. The same was true in Haiti, where Washington University’s Duckenson Joseph watched his family sell their coffee farm after his father broke his leg and his mother fell ill.

“Both my parents ended moving to the city permanently,” Joseph explains. “There, my father spent his last years like too many men in that part of the world, with no formal occupation and relying on one-off gigs and remittances from family abroad to make ends meet. My mother, on the other hand, continued to sell fabric. Her inventory was small, just enough to fill one cafeteria table, but that is how she paid for our schooling and put food on the table.”


Mauricio Serna, Harvard Business School

Ashley Johnson earned her undergraduate degree the hard way. After learning she didn’t qualify for state or federal loans, she worked full-time at Home Depot for seven years to pay for her schooling. Harvard Business School’s Mauricio Serna graduated from high school as an undocumented immigrant. Being told he couldn’t attend college stiffened his resolved. He worked full-time and took six evening classes each semester at a local community college, eventually earning a scholarship to Georgetown University. For first-generation students like Malena Lopez-Sotelo, work and school were just two of the demands they needed to juggle.

“For a period of time while growing up, my dad was undocumented,” Lopez-Sotelo explains. “It was not uncommon for me to think through a Plan A, a Plan B, and a Plan C should my family have to deal with such a tragic and life-altering event as deportation. As the oldest of five siblings, I was also responsible for stepping in when my mother, as a single parent, needed to work late or work two jobs to make ends meet.”

Indeed, parents were often the unsung heroes behind these first-generation college graduates. Some were single moms. Others worked multiple jobs, often picking up the late shift so their children could live more comfortably. These parents held the roles most take for granted: truck drivers, nursing assistants, cleaners, cooks, assembly workers, and auto techs. They had made their children the center of their world – and saw education as their way out of the perils around them.


Some first-generation students were inspired by the examples set by their parents. Marleny De León, a Vanderbilt Owen first-year, admires her mother’s unyielding resolve. As a first-grader, De León’s mother dropped out of school to help raise her 17 siblings. As an adult, she survived a civil war and domestic abuse, fleeing to Miami to foster a stable life for her children. Ashley Johnson’s mother wrestled with drug addiction during her childhood, eventually showing her daughter that you can overcome anything with drive and resilience. At the same time, Jamaal Wright’s father exhibited his unconditional love for his family by moving to Afghanistan to take a higher-paying job in war-ridden Afghanistan.

“My dad instilled in me what matters most – persevering despite adversity and helping under-supported individuals do the same – which has come to define who I am as a person and professional,” Wright explains. “I attribute my father’s continued guidance, encouragement, and focus on my education while parenting from abroad as the driving force behind my success.”

Carnegie Mellon’s Mickey Colombo credits his father for his entrepreneurial spirit As a teenager, Colombo writes, he spent years learning the nuances of running a business, absorbing his father’s “work ethic, charisma, and sheer scrappiness” along the way. Likewise, Olga Timirgalieva believes her moral compass – and courage to take risks – originated with her mother.

Jessica Ahn, Dartmouth College (Tuck)

“My mother stood up for others and spoke up against injustices she saw in the Soviet Union. I admire her courage and always remember hearing my mother’s words: “If the fear is what’s stopping you, you must do it.” Whenever I hesitate or feel anxious, I remind myself to live fearlessly and to always care for those around me.”


And take risks too. That’s what Andrés Lin-Shiu’s parents did. Initially, they fled China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. After years in Uruguay, they “uprooted” again to the United States to make possibilities like a spot in the Yale School of Management possible for Lin-Shiu. “Through both moves, they had to learn new languages, find new jobs, establish new social circles, and adapt to new cultures — all while supporting and inspiring us to pursue our dreams.”

Sometimes, these dreams merge, with parents – inspired by their children’s example – braving higher education on their own. That was the case with Dartmouth Tuck’s Jessica Ahn. After immigrating from South Korea, her parents launched a series of ventures, including a pizza restaurant, gas station, and dry cleaning service. Her mother – who’d finished high school – followed her daughter’s lead and earned her bachelor’s degree at 53 – the same year that Ahn had finished her first master’s degree and her brother had finished his bachelor’s.

“It was an incredible year for my family. I am where I am today because of the sacrifices they have made and their belief in me.”

* Go to Page 3 to read in-depth profiles of 40 first-generation college graduates who became MBA students. 

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