WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH…
Sometimes, these students’ parents showed them exactly the sacrifices they made for them. Such moments inspired them to become college students. Albert James Rabago considers his defining moment to be a weekend spent in Fresno with his mother. Here, she exposed him to the conditions she – and her father and sisters – endured as grape pickers.
“I remember the sun was scorching hot, it must have been more than 100-degrees Fahrenheit,” he reminisces. “The field workers ended their days with dried sweat and dirt on their faces – showing the true meaning of hard work and sacrifice. Even though I was young, I saw the contrast of opportunities accessible to those with an education and those without. I decided that if I wanted to help my family and my community, I needed to go to college because it would provide opportunities that hard work alone would not.”
In other cases, low points fueled these business students’ decision to take the next step. Many times, they would have to do all the work themselves. In high school, when Georgia Tech’s Grace Stewart asked a guidance counselor or advice, she was simply handed a stack of “Computer Guide to Colleges” books. Apathy was a better fate than what Alyssa Blankenship experienced. The Michigan Ross MBA shares that her guidance counselor told her that she couldn’t cut it in the Ivy League. The response “lit a fire” under Blankenship – one that produced an Economics degree from Yale University. Georgetown McDonough’s Marthaline Cooper bottomed out as a high school senior when she became homeless and crashed in the stairwell of a local college. It was a moment, she says, when she found the strength to continue and the clarity to focus.
“I felt pretty down and was just tired of fighting,” she admits. “Knowing that I could not afford to breakdown, I quickly put an end to my pity party. I said a silent prayer that night and envisioned the life that I wanted for myself and my future children. At that moment, I promised myself that if I kept fighting for my future and went to college, then the nightmare of what was currently my life would one day be a distant memory.”
PROVING THE DOUBTERS WRONG
These times also reminded these first-generation students that they weren’t just starting college for themselves. “For me, getting a higher education was also my way of escaping from my crazy childhood and getting away to be on my own,” adds Ashley Johnson. “My older brother didn’t graduate from high school and I had four little brothers that were looking up to me. I wanted to do something for myself but also to serve as an example to them.”
Of course, these students faced every conceivable disadvantage. Heading to college meant leaving people behind. They would endure guilt trips and fear-mongering, as loved ones projected their own limitations on them. At the same time, they were entering such a different world in college. Living in the moment, most had never been exposed to what was truly possible. They would be playing catch up in college. While few would be outworked, the odds stacked against them. The question was never whether they could make it, but rather whether they possessed the finances and support to stay there.
Many also suffered from ‘imposter syndrome.’ Riddled with doubts, they wondered whether they were good enough to make it in college – or even deserved it. Some struggled to fit in, a disconnect stemming from often lacking a network to show them the what and the how…let alone the do’s and the don’ts. They may have been intimidated – even fearful – at first, but they certainly weren’t going to be outworked or cast as imposters by strangers. Case in point: Northwestern Kellogg’s Natalia Eguez. In high school, she heard the whispers that attributed her spot at Stanford to affirmative action. Eguez’s response? She doubled-down on herself, solidifying her identity in the process.
“After my first quarter, I realized that beyond being able to handle the course load, I also found a brilliant, supportive community that helped me find my voice and hone leadership skills that would serve me whenever thoughts of “imposter syndrome” crept up again.”
MONEY CHANGES EVERYTHING
Before school started, these first-generation students faced many gut-wrenching questions. Many revolved around money. Despite navigating unfamiliar admissions and financial pathways, many students earned tuition support. Still, they fretted over books, room and board, and even food – items their peers often took for granted.
“My biggest worry was that I simply would not be able to afford it, that at any moment I would lose my scholarship, financial aid policies would change, or we wouldn’t be able to come up with the portion of the tuition I was required to pay,” explains Texas McCombs’ Jessica Reese-White. “People talk about the college days nostalgically living off of ramen and rice, but I didn’t have money for that even some weeks and instead planned my life around school events with free food or signed up for research studies to make enough to eat for the week.”
In some cases, college meant a family would be losing a prominent bread-winner. “Since the age of 16, I worked to help my family with expenses,” explains Wharton’s Leydiana Munguia. “We always had everything we needed but it took all of us working hard to make ends meet. Leaving for college meant my family would lose my added income.”
ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
Arriving on campus, first-generation students faced an entirely different set of challenges. Malena Lopez-Sotelo pulled A+ grades in her rural high school. At the University of Georgia, she was sitting alongside a wealthy student who’d already notched college credits and completed internships. Many hurdles were normal…but also came with a first-generation twist. Grace Stewart, for example, grappled with what she ultimately wanted to do. This struggle was amplified by her background; she didn’t know many adults who held college degrees. Even more, many first-generation students describe college as a place where they were alone, often “outsiders” in the words of Andrés Lin-Shiu.
“It seemed as if most of the other students were navigating their college experience through a fairly straight path as if they had the “college experience” figured out,” he explains. “They knew what clubs to join, what classes to take, and exactly what to do. My path to graduation was filled with curves and detours. As a first-generation college student, I didn’t have any role models to guide me through the traditional American college experience…I experienced a few setbacks along the way, but I quickly learned that they were opportunities for growth. Navigating this path taught me the value of learning from my failures and the power of mentorship.”
One mistake, says Alyssa Blankenship, was returning to her family every summer, working as a nanny instead of pursing roles that would supply valuable professional experience. Vice versa, Areeba Kamal didn’t return home, which eventually led her to wonder if she was losing her true sense of self.
“As an international student, you deal with a plethora of complications – from picking industries and jobs that can offer you visa sponsorship to recognizing subtle discrimination based on things like your accent or nationality – and coping with at times debilitating homesickness. It’s not easy to build a life with next to no money in a part of the world as alien to you as another planet… It has taken a lot of effort to try and hold on to my mother’s legacy and sense of self with the sheer volume of change and tumult in my life.”
BEING AROUND THE RIGHT PEOPLE
These struggles were often compounded by family members who don’t fully grasp the full breadth of a college education. Andrés Lin-Shiu’s parents, for example, viewed college as a means to a job. They didn’t fully appreciate, he says, the value of extracurricular activities, networking, volunteering, and trips. More than that, loved ones often failed to appreciate the transformative aspect of college for first-generation students.
“Though I attended Maryland to study an academic major, I ended up learning so much more about other cultures, beliefs, and ideologies that my mindset significantly evolved by the time I graduated,” writes Cornell University’s Kori Hill. “It was sometimes challenging for my family to understand these changes, but ultimately we were able to reconcile the differences and engage in discussions that strengthened our family dynamic as a whole. Now that I have been through that process, I am motivated to help younger family members navigate the process during their college experience.”
Most were also eager to continue their transformative process as MBAs. In many cases, the seeds of business school were planted long before college. Take Ana Flavia Dias. In high school, she helped her mother cleaning houses. Quickly enough, she discovered that many of the diplomas on their walls had “MBA” stamped on them. Grace Stewart’s interest was piqued when she met her boyfriend, who had just been accepted into business school. Stewart wasn’t alone in being impressed by the MBAs around her. Wharton’s Anthony DePina’s imagination was stirred by his peers at Goldman Sachs.
“While I was there, I was able to brush shoulders with many successful and ambitious people and soak in knowledge from them that truly led me to believe that if we were walking the same halls, that I could achieve a similar level of success. With that new belief, I started thinking about my future and spoke with MBA students and did my research. I was trying to think of a path forward that would have my former glass ceilings, with respect to my success, be my new floor.”
A SECOND LEAP OF FAITH?
Other first-generation graduates became enamored with an MBA after deep reflection. Olga Timirgalieva was pushed to act by a New York Times article on big life regrets. That said, the University of Minnesota’s Kevin Vargas – a biomedical engineer by trade – realized that he wanted to set the agenda and focus on the big picture. To do that, he needed three letters after his name: M-B-A.
“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,” he explained. “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.”
Despite racking up promotions and accolades, many first-generation graduates were hesitant to take a leap back into the academic fray. Since graduation, they had earned comfortable livings in stable organizations. Why take risks? Why head back into debt? Play it safe and keep piling up money so you never have to go back from where you came. Those thoughts were certainly on the mind of Mauricio Serna before he left a VP of Finance job to become a penniless student again at Harvard.
“After six years in the workforce where I earned a salary that afforded me the opportunity to support my family in incredible ways, I was hesitant about letting that go and risking the stability my parents and I had secured.”
* Go to Page 3 to read in-depth profiles of 40 first-generation college graduates who became MBA students.