by Julia Carachure
photography by Liz Lucsko
First generation: A college student who is the first in the family to attend college. These students have the opportunity to gain a higher education opportunity that their immediate relatives did not receive. While many finish high school, others do not attend higher education for reasons that include family history, assisting the family, getting married early or entering the job work force.
A first generation program is in place at the University of La Verne to assuage some of these obstacles and provide support for motivated students to earn a college degree that will enable them to open up job opportunities in the world.
At ULV, senior Mario Guerrero and freshman Arleen Lopez share their experiences of what it is like to be first generation students.
Mario Guerrero, ULV Associated Student Federation president, was born Feb. 25, 1978, to Miguel and Maria Esther Guerrero in Yuriria, Guanajuato, Mexico. Before his birth, his father Miguel commuted between Mexico and the United States for seven years. In 1979, he finally stayed and worked for two years. This gave him just enough time to save the money he needed to bring his family over. He paid a contact over time to get his family across the border by using someone else’s information. In 1981, Mario Guerrero arrived in the United States at the age of 2. “I came before they all did. I gathered a couple of cents, and I brought them here, my four sons. My daughters were born here. Guerrero is the last of the males, and the first one who has gotten very far. He wants to put his effort into school, and he has shown that to me. I have never had any complaints about him, in any school that he has been in. Not one,” explains his father quietly.
Guerrero explains how his father managed to ferry his family across the border. “This person, the contact, had three males and one female, so what they did was lend us their identifications to come over; and so with that, my three brothers were matched to three of these person’s kids. One of those kids was a girl, so I was dressed as a little girl.” This is how his family crossed the Mexican border to get to the United States. Now, the 23-year-old is the first of his family to attend college.
The road to La Verne is different for every student, full of twists, turns and surprises. Guerrero applied to several colleges, but he applied after he had graduated from La Puente High School in 1997. He wanted to apply to Brown University, Occidental College and the University of La Verne, but then he joined the United States Marines reserve unit and was unaware that deadlines had passed. Fortunately, La Verne was the only school with deadlines still open.
Guerrero started at ULV in the fall of 1997, first declaring majors in political science and Spanish. He has since changed one of his majors-political science-to computer information systems. He has also participated at a high level in several organizations on the ULV campus.
He has been a part of the Associated Students Federation (ASF) since his freshman year. During his sophomore year, he was ASF secretary and then took the semester off from ASF in the fall of his junior year to study in Europe at the University of Barcelona in Spain through the Brethren Colleges Abroad program. During this time, he toured Europe, visiting the Negrite islands in Spain and Madrid. He also went to Rome, Pisa and Paris. When he returned, he resumed his involvement with ASF. It was during this time that he realized that if he truly cared about being in ASF, he needed to get fully involved. He ran for ASF president for two consecutive years and was victorious both times.
He is also a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity, the Latino Student Forum (LSF), cross country, diving and track teams, a grand marshal at Commencement for three years, a scholarship recipient of the Leadership Education, and Development (LEAD) program, co-editor of La Vernacula, Iota Man for Iota Delta sorority and an Orientation Week Leader. In addition to that, he was nominated for the Homecoming Court in 2000. He also holds two jobs in order to make ends meet- a work study post in the Learning Enhancement Center, where he serves as a tutor, assisting students in Spanish and college algebra. In addition, he works in the computer lab at Mt. San Antonio College as a computer assistant.
Guerrero is involved constantly because “I don’t like sitting and doing nothing. I feel like making a difference somewhere. Whenever I have extra time on my hands, I feel kind of useless, like I should be doing something. “He says he is a man of action. “I say ‘persistence’ because there are often times where people would give up, and I just keep going. I think that I have a personality that people get along with only because I do have to be a mediator between people, especially in student government where I often have to discuss things with people like Dean Loretta Rahmani, Associate Dean Ruby Montaño-Cordova and University President Stephen Morgan. It takes a certain person to discuss issues that are coming across as negative or overbearing, and I try to just get along with people to get the point across.”
The way that Guerrero mediates is “by trying to understand what the other person is thinking and feeling, and also simply sticking to the facts, really trying to tell them what we need as students, and what we need to make a better campus. As for students, I try to relate to them by letting them know, ‘Hey I’m another student; I am just here to try to help us try to make this place better.”
There are challenges that occur with students who are of the first generation. For instance, the student’s parents are proud of their son or daughter going to college. But because the parents do not know what it is like to be in college, it is hard to give advice on how to handle college situations that arise, as opposed to students whose parents have gone to college and can share their own experiences of college life.
“My parents are happy for me, but they don’t understand what I am going through. You can tell them about what’s going on in school, but they don’t understand because they’ve never been through it. They can’t help you with your homework. They can’t advise you when you tell them about different situations that come on campus because they’ve never really gone through it and at best their advice is not advice that comes from experience,” says Guerrero.
He is glad to be in college. But he also wishes that his older brothers had gone to college, also. Two of his brothers did not finish their high school education, and one of his brothers, Javier, started to take college courses at Rio Hondo Community College but then dropped out. However, he started to go again in order to keep up with his job skills. All three of his brothers are now married and have children.
His father makes tortillas for a living, and his mother works in packaging in factories. His oldest brother Javier works as a mechanic. His brother Miguel works in assembling stereos and other electronics, and his brother Jorge works for a company that makes oxygen tanks used by firemen. His two sisters Rocio and Gabriela are still in school. Guerrero is happy for his brothers being married, but he does feel that his brothers could have waited to get married later in life. “I am happy as long as they are happy. I just feel that they got married a little too early; they might have had more time for school, bettering themselves and their careers, giving themselves more opportunities and more education.”
There is no doubt his parents are proud of him. His father never even went to school; his own father would not allow it. On the other hand, his mother went as far as the sixth grade. But her parents stopped her. Guerrero’s mother relates her story: “My mother did what my father told her to do. Then, the scholarships I had in order to keep going to school went to other students that I would help out with their homework. For someone not being to attend school, it is a great frustration trying to be someone and then not getting that opportunity to do so.”
“My sixth grade teacher had been my teacher since I was in the fourth grade,” his mother relates. “When I was in the fourth grade, halfway through the year, I had finished the fourth grade. Because of her, she continued to give me lessons for the fifth grade. As I got out of fourth grade, I went into the fifth grade, then into the sixth grade. In other words, this was all behind the principal’s back. Being in the sixth grade, I had the opportunity of being in junior high. With the help of my teacher and all the books that she had that I needed, I managed to get halfway through sixth grade.”
She wanted to advance even farther, but with her doing this in secret, her parents did not let her continue. “When I asked my dad to let me go to school, he hit me. I begged my mother, and she said, ‘No.'” She had also told her father she would try to work to get the rest of the money she needed to keep going to school. Her father hit her again and refused to let her continue. “It was the worst thing that has ever happened in my life, and my children are my biggest pride. But when it comes to education, it’s Mario,” Guerrero’s mother proudly says.
College is one of the places that can change one’s perspective. “Things are a lot less black and white. I look at things a little bit more objectively. I can take a step back even if something is happening to me, look at why it’s happening to me, and not jump to conclusions as much as I used to, and generally I can just be more calm and collected, see things in perspective before I act on anything,” says Guerrero.
He is also involved with the Marines. But he realizes that he joined the reserves for the wrong reasons-mainly to leave home and to do humanitarian work. Since he has a contract with the military, he will fulfill it. “One, I was upset with my mother for some stupid reason, I can’t even remember. Two, I joined because I wanted to be more like the Peace Corps, like I wanted to help those families in need. Kind of like,” he pauses, struggling to find the right words. “Almost like a rescue mission; it was kind of like helping kids out. I didn’t know exactly . . . but not necessarily what I am doing now, but at the same time, it’s a commitment that I have, and I will fulfill it,”he says as his words pick up speed again. Ahead of him are eight years in the reserves, six of those years serving on active duty. The two remaining years within his contract consist of non-active duty, where he can be called back. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Guerrero has been told to be on alert in case he is needed. And in fact, that possibility became a reality for him when he was called to active duty in the Marines Infantry Division January 2002 and forced to suspend his education at the University of La Verne.
Arleen Lopez, an 18-year-old freshman from Hacienda Heights, graduated from Bishop Amat High School. When it came time to apply to universities, she selected Cal State Fullerton, Cal Poly Pomona and the University of La Verne. She purposely kept her choices local. “My parents didn’t tell me, but I knew not to apply out of the area just because I didn’t want to move away; and being the oldest, I have a two-year-old brother-that was one big thing. I didn’t want to move too far away where I can’t see them. It was implied.” She decided to attend ULV because, “I liked the staff and how they were very helpful. I felt like I was actually going to get something out of this. They were really going to pay attention to me and my needs. The First Generation Student Success program really got me. I didn’t really know that kind of program existed.”
Lopez is a double major in Spanish and communications, with an emphasis in public relations. The transition from high school to college has been in some ways stressful. “I am overwhelmed coming to college and not really knowing what to expect. At first, it seemed OK to do this, and like right now it’s something different. I’m pretty overwhelmed. I haven’t been able to go home much. It’s really busy.” She recounts more about her college transition. “You’re more free, I would say. I went to a Catholic high school so it was a small population. I would say I was used to a lot of attention. I don’t know about public school, but they say that you get a lot of attention at ULV, and there is. But I got so much attention over there by my teachers. I came here, and it was like less attention, where you basically do whatever you want.” She continues, “You have more freedom, and it’s all on yourself. It was hard for me. I had to take a stand to where I had to decide to do things on my own, where to put pressure on myself. I guess the testing,” she laughs. “We have cumulative tests on different chapters, where in high school, it’s easier I guess.”
Lopez hopes to get much out her college experience. The obvious step is her college education. She sees her going to college as the stepping stone for her whole family. Along the way, she hopes to have fun but at the same time, she wants to accomplish her goals and dreams that she has set for herself. She is also considering a minor in singing, and she wants to study abroad.
Like for many first generation students, she counts advantages and disadvantages of being in college. “It’s difficult to explain because the advantage is that you’re the first one in the family, and everyone is looking up to you. You’re the pride and joy of the family. Actually, it’s my cousin and I – there’re two of us – and we’re the same age, he’s male, so we’re like the leaders of our family. The disadvantage is that people don’t know what we are going through. People don’t understand. You have a lot of pressure. That’s nothing they say to you, but you just know; all the pressure is on you. The spotlight is on you. It’s your job to complete it,” she says, emphasizing her last words.
Her parents are proud of her, and at the same time, they miss her being home. In fact, her father was so proud of her that when she got accepted to ULV, he started crying and told everyone about Arleen getting into college. She expresses, “I know they are extremely proud of me and my not graduating would just be a total devastation and heartbreaking. I am doing this for myself, but a lot is for them.”
“We are very excited. She’s the first generation to attend, and we’re really excited,” says her mother Inez,. While they also had the opportunity to go, they did not. “Actually, we had all the opportunities to do so. We had been dating for a long time, and we got married. But then I got pregnant and started working. One thing led to another, and we just didn’t,” she shrugs her shoulders and puts her hands together as she says this.
Lopez is the oldest of three children. Her brother David is 13, and her brother Nicholas is 2. Her father David Sr. works as a sales driver for a uniform rental company called Cintas, which serves the San Gabriel Valley. Her mother is an inside sales manager for the silk screening industry.
After Lopez graduates from ULV, she wants to work for either a radio or television news station. She wants to work mainly with the Latin community.
Persistence. Determination. Perseverance. These are the things needed to succeed in college, whether the student is first generation or not. But through hard work and family support a student can succeed in college. Being a first generation student means not just being in the spotlight. It is not just being the bright star of the family, it is not just getting a higher education. It is more than just doing it for your family.
It is about doing it for yourself.