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First-Generation Students Offer Advice for Those Who Come Next

November 7, 2023
Entries into a logo contest for First-Generation Student Week are displayed
"Use all of the resources offered to you."

Nearly 65 percent of UC Merced's undergraduate students are the first in their families to go to college. Being a college student of any kind can be a thrilling, confusing, challenging, exciting, overwhelming experience, sometimes all at once. When you're the first in your family to go to college, there can be an added degree of uncertainty, as well.

In advance of First-Generation Student Week activities, the UC Merced newsroom asked some first-generation alumni and current students to share some advice for those following in their trailblazing footsteps.

Here is what they recommended:

Make Smart Choices

Fourth-year student Ariana Munoz of Pittsburg advised prospective students to consider their finances when deciding where to go to school. Munoz, who plans to attend law school after a gap year, picked UC Merced because she was able to get financial aid and will graduate with little to no debt. She said she has enjoyed her college experience, and a big part of that was not worrying about money. "I'm happy here."

Also, she advised, "Use all of the resources offered to you. Go to the workshops."

Take Advantage of Opportunities

Keith Ellis, who graduated in 2012 with degrees in political science and management, said new students should be open-minded and adventurous.

"While UC Merced is rich in opportunities and I had the privilege to be involved in a lot of ways, I really wish I was brave enough to have studied abroad - maybe Japan or the U.K. would have been good for me," Ellis said. "And, tied second to studying abroad, I regret not doing (UC programs in Washington, D.C., or Sacramento). I have friends who did all of these programs, and they look back fondly on their experiences.

"UC Merced is far more than just attending classes and taking midterms/finals; the advantages of these opportunities are there for you to be a better person by having enriched your life from the experience."

Steven Barillas, who graduated in 2017, agreed.

"I wished I knew about all the available resources before starting at UC Merced. Being first-gen, there's a gap in institutional knowledge coming to college compared to other peers who had family before them," he said.

Barillas said he leveraged office hours with professors and worked with the Student Career Center for guidance. "Also, joining campus organizations and even starting new ones allowed me to make new friends and connections, which allowed me to grow and continue to challenge myself toward my goals."

Get the Tutoring

Tutoring is a key to getting ahead for many students, said Derek Sollberger, who graduated in 2011 with a master's degree in applied mathematics and now works as a lecturer at UC Merced.

"For many of us first-generation students, our relatives could not help us with homework (due to time and/or ability) earlier in our lives, and tutoring was seen as a luxury or punishment," Sollberger said. "Many such students arrive at university understandably with mindsets that being studious is individual and isolated. The university is built with aspirations to help students succeed and become great citizens.

"We faculty hope that students find that study groups and tutoring centers are fantastic resources. The tutoring labs are not for the 'dumb kids;' students go to tutoring to get ahead."

Don't be Afraid to Take Chances

Christina Celis Puga graduated from UC Merced in 2017 with a degree in biological sciences.

"We are our ancestors' wildest and grandest dreams," she said. "Like many first-gen students, I am the child of immigrants and setting a precedent for future generations; it's crucial to acknowledge this as we forge the path for others. Personally, as a woman, I also faced cultural expectations to stay home, live with my parents and attend college at my local CSU. I decided to embark on a new chapter and move away for school, like many others."

She said the process of going to college, outside of classes, can be daunting, but there are resources to make it easier. "Moving away from home, adjusting to a new environment, managing academic demands, and even tackling everyday tasks like grocery shopping, food insecurity and laundry can be overwhelming," Celis Puga said. "I wholeheartedly encourage any first-gen student to be audacious and ask for help."

Find a Support System

Cristian Vargas recommended finding support through communities and other opportunities.

"Although challenges may arise while you navigate your undergraduate education, stay resilient and pursue meaningful opportunities that you are passionate about," said Vargas, who graduated in 2022 with a degree in public health. "I would encourage students to join club organizations, participate in research through the UROC (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Center) program, and don't be afraid to apply for that internship that you envision yourself completing."

Vargas said he got invaluable guidance through communities such as the Success Mentor Program (SMP) and Strengthening Talents and Exploring Pathways (STEP).

"College is a four-year journey so don't feel pressured to take so many units at once - explore other majors that you are curious about," he said.

All of those interviewed said the hard work and discovery are worth it in the end.

"The first-gen journey may be challenging, yet it's also incredibly rewarding," Celis Puga said. "We may not have tíos, tías or cousins that we can call to ask questions nor a blueprint to follow, but we still manage to succeed, persevere and graduate. Some may follow the traditional four-year route, while others, like me, take a bit longer. In the end, we all cross that finish line, demonstrating that 'Si se puede.'"

Patty Guerra

Public Information Officer

Office: (209) 769-0948