After Working 5 Jobs to Pay for College, this First-Gen Student Would do it Again

My best friend Adelita is one of the greatest champions of higher education I know, but she didn’t always believe college was the best option for everyone because of the financial burden it often comes with. She went from almost joining the armed forces, to going straight into a 4-year undergraduate program, and now wanting to pursue a graduate degree. I think her story is inspiring and I hope you do too!

Tell us a little bit about your college experience. What school did you go to? When did you graduate? What did you major in? What did your experience teach you about higher education?

I graduated from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts in 2019 with a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Geography. This experience taught me about the importance and power of education, but it also reminded me how education continues to be inaccessible. During college, I worked five jobs, while being a full-time student, in order to pay for my tuition, room, and board. I constantly question why I’m in debt if I worked twice as hard as other students just to graduate.

How did you end up at your college? Was it your dream school? Did you always know you’d go to college? Did anyone in your life go to college before you? What were your post-graduation plans during your senior year of high school?

As a first-generation college student, I was always encouraged to go to college, but it was never truly expected of me because of how expensive it is. However, I knew education was important because my dad encouraged me by telling me that knowledge was something no one could ever take from me. In middle school, I was recruited into the Junior ROTC program at my local high school. I always had an interest in the military and my experience in ROTC made me believe the military was my guaranteed way to go to college without worrying about it financially. In my junior year of high school, I was recognized as one of the top three cadets in LAUSD and was offered contracts with various ROTC programs in the nation. Recruiters from different forces came to my house and offered me opportunities I never thought I’d have. Going into my senior year, I thought I knew what my post-graduation plans were picking the best offer. This was until my counselor, college counselor, AP English teacher, and JROTC instructor called a meeting. They couldn’t believe a gifted magnet student had rejected to meet with the college counselor and sign up for the SAT. This meeting changed my trajectory completely and everything that followed happened in a blur. I enrolled in the SAT, sent in my college applications, and decided on Mount Holyoke. 

When you started college, did you have a plan for what your undergraduate years would look like? How did that plan change over time? Did you ever change your major/ career interests?

I went into college not knowing what to expect and frankly not prepared for what living on the East Coast would be like. I knew my scholarship wasn’t going to cover my tuition, so my first goal was to find a job. During my first semester, I met with the local ROTC program and they offered me a scholarship that made me consider changing my major. I was beginning my college career, so I decided to give it a try and explore STEM. After 2 years, I realized I wasn’t passionate about my major and I struggled in the predominantly white male-dominated program. I decided to leave the ROTC program and reject the scholarship. While this decision led me to be exhausted from having to maintain five jobs, I felt free to explore classes and careers that excited me. 

Now that you’ve graduated undergrad, are you glad you experienced higher education? Have you or would you pursue a graduate degree? Why or why not?

I feel blessed to have been able to finish my undergraduate experience a semester early. During my senior year of college, I was student body president, a full-time student, and a student worker. Although I was stretched thin, I had the opportunity to advocate for student workers to be paid more and have better working conditions, so that future students like myself wouldn’t have to bear such a heavy financial burden. Above all, my experiences taught me that money shouldn’t be a reason not to pursue higher education. After graduation, I worked as the director of an international project providing asylum seekers with legal workshops. This experience definitely made me want to pursue a graduate degree and learn more about how the political climate continues to change. Education really is power.

If you could do it over again, what would you change about your undergraduate experience? Or why wouldn’t you change anything? 

I experienced many obstacles during undergrad, but I would not change a thing about my experience. My struggles allowed me to create spaces for students who identified with me. I took advantage of what my school had to offer and met amazing staff that believed in me and opened doors to opportunities I never thought I’d have. I ran my first campaign, receiving over 400 signatures in 12 hours, and won. I visited various countries, where I’ll always be welcomed and have homes. Most importantly, I was the first person in my family to graduate college, so I’d say I kicked higher education’s butt. 

Comadres, whose first-generation college journey inspires you?

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Nataly Gonzalez

Nataly Gonzalez

Nataly is a writer and creative from the San Fernando Valley- shout out to the 818. As the daughter of immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico, she’s passionate about telling Latinx stories. Nataly is a proud alumna of UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Department and UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television. When she isn’t writing, you can find her dog momming, hiking, eating, or dipping her toes into any body of water she can lay her hands on.

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