La Primera: First-generation graduate student

Author: Alexandra Vallencia Villa (PhD expected 2023)

Alex recruiting students at the UW-Madison Majors Fair 2018.

First-generation. Female. Latina. Each one of these categories is identified as a minority group in the geosciences and each one has uniquely affected my journey in becoming a scientist. To avoid overlooking any of these, I will focus on my struggles as a first-generation student.

My entire academic life, I have never received encouragement or guidance from my family. It hurts to acknowledge the reality of it, but it’s true. Every choice I made and difficulty I encountered, I faced alone, and as a 17 year-old starting college in a new city, the experiences I had continue to affect my life. I had to navigate through college, and currently graduate school, alone, and at times looked down upon for choosing school over working to help my family.

But the difficulty of being first-generation didn’t start there. It started in school. Going to college was not something I grew up thinking about, or was ever discussed in my family. I did well in classes because I enjoyed learning, not because I knew I had to prepare for college applications. This is the first setback that first-generation students encounter. Not knowing that the decisions we make as teens, in deciding what groups to be involved in, what sports to play, what classes to take, could be the deciding factor in being accepted to college.

The second is in knowing what schools to apply for. Frankly, I only applied to schools that had free applications (thank you California) and because I had the time, not because I really wanted to go to college. Applying to these schools was an afterthought, but the reasons why wasn’t because I was I wasn’t driven enough, or smart enough, it was because I honestly didn’t know what college was. Most of my family had dropped out and never made it to high school in Mexico. How was I supposed to know of a word/place that didn’t exist?

Fast-forward to a few months later, I was shocked that I was accepted to all the schools and realized I could actually go to college and by that point I knew that I wanted to keep learning. However, now I was stuck with the decision in picking a school. This was especially difficult because when I had decided which 4 University of California schools to apply to, my only deciding factor was the destination: what city looked the most interesting? I ultimately decided to attend UCLA, again not because I actually wanted to go there, but because a teacher had told me if I didn’t, that no one would believe me that I got accepted. As a naive high school student, I didn’t realize he was referring to the hierarchy and ratings of schools, something that most students my age had gauged in their applications months earlier.

The third is knowing what to do once you get to college. This is something that I struggled most with. I made it to this top institution as an economics major and quickly realized that it wasn’t what I wanted to pursue. However, as a first-gen student, I didn’t know it was ok to switch majors and that in doing so, it didn’t make me a failure. Instead, I struggled through my courses until my junior year when I finally switched into geology. But this is only part of a college experience. I still hadn’t been involved with many groups on campus, research, or found my passion. By this point I felt defeated, and it was only by luck with the help of a friend, that I found a position as a research assistant in a paleoclimate lab. And from there everything changed.

Fast forward to the present, I am a first year graduate student working towards my PhD in paleoclimate. I had a better experience applying to schools this time around because of the resources provided by the lab I worked in. However, I couldn’t believe that I would get into graduate school because my GPA reflected my struggles as a first-generation student. Despite that, I still applied to top schools and got in to a few. I am grateful for the schools that accepted me and looked at my experience as a researcher and acknowledged the perseverance I have.

And for all those that are asking themselves, what to do after graduation? There is no right answer and I can’t stress that enough. Often, we feel the pressure to stay in academia or look for high paying jobs, but we have to remind ourselves that this is our journey and we get to decide what our goals are.

From reflecting on my journey, I realize there are a lot of students who are in my position, who are struggling in finding their path. This is why I am passionate about bringing awareness to increasing diversity in STEM. I have implemented a new group in the department (GeoPath) aimed at increasing diversity and retention within the geosciences, and continue to share my story to inspire others. I hope my message reminds first-generation students that we are strong, and by being the first in our -families to attend college, we are inspiring future generations.

Alex Villa

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