CPP’s first-gen students breaking barriers

By April Ruiz, May 14, 2024

Cal Poly Pomona is home to thousands of first-generation students, paving the way for them to become the first of their families to attend a college or a university.

As graduation quickly approaches, many first-gen students are preparing to mark a milestone for their families, breaking barriers in pursuit of higher education. However, this milestone does not come without struggle for many students.

“There are a lot of factors that go into student life that I don’t think my family really could have helped me with,” said Madison Talavera, a soon-to-be criminology graduate.

Coming from Mexican and Peruvian descent, growing up in a close-knit family surrounded by supportive parents, grandparents and an older sibling has been especially motivating for Talavera.  Despite having the support necessary, she sought independence, taking on the financial responsibility of college on her own, while working full-time and being a full-time student during her years at CPP.

“The biggest challenge I’ve been faced with is understanding the effort you need to put into being a student,” said Talavera. “I was lost more than half of the time at school, not just on campus.”

The moments of building new connections with people and recognizing shared experiences and differences as college students have been a highlight in Talavera’s college career. And despite the inability to assist in aspects of college life, Talavera stayed motivated with her family’s encouragement.

“Being recognized, understood, and heard is what most of us students need for motivation and encouragement to us to keep going,” Talavera said.

While it’s far from simple being a first-generation college student, Talavera has made it work, and hopes to make her family proud when she walks across the stage at commencement this week.

Like Talavera, Catherine Ruiz, a sociology student, is motivated by family, particularly her two younger brothers.

“There’s a lot of pressure being the first, but it helps keep me going,” Ruiz said. “I hope to be a good example for them.”

Raised by Mexican immigrant parents, Ruiz has faced her share of challenges while navigating through college.

With a lack of guidance, she turned to friends – sharing the same experiences as other first–gen college students – and counselors who helped with tasks such as the registration process.

The stress of both working full-time and being a full-time student made Ruiz reluctant to reach out to first-gen-specific services.

“I wasn’t too aware of the services, but I believe that would have been helpful,” Ruiz said. “I sort of just powered through it.”

Driven by supporting parents throughout her schooling, Ruiz is determined to secure a high-paying job in the field of social work in efforts to give back to her family.

“It’s helped me gain a sense of independence that I feel I really needed to help me grow,” said Ruiz, reflecting on her college experience. “I’ve been fortunate enough to do it on my own, and I feel pretty proud of my successes.”

For now, graduation stands as the highlight of her college journey from community college to CPP.

“I never thought I would graduate in four years, but here I am,” said Ruiz

Growing up with her grandparents who immigrated from Michoacan, Mexico, Emily Rodriguez, an applied mathematics student, learned the importance of education from an early age.

“From a very young age, it was engraved in me that I had to do good in school,” Rodriguez said. “They supported my education, so I became a very studious person and involved myself in many extracurricular activities that sprouted my growth of love for STEM.”

For Rodriguez, being a first-gen student meant having access to unfamiliar resources and knowledge that helped her in pursuing a different educational path.

“It meant that I had the choice to be my own person and pursue my own dreams,” Rodriguez said.

Like many first-gen students, Rodriguez encountered struggles with support in direction, such as figuring out resources to lean towards for success. “One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced at CPP is getting out of my comfort zone and asking for help,” said Rodriguez. Despite the barrier, Rodriguez found support in reaching out to her instructors for help and advice as she found they were relatable.

Highlighting a newfound friendship at CPP was especially memorable for Rodriguez as she spent her first two years without knowing another Hispanic female mathematics major.

“For once I didn’t feel out of place,” she said.

Featured Images courtesy of Madison Talavera, Emily Rodriguez and Catherine Ruiz 

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