By Samantha Kirby
Photos by Russell Cothren and Juan Escalante
Junior nursing student Julissa Cervantes gets up at 5:30 every morning to do her rounds in the cardiology unit at Washington Regional Medical Center, only leaving for home about 12 hours later. “I went to bed at 8:00 last night,” she laughs. “My first semester of nursing school, it was just eat, sleep, nurse. That was it. Nursing, nursing, nursing.”
Now in her second semester of nursing school, she’s learned to better balance her schedule and has even found time to volunteer in the spaces between clinicals and tests. It would be an understatement to say she keeps busy, but Cervantes is accustomed to working hard to achieve success. Her family moved to Siloam Springs from Mexico when she was in second grade, and even though neither of her parents have a college education, she knew she wanted to go to college from the beginning.
“My goal was to go to college, and I grew up knowing this was something that I had to do. Not just for myself but for my family, because of how hard they worked to get us here.”
“When my family moved here it was just an expectation – you come here for a better life and a better education, and you have to work for something. My goal was to go to college, and I grew up knowing this was something that I had to do. Not just for myself but for my family, because of how hard they worked to get us here.”
Cervantes is just one of a sizeable community of first-generation college students at the university: nearly one in every four undergraduate students on the U of A campus is first-gen, and while they may at times feel their experience is singular, all of them are in good company. Chancellor Joe Steinmetz was a first-generation college student himself, along with many administrators and faculty across every college on campus.
Some of these students are the children of immigrants, or are immigrants themselves, whose parents didn’t have the opportunity to pursue higher education in their home countries. Many others are from generations of Arkansans who haven’t had the opportunity to pursue a college degree, like Eli LaSalle, a senior biological engineering major and Honors College Fellow from Washburn, Arkansas, which, he jokes, “used to almost sort of be a town.”
“I had opportunities other students did not: being told I could go to college, getting help applying for scholarships. … Others in my situation don’t have the resources they need, a problem that’s very real to me and very immediate.”
LaSalle’s father works maintenance for the U.S. Postal Service, and his mother trained as a diesel mechanic before opting ultimately to work in the home. While Cervantes grew up with college as an expectation, La Salle received a slightly different message from his parents – they were very encouraging, he recalls, but also very accepting of his own desires and decisions. “My parents never said I needed to go to college – they said I should pick a career first, and if that career required a college education, then I should go to college.”
LaSalle and Cervantes’ backgrounds underscore an important point: first-generation students come from everywhere. They come from rural farming communities in the Delta, the apartment blocks of central Memphis, the suburban neighborhoods of Little Rock and everywhere in between. But regardless of where they call home, they are all united by the same things: a fierce determination to succeed, and a desire to create opportunities for themselves and for others.
The college application process isn’t easy, no matter what your circumstances. Deadlines, essays, scholarships – it’s a lot to take on for any high school senior. But being a first-generation college student often comes with additional challenges. Growing up in a household where their parents aren’t familiar with the application process, first-gen students must often search for help wherever it may be available.
Cervantes says she was lucky when filling out her college applications. She was able to benefit from the advice of an older brother and sister, both of whom attended the U of A before her. Because of this, she was confident in her ability to meet deadlines and construct a competitive application, but she found that her greatest limitations came from forces beyond her control. She is currently a U.S. resident, and though she has applied for citizenship, new legislation has slowed down the process. “It was really stressful applying for scholarships in particular,” she said, “because for a lot of them you have to be a citizen. Seeing rejection letters just for that was really hard.”
For LaSalle, juggling all the deadlines and applications when applying to college was definitely a struggle at first. While he had help from his school counselors in applying for scholarships, he felt the need to work out the general applications on his own. “My parents would have been willing to help,” he said, “but I didn’t ask them to. And it was stressful trying to keep up.” He missed a deadline or two in the beginning, but more than rose to the task: LaSalle is the recipient of an Arkansas Governor’s Distinguished Scholarship, a National Merit Scholarship and an Honors College Fellowship, securing up to $30,000 per year to support his college education.
There is certainly an adjustment period for most students when they arrive on campus for the first time – learning to navigate the university’s geographical and social environments, as well as sounding the depths of academic expectations and performance, can be taxing for any freshman. For the first time, there are syllabi to consult, course schedules to construct, software to master, office hours to brave, and midterms and finals that may account for massive percentages of an overall grade.
For students whose parents are familiar with college life, the importance of these things can be explained and discussed; additionally, their parents can offer advice about what to do when things go wrong, such as how to approach a professor about improving a grade. For first-gen students, however, these situations are often foreign and intimidating. They may not be able to go to their parents for advice, because the problems they face are not in their parents’ wheelhouse. These students might be less likely to attend a professor’s office hours, less likely to take advantage of student resources and more likely to suffer academically, simply because they don’t know where to go for help.
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But academics are just the first of many hurdles for new students on campus. LaSalle said that beyond the classroom, many of the challenges he faced involved adjusting to the freedoms of college life: being away from family, living on his own for the first time, and learning to manage his time efficiently.
“I remember there was just this overwhelming feeling of unfamiliarity,” he recalled. “Everything was different at once.” He said one of his biggest problems was self-regulation. “My first year I didn’t manage to find a healthy balance between school and self-care. I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t sleeping. My second year I had to take a step back and reassess what I was doing to myself.”
The social strain of arriving on a college campus can be especially potent for students who come to college from more rural areas, where class sizes are small and social groups are insular. Luckily, LaSalle immediately took to the community in Hotz Honors Hall his first year, fascinated by the fact that he could have friends just down the hall, when before, his nearest friends were a 20-minute drive down the road.
However, for fellow first-gen student Karen McMillan, a poultry science major from Ashdown, Arkansas, finding friends was a more difficult and concerted task. “You have to go downhill for a minute to build up a new network,” she said.
“Last semester especially, if I got stressed I’d go and talk with Michelle.
Path really is like a family – they’re concerned and very willing to talk things out with you.”
“I just stayed in my dorm my first semester,” McMillan recalled. “My second semester, I had to get out, if I didn’t I would go crazy.” She was able to meet people by going to study groups and also by going to work out at the HPER. “I met one of my best friends in a barre class,” she said.
In a certain sense, being in college is about finding your campus family: those people who will support you and make you better. And whether they connected with others through clubs, classes, Hotz Hall programs or workout and study buddies, these students were able to find people who share their values and motivate them to succeed – even if it took a semester or two to get settled.
For McMillan and Cervantes, their campus family started with the Honors College Path Program, which was established in 2014 to recruit exceptional high school students from underrepresented populations, including first-generation students, and help them excel at the university. Being a part of Path helped Cervantes feel at home in Fayetteville even before the regular session started in the fall, thanks to the Path Summer Bridge Program. “I met other Path students before I got to college. It made it easier to find people to study with outside of class. And I knew if I needed something, even if I was just stressed, I could go to the Path mentors.”
McMillan echoed Cervantes’ positive feelings toward the program. “Last semester especially, if I got stressed I’d go and talk with Michelle [King, assistant director of the Path Program]. Path really is like a family – they’re concerned and very willing to talk things out with you.”
Family, both on and off campus, certainly influences – and is influenced by – these students’ college experiences. McMillan might have been the first in her family to go to college, but she isn’t the only one currently enrolled in university-level courses. Her mother Heather works as a lab technician at a pain management clinic, but never earned a degree herself. When McMillan went off to Fayetteville, her mother was inspired to enroll at Cossatot Community College to become an licensed practical nurse. This shared experience has brought them closer together, despite the physical distance that separates them. “We always help each other out,” McMillan said. “I’ve been able to tutor her in her college algebra class, and she’s been a big help for me, too.”
McMillan says her parents have always been incredibly supportive of her goals and achievements, even if they couldn’t relate first-hand to her experiences on campus. But now, with her mom studying for final exams alongside her, McMillan says, “she understands.”
While McMillan is having a positive influence on others in her family, Cervantes is learning from her family’s past hardships. Her ultimate goal is to earn her Family Nurse Practitioner certificate and open a clinic in rural Arkansas, to provide easier access to medical care for those who might otherwise struggle to find it. This desire is fueled by a personal understanding of how inconvenient – and life-threatening – rural living can be when it comes to getting health care.
From the farm outside of Siloam Springs where Cervantes’ family lives, it isn’t always easy to get to the doctor – the closest clinic is just too far away. Her family was no stranger to this problem before they moved to the U.S. either. “My dad’s mom died when he was six, pregnant with her youngest child,” she said. The family had lived in a small town in rural Mexico, and a doctor wasn’t easy to find. “I always think that if she had had access to health care she wouldn’t have died.”
“I get to work on an issue that’s close to me and my family. I’m motivated by this desire to win at a policy level, to get a win for my people and provide opportunities for my community.”
B.S.W., magna cum laude, with additional major in Latin American and Latino Studies, minor in Spanish, ’17
Although home, family and socioeconomic circumstances may differ, there is something consistent among these first-generation students: the sense that their college degree does not belong to them alone. They are earning their degrees for themselves, yes, but also as a way to give back to their families and communities.
LaSalle, for one, nurtures a desire to mentor others from small, rural communities like his own, at least for a little while. He recently accepted a position with the Arkansas Teacher Corps, an organization that places young teachers in schools in need across the state. LaSalle applied for the corps because he sees his experience as unique among rural high school students. “I had opportunities other students did not: being told I could go to college, getting help applying for scholarships. … Others in my situation don’t have the resources they need, a problem that’s very real to me and very immediate.”
Honors College alumna Nezly Silva (B.S.W., magna cum laude, with additional major in Latin American and Latino Studies, minor in Spanish, ’17) is similarly committed to her community. After earning her degree, she has dedicated her career to improving quality of life for the Latinx community living and working in the United States. Just like Cervantes’ parents, Silva’s parents moved to Springdale from Mexico to secure a better life for their children. “I internalized that,” she said. “my degree was not only for me but for the rest of my family, and in everything I do that will never change. That will stay constant.”
Silva currently works in Washington, D.C., as a research manager for fwd.us, an organization focused on immigration and criminal justice reform. The organization recently expanded their federal focus to include state campaigns. In Georgia, Florida, New York and Texas, the group is able to advocate for friendly immigration legislation, such as in-state tuition for Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors and have been granted residency status upon meeting certain legal conditions.
“I really love what I do,” Silva affirmed. “I get to work on an issue that’s close to me and my family. I’m motivated by this desire to win at a policy level, to get a win for my people and provide opportunities for my community.”
In addition to her current ambassadorship and policy efforts, Silva is proud that she was unafraid to take risks and act as a positive role model for other Latinas while she was in college.
She recalls one very poignant example: “I was the first Latina finalist for a Truman Scholarship in Arkansas. I didn’t get it, but a few months later other Latino students reached out – they wanted to apply as well. The application was a scary process, but it was worth it, because even though I was the first, I knew I wouldn’t be the last.”