Written by Christina Lopez.
Graphic by Emma Robinson.
Originally published as part of the Spring 2019 “Challenge” Issue.
For Antonio Limon, college was never a question of if, but where, he was going to go. He remembers his mom always encouraging him to achieve A’s in his classes and volunteer to boost his prospects of a college education . She never went to college, and neither did his dad, but they encouraged him to go to university to avoid the struggles that they had to endure. Their efforts paid off. Limon graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in May of 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in UTeach. He is now a high school English teacher and soccer coach in Dallas. Limon emphasized that although first-generation students face challenges that most traditional students do not, they share a culture of motivation that leads them to succeed.
Mauricio Gonzalez Benitez, sophomore marketing major, shared similar experiences growing up. He said he always knew he was going to attend college. “My parents stressed the importance of obtaining a quality higher education throughout my formative years. Knowing that they supported me 100% reinforced the importance of an education,” he said.
Second-year international relations and global studies student, Lizette Plata, had a slightly different experience; attending college was entirely her decision. “Because nobody else in my family had gone to college, not even my siblings, it was never really expected of me to go,” she said. But, her family saw potential in her abilities and instilled the idea that she would live a more fulfilling life if she acquired a degree. “I dreamed of being the first person in my family to receive a degree beyond high school. It was always something special for me,” Plata said.
Limon, Gonzalez-Benitez, and Plata all agree that the biggest challenge they faced as first-generation students was the application process. Their parents weren’t able to guide them through this stage of the college journey since they had never done it before. Plata mentioned that her parents weren’t able to read over her essays or help her fill out the FAFSA because English was not their first language.
Still, these students did not allow this process to hinder them from achieving their goals. Once they began their academic career, they realized that their different perspective encouraged them to have a high level of motivation that benefitted them in their time at UT. “Being the underdog my whole life has taught me the meaning of dedication and grit through the trials and tribulations which I have overcome. As a student, I apply the same problem-solving mindset to the challenges I face in academics.” Gonzalez-Benitez said. Plata echoed this sentiment. “I have developed grit because I have more to lose, which is something I believe many first-generation students can relate to,” she said.
According to UT’s webpage for first-generation students, 9,000 undergraduate students enrolled at UT identify as first-generation students. In addition to the diversity of their backgrounds, they are diverse in their studies. First-generation students are enrolled in every college and school at UT. The consensus among Limon, Gonzalez- Benitez, and Plata is the necessity of passion for what they’re studying, and this passion is influenced by their background and experiences.
Limon studied English with the intention of teaching and ended up falling in love with the subject. Now, as a teacher, he hopes to spread that love for education to his students and encourage them to seek higher education as well. “I felt like I could be that voice of change for some kids, even if I don’t get to change the life of all of my students. I feel like my career choice will be worth it if I get to change one life.” Gonzalez-Benitez is studying business due to the prevalence of entrepreneurship in the Hispanic community. “Growing up, I’ve seen how hardworking and determined we are as minorities trying to progress within the US,” he said. Lastly, Plata chose to study IRG because coming from a low-income background, she never traveled so she developed an intense curiosity of the world and passion for learning about cultures and politics. “I figured that you should be passionate in your career and not just blindly go into a field simply for the money.”
UT describes first-generation students as proud, driven, and leading. Their experience is not defined by adversity but by the motivation to, as Plata said, “make my parents’ sacrifices worthwhile.”