“Let’s have a party. Let’s start strong. Let’s start by celebrating the first-gen identity!” said Professor Anita Casavantes Bradford. That is what #IAamFirst was all about — beginning the year by showing first-gen students that they were not alone. #IAmFirst day was an opportunity to show incoming freshman that a support system of fellow students, faculty, and staff exists all around them.
The exciting and meaningful event was planned and produced by the Student Success Initiatives Center with support from the First Generation Faculty and First Generation Staff associations. The Center supports first-gen, low income, transfer and former foster youth to succeed at UCI.
“I want freshman to know that being first-generation isn’t a disadvantage. Far from it, being first-gen means that they are talented, hardworking, and brave. We’re trying to help them understand themselves in positive terms from the beginning. Just by making it here, it shows that they have what they need to succeed. All of us lending our support here today are just trying to show them how large their community really is.”
Between the free giveaways galore and the DJ’s from Power 106, the event had a festive quality. Fun music was blasting and the students filed in throughout the day. The resource fair featured several centers lending their support to #IAmFirst including:
- The Career Center
- The Study Abroad Center
- The Cross-Cultural Center
- The Counseling Center
Thousands of students showed up to celebrate being the first in their families to go to college. The importance of family was a running theme throughout the day as people told incredible stories about the generations of sacrifice required to get them where they are today. It is important to understand that UCI’s first-gen students are diverse, from all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.
An eye-catching display featured a huge board covered with post-it notes that invited everyone to answer the question“To Me First-Gen Means…” Many were variations of “Making my family proud,” “Setting an example for my siblings,” and “Having opportunities my parents didn’t.”
For first-generation college student Theresa Rodriguez, family is at the heart of her journey. “My mom instilled a belief in me that college was the way to go. That’s why I’m here. It’s quite a change from what my family went through. My father completed high school, but my mother never did.” To be closer to the family she loves, Theresa chose UCI for its short distance from home so she could go home often.
Other more succinct posts read “To me first-gen means determined,” “Never give up,” and “Work hard.”
One #IAmFirst attendee Professor Rodolfo Torres of Urban Planning may be a first-gen college graduate, but he is a fourth-generation Mexican American, and never forgot his family’s hard work to survive in a new country. “There’s the self-doubt, the feeling that you’re invisible.” As he said “I was a different kind of first-gen student.”
Professor Torres dropped out of high school during the famous 1968 Chicano student protests and went on to serve in the military in Korea and Vietnam. If it wasn’t for the support system he found through the Chicano Student Movement, Professor Torres doubts he’d be where he is today. The Chicano Student Movement provided the political and intellectual space he needed to network with peers and form the friendships that helped him to excel. That’s just what #IAmFirst hopes to accomplish.
According to Professor Casavantes Bradford, a sense of belonging is key to student success. In fact, more than half of UCI’s student body is first-generation. It’s no surprise, then, that UCI was ranked number one in the nation for helping students achieve the American Dream. At UCI first-gen is the new normal!
Also attending was Professor Alejandro Morales, a first-generation college student and a first-generation Mexican American, the son of immigrant parents who came to the U.S. hoping for a new life. While Professor Morales may now feel at home in UCI’s Chicano/Latino Studies, he struggled to find a sense of belonging throughout his educational career.
“Students are facing psychological, familial, and financial roadblocks. There’s the psychological feeling of ‘I don’t belong here.’ It wasn’t till I started having some success in my classes that I started to think ‘hey, I can do this.’
“But then lots of first-generation students come from low-income families, and are constantly thinking, ‘shouldn’t I be at home helping mom and dad? It really tugs at your heart. Low-income students especially often have to work one or even two jobs which means there’s lots more work than they can handle.
“The absolutely worst thing you can do is hurt your mother and father. So a lot of the time they’ll turn down internships and study abroad opportunities or even grad school to stay home. But my advice is to go for it — even if it kind of hurts you, your parents will do okay. And overcome your doubts when applying to grad schools. Apply to schools that you think are out of your league. Go for the best, take a chance.”
That’s what #IAmFirst is all about — inspiring students to dig deeper, reach further, and aim higher for the success that’s within their grasp. As one post-it note read, “First-Gen Is My Identity.”
To read more about the diverse first-generation and Anteater stories, visit the new website We Are UCI. If you want to add to the narrative, you can submit your story directly by clicking here.