Dr. Olivia Aguilar
Being a first generation student for me was both exciting and a bit scary. I was excited to follow my dreams and to take advantage of opportunities that my family never had. I was also so proud to show my family how my hard work in grade school was going to pay off. I still had family members that didn’t think college was necessary- but ultimately, everyone was supportive of my journey and excited for me.
One of the scariest issues for me was figuring out how to pay for college. My parents and I always knew this would be the biggest challenge I would face. So, my mom and I worked hard to search for scholarships in every nook and cranny both my senior year of high school and even into my freshmen year of college. We scraped together probably 30 different scholarships, the biggest of which was my academic scholarship that would pay tuition. I used the remaining scholarships and a part-time job on campus to pay for my living expenses. While this whole process may sound daunting, it is an experience that, looking back on, taught me so much. I learned how to budget and how to save. Most importantly, I began to identify what were truly needs versus wants. I remember sometimes feeling a bit sad that my friends were spending their spring breaks at the beach while I was spending mine with my grandma. But, in hindsight, I wouldn’t change those spring breaks with my grandma for the world (I was able to get to know her so much better, and I am now financially secure enough to visit the beach once a year).
Probably the biggest issue for me was not knowing what I didn’t know. Sometimes when you do not have family members that attended college it is hard to know what resources are available and who to talk to for what on college campuses. In fact, I remember falling through the cracks when some calls for scholarships went out across campus. I was hurt that no one knew to contact me. But I was also on a campus of 42,000 students, and I never made it a point to get to know someone well in administration. It wasn’t until a professor in my department during my senior year began to talk to me about what I was going to do after college that I began to see the importance of mentorship. I wish I would have developed this relationship further, because I think she could’ve helped provide me with information that I didn’t have (e.g. what a NSF grant was, how to pick a graduate school advisor, how to look for programs that will cover at least part of your tuition). Because I didn’t know what a NSF grant was, I didn’t know to apply for one. Because I didn’t know that other programs would help cover tuition or provide fellowships, I am still paying for the two years it took to receive my Master’s (almost done!). Luckily, I do not owe anything for my Ph.D., but this was due to careful research, sacrifices and strict budgeting.
Mentorship also helps due to the unique pressures we often face when entering college, from focusing on a major that leads to a successful career to dealing with family finances in addition to our own. This can sometimes lead to a narrow view of choices of majors. I would encourage all first generation students to use the resources available at the Knowlton Center for Career Exploration in order to think creatively about future opportunities. Also, find ways to connect with Denison Alumni. Proud alumni are so eager to help. Finally, it helps to have someone to talk to who can help you find resources on campus- this can be a professor or staff member. It is important for you to remember that many people on your campus care about you, so don’t be afraid to speak up and reach out! And don’t let the pressures burden you so much that you don’t get to truly experience college life. It is such a great journey!