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Lighting the torch

If a college student’s parents didn’t receive a degree past the high school level, he or she is considered a first-generation student. In 2010, 36 percent of American college students came from families where neither parent had a college degree.


UTPA alumni Roman Sanchez and Janette Leal are part of that percentage. Senior Lauro Zuñiga will join them after he receives his degree in December.


Sanchez, who received his Bachelor of Arts in theater last May, said he is an only child and the first of his immediate family to complete college. The San Benito native’s mother had a high school education but did not go further, something he said helped keep him in school.


“I just wanted to better myself. I would hear my mom say, ‘Learn from my mistakes, always go to college and always strive to get a higher education,’” the 23-year-old said. “And I’ve always been a schoolboy, ever since elementary school.”


According to a 2012 study on re-conceptualizing college readiness, one reason first-generation students may have a tough time with school is because of weak time management after the transition from high school to college. Although Sanchez said he had a hard time keeping up with his schedule, he quickly gained control and did more around campus than just go to class and study.


“As the years progressed, I started joining organizations, I had several leadership positions and I did everything that a typical college student could imagine, including joining a fraternity,” he said.


Two years before Sanchez’s graduation, 25-year-old Leal received her diploma from UTPA, in fall 2012. Not only was she the first of her immediate family to graduate, but of the extended family as well. Being the youngest of four children of a single mother, the Pharr native said she pursued her degree in English for several family-oriented reasons.


“I wanted to be successful for my future children. Growing up, I watched my mother work and struggle as a single parent,” she said. “I also wanted to be a positive role model for my nieces and baby nephew. Growing up in a low-income area, (a degree) is hard to come by, but I wanted to prove everyone wrong.”


Two years ago, website 24-7 Wall Street named Brownsville and McAllen the first and second poorest cities in the country, respectively. When it comes to the entire Valley, Cameron County’s average household income last year was $14,405, Hidalgo’s was $14,126, Willacy’s was $11,895 and Starr’s was $11,537. In Texas as a whole, the average was $25,809 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


To keep his own future income above the average, 22-year-old Zuñiga said college had always been part of his plan. He added that he enrolled because he wanted to provide for himself as well as his parents after their retirement.


“I always knew I was going to college because it was something that was always emphasized in my schooling,” the Bluffton, Ind. native said. “I always figured there had to be a way that doctors, lawyers and politicians were made. So the idea of college was always present in my life. I chose to go because I knew I didn’t want to work a minimum wage job.”



As stated by the National Center for Education Statistics, of 2010’s 36 percent of first-generation college students, only 28 percent graduated. Sanchez and Leal have joined that near quarter and Zuñiga’s commencement day is approaching.


On graduation day, it has been University tradition for graduates to wear a green and orange memory stole around their necks. After the event, they give it to someone who inspired, mentored, or helped them during their college years.


Sanchez mentioned the tradition and emotional moments shared between himself and his mother after the commencement ceremony.

“She was crying the day of graduation. My UTPA stole, I gave it to her. She was crying up a river and a storm and so was I,” he said. “She was just so proud of me and the fact that I not only graduated from high school, but I graduated from college, and not everybody can say that. In that point in time she realized that all my hard work, my blood, sweat, and tears, actually did pay off.”

He said his decision to give the stole to his mother came without question after the countless times she’d kept him afloat when he felt like he was drowning in work.

“This past semester I took 20 hours, I was working and I did other extracurriculars as well,” he explained. “She was always pushing me and at my breaking points. I would tell her that I didn’t think I could do it anymore and I was scared. But she told me she believed in me.”

Although there were 53 million Latinos in the country making up 17 percent of the American population in 2013, they also account for 19 percent of total U.S. college students. Of that number, about half of them actually receive a degree, according to a 2012 study on urban-schooled Latinos.

Leal, whose mother completed some college hours, said quitting school was not an option, and that she was determined to prove any naysayers wrong.

“I never gave up. Even the thought of dropping out never plagued me,” she said. “I was very happy and proud that I succeeded. I had a lot of people that thought I wasn’t even going to attend college, but having that piece of paper made me feel successful.”

Even though Zuñiga’s father only received his high school diploma and his mother dropped out after the sixth grade, he said he has the motivation to get through the last leg of his bachelor’s journey.

“The sole driving force for completing my education has been to make my parents proud and to know that with a degree I will be able to always help them out financially,” the business marketing major said. “Seeing my parents struggle to put me through college always grounded me in my studies and fueled my desire to graduate.”

Zuñiga’s ambition has kept dropping out far from his mind, but that doesn’t mean his journey has been a smooth one.

According to the 2012 study on re-conceptualizing college readiness, the process of learning how to read, write, and study at the college level for a wide variety of courses makes higher education tougher for first-gen students. Another, less common challenge the study discussed was finding solidarity in other first-gen classmates or those who faced financial troubles like them.

“There have been difficult moments where I worried about having money to pay my dorm or apartment or having money on me for food,” he said. “Luckily, I have been blessed with very supportive parents, so I was always able to get through those problems. Dropping out would only exacerbate my problems, not aid them.”


In 2012, Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education magazine ranked UTPA as second on its list of institutions providing bachelor’s degrees to Hispanics, with 2,453.

When it comes to master’s degrees, UTPA ranked third with 579 graduates in that same year. The National Educational Longitudinal Study conducted in 2000 stated that less than 3 percent of first-generation graduates went on to receive a master’s when 13 percent had aspired to do so.

Sanchez intends to be part of that 3 percent by receiving a master’s in his minor – criminal justice. He is still not sure what school to attend for the degree, but he said it’s between his alma mater or the University of Houston. He also knows his mother will support him no matter the path he chooses.

“She says that whatever I do, she’ll always be proud of me,” he said. “She told me if I want to do theater, criminal justice or even be an airline pilot, she will back me up 100 percent.”

Leal said her younger cousins look up to her now and added that many of them have enrolled in college as a result of her example. To further her success, she will also work to earn a master’s in English with plans to become a librarian. She added that a degree is necessary to make a good living because she believes the RGV runs on connections and wealth.

“My mother suffered a lot,” she said. “In the (Rio Grande) Valley politics play a big role, so there is nothing else left to do but work your way up the ladder with education.

Like Sanchez and Leal, Zuñiga has set his sights on a master’s, but he also plans to join the ranks of a particular single percent of first-gen graduates. When it came to a doctorate, less than 1 percent attained the degree out of 12 percent who had planned to.

“I intend to get my master’s in education and a (doctorate) in education as well. I want to help people understand that through education, many things are possible,” he explained. “I want to help change and bring understanding to our underserved community. I would like to be part of a movement that helps educate our society about the troubles and woes of underserved communities.”

Throughout four years of studying at UTPA, Zuñiga has kept one thing in mind.

“One of the most important things my parents have said to me is that with an education I can always help more people in more ways,” he said. “And since that’s what I’d like to do, then that has inspired me a lot.”

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