Inspiring Words From 2021 First-Generation Graduates

Photo courtesy of Belatina.com Belatina, latinx
Photo courtesy of Belatina.com

This past year and so proved to be more stressful than usual for the graduating class of 2021.

Across the country, the class of 2021 was forced to adapt and continue their careers through Zoom and other online tools, forgo the social events that make that senior year unique, and miss out on those school experiences that close an important chapter in their lives.

Worse yet, many fearfully anticipated meeting the same fate as the class of 2020, who did not have the option of in-person graduation.

Walking down a corridor to pick up the physical representation of your hard work just hits differently. It is particularly special for first-generation Latinx students who had worked themselves into pieces to obtain a taste of a better future for themselves, and oftentimes, for their families. 

Unfortunately, plenty of students had given up on the idea of sharing their moment away from their computer screen as it seemed idealistic and far-fetched, but life proved everyone wrong once again. In an unanticipated announcement, many schools were given the green light to hold in-person graduations, unleashing a collective sigh of relief for students all over the United States. There was, without a doubt,  serendipity involved at the arrival of this news. 

Class of 2021’s ride to graduation was an emotional one, which is why it brings us a lot of pleasure to witness students earn triumph after a wild year. This is why we wanted to highlight a few first-generation Latinx students of the many graduating. 

The following Latinx students from the graduating class of 2021 shared their stories with BELatina News and how they overcame uncertainties. They are testimony that adverse situations can be maneuvered through hope, commitment, and an eternal tenacity of purpose.

These students are now ready to show the world the power of dedication, and we are here for it.

So, meet the future of our community and, truly, nuestro orgullo.

Damaris Garcia Sandoval

Photo courtesy of Damaris Garcia Sandoval Belatina, latiinx
Photo courtesy of Damaris Garcia Sandoval

What are your pronouns?

She/her/Ella

Would you please provide the name of the school you’re graduating from?

The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)  College of Medicine

Are you graduating with your high school diploma, undergraduate, master’s degree, or a doctorate’s degree? 

MD 

Are you a first-generation graduate?

YES

Did you have a particularly memorable experience you’d like to share with us?

Finding fellow Latinas who had similar values and motivation for pursuing medicine. We all went into the medical field to advocate for and serve our communities. We wanted to be the physicians that our tíos, tías, and abuelitos have always deserved. 

What were some of the challenges you faced during this journey?

Seeing the lack of representation in the medical field. In our four years of medical school, we had one Latina physician lecturer. In a city as diverse and urban as Chicago, that is crazy. Can you only imagine the lack of representation in the rest of the country? It’s hard to imagine yourself as a future physician, lawyer, teacher, etc. if you’ve never seen it done. 

Would you please tell us what you plan to do next?

I am starting my family medicine residency in a program in San Diego that serves the border community. I purposely chose this program because I will be learning from Latinx physicians and serving a community that looks like me. 

Do you have any advice for any other first-gen students from marginalized communities who are trying to make it?

Our families and communities have given us all the tools and skills we need not just to survive but to thrive. Our community is hard-working, persevering, and grounded in family —  those are all skills and assets that help us be successful. We need to be proud of our culture and where we come from because that is the key to success and to our future. Our biculturalism and bilingual upbringing are gifts; it puts us in a unique position to serve and bring things to the table that no one else can. 

Anything else you’d like to add or tell us?

You can do it! All it takes is a dream, perseverance, and strong work ethics — all things that already run through our blood and in our families. The world needs more representation in all fields, so whatever you’re passionate about, do it!

Henrry Eduard Aguiar Gascon

Henrry Aguiar Belatina, latinx
Photo courtesy of Henrry Aguiar

What are your pronouns?

She/Hers

Would you please provide the name of the school you’re graduating from?

Booker T. Washington Senior High School 

Are you graduating with your high school diploma, undergraduate, master’s degree, or a doctorate’s degree? 

High school diploma 

Are you a first-generation graduate?

Yes, I am a first-generation graduate.

Did you have a particularly memorable experience you’d like to share with us?

I can describe my overall journey in high school as character development. One of the best memories I have is when I finally decided not to conform to the expected societal standards. All my life, I’ve had to repress myself to please others and surrender myself to their ideas so that they could feel better or comfortable. But, little did I know that trying to live life by people’s opinions would make me forget what living truly is. From this, the awakening of my true self was born, and that’s something I’ll always be thankful for.

What were some of the challenges you faced during this journey?

The biggest challenge I’ve had to face during this journey was finding self-love. Growing up has always been difficult for me, as I come from a place where inclusivity it’s not seen very much. The struggles also came from immigrating to the United States from Cuba, where I had to start from zero and accommodate myself to its rules. 

It was hard to realize that where I came from and where I’ve now had the same type of oppression, which made me hide my true self for many years. 

But, as they say: after darkness comes light. Although, I will say that for a 13-year-old to experience the hardships of discrimination and the cruelty of this world at such young age is not the greatest or fair. Then again, I’m very thankful for the experience, as it helped mold the person I am today. Overall, I learned that no matter what we face in life, we have to choose peace and self-love. I believe that when you learn to love yourself, you discover the power of confidence, and that’s the type of power no one can take away from you. 

Would you please tell us what you plan to do next?

Thankfully, I have everything ready to graduate. My next plan is to move forward with my education at Miami Dade College, where I was awarded a Fast Track scholarship.  I’ll be studying for a Bachelor’s in Film/TV/Digital Production. 

The media has plenty of influence, so I want to work in it to use its advantages to bring awareness to a lot of today’s social problems. I don’t know what specific career path I want to go in. However, I’m sure that part will come through the college experience. But there’s one thing I do know: I will strive to be the greatest because I’ll work the hardest possible to get there. 

Do you have any advice for any other first-gen students from marginalized communities who are trying to make it?

I know and understand everything can feel strange at first, that everything that is happening may feel like we’re almost cursed. And those feelings are totally valid. For those of you who may feel like an outcast, we have to remember that before people follow, someone has to step up first. 

Any emotion or thought is valid, but feel proud of yourself because you’re amazing at getting this accomplishment, which might be the biggest one in our family’s history.

You’re an example for the future Latinx generations. Besides, if you believe it’s possible, then it’s already a reality; you just have to keep working and never give up.

Anything else you’d like to add or tell us?

Thanks for allowing me to be part of this amazing experience! 

Elizabeth Garcia

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Garica Belatina, latinx
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Garica

What are your pronouns?

She/Her/Ella

Would you please provide the name of the school you’re graduating from?

The University of Illinois at Chicago 

Are you graduating with your high school diploma, undergraduate, master’s degree, or a doctorate’s degree? 

Medical Degree (M.D.)

Are you a first-generation graduate?

Yes, I’m very proud of being first-gen! 

Did you have a particularly memorable experience you’d like to share with us?

I remember my papi always telling us stories from his childhood in México and the challenges he faced as he tried to pursue a better life for himself and his family. He always showed us the rewards that come with perseverance. His primary goal was that his daughters dare to dream and accomplish what was once impossible. This medical degree is completely dedicated to him.

What were some of the challenges you faced during this journey?

Imposter syndrome definitely got the best of me multiple times. Every step of the way, I felt there were moments where I thought it would be the end and that I wasn’t going to obtain this degree. It was exhausting. I had to dedicate time to truly evaluate my self-care routines and create a support system that consistently helped me see my worth and place in this field. 

Would you please tell us what you plan to do next?

I’m starting a pediatric residency! (I still can’t believe that’s my reality!) I’m still deciding whether to serve as a general pediatrician or pediatric specialist. However, wherever I go, my career will always involve child advocacy, immigrant/refugee health, and mentorship!

Do you have any advice for any other first-gen students from marginalized communities who are trying to make it?

You are wonderfully made, and your path to your career choice is your own! Comparison can be the thief of joy. Looking back, the things I was self-conscious about and thought made me “not qualified” actually gave me a valuable perspective that helped my teams with patient care. We need more Latinx leaders in the medical field. That’s a fact! So if you want it, stay persistent! 

Anything else you’d like to add or tell us?

To the other first gens out there, don’t be afraid to ask for help! Finding resources to support you is a skill, not a weakness. Being the first to pursue a certain career is hard for anyone to do so on their own. There are many (although it doesn’t feel like it at times) of us out there that want to see you thrive. Juntos podemos! Si se puede, mij@! 

Emily Xiomara Linares

Photo courtesy of Emily Xiomara Linares Belatina, latinx
Photo courtesy of Emily Xiomara Linares

What are your pronouns?

She/Her/Ella

Would you please provide the name of the school you’re graduating from?  

I am graduating from Arizona State University!

Are you graduating with your high school diploma, undergraduate, master’s degree, or a doctorate’s degree? 

I am graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and a Bachelor’s Degree in Justice Studies with a Certificate in Socio-Legal Studies.

Are you a first-generation graduate? 

Yes, I am a first-generation graduate and proud!

Did you have a particularly memorable experience you’d like to share with us?  

My most memorable experience was joining Kappa Delta Chi, Sorority Inc. It is a non-traditional sorority and also Latina-founded. Through my sorority, I have been able to meet some of the most supportive and empowering women. Not only that, but many of us are first-generation Latinas! During my time being involved, we dedicated our time to our academics and to community service. 

What were some of the challenges you faced during this journey?  

Being the oldest in my family, while also being first-generation, is not easy. One of the most difficult challenges was navigating the college application process. There were many times where I felt alone, not because I didn’t have my family’s support, but because I had no guidance or assistance. I dealt a lot with imposter syndrome, and there were many times where I doubted myself and my accomplishments. 

Would you please tell us what you plan to do next? 

I plan to immerse myself in immigration advocacy. I want to advocate for those who do not have a voice in our community through legal and non-profit work, specifically advocating for those who are undocumented and those who come from mixed-status families. I hope to make a meaningful change in my community. 

Do you have any advice for any other first-gen students from marginalized communities who are trying to make it? 

My advice for first-gen students is to congratulate yourself for all that you have accomplished and all that you will continue to excel in. The road is tough, but that doesn’t mean you won’t make it. There will be times where you may feel out of place, but please remember that you belong. Be confident in yourself and embrace who you are as a person. You are paving the way for many. Si, se puede!

Rocio Lopez

Photo courtesy of Rocio Lopez Belatina, latinx
Photo courtesy of Rocio Lopez/ Rocio Lopez (right)

What are your pronouns?

She/her

Would you please provide the name of the school you’re graduating from?

UC Berkeley

Are you graduating with your high school diploma, undergraduate, master’s degree, or a doctorate’s degree? 

Undergrad degree in political economy and public policy 

Are you a first-generation graduate?

Yes! 

Did you have a particularly memorable experience you’d like to share with us?

I worked at a children’s immigrant shelter in San Diego and there I experienced many things that will stay forever with me. Their stories encouraged me to become a change in my community; becoming a lawyer will essentially allow me to serve undocumented folks who are unable to pay for legal representation. I’ll say that I still have flashbacks about the horrific and unfortunate experiences undocumented immigrant children faced while crossing the border. Although this has negatively impacted my mental health, it has, nevertheless, ignited my passion to dedicate my life to helping undocumented people. 

What were some of the challenges you faced during this journey?

As an undocumented student, representation was almost nonexistent. None of my professors were BIPOC, therefore topics about indigenous and Latin culture were not discussed. It’s incredible that being in the public school system, lessons about our history were never taught. I thought that in university these topics would be discussed, but to my surprise that didn’t happen. However, the reality is that more people of color need to take up space in higher education — only then will our history and stories be heard. 

Would you please tell us what you plan to do next?

After getting accepted into several law schools, I accepted admission into Columbia Law and will begin classes in a few weeks

Do you have any advice for any other first-gen students from marginalized communities who are trying to make it?

Navigating through higher education and the college system can be very overwhelming, but there are some programs dedicated to helping first-gen students among others. Please look for these programs in your schools; it doesn’t matter if it’s in a community college, university, or post-grad, these programs exist. 

Also, I understand that many low-income folks are forced to work while attending school full-time, but do not lose focus on your educational goals; money comes and goes, but education is forever. 

Anything else you’d like to add or tell us?

Education is the key to success.  Do not let anything stop you from accomplishing your dreams!

Karen Dueñas Ruiz

Photo courtesy of Instagram/ @finallykarenmd Belatina, latinx
Photo courtesy of Instagram/ @finallykarenmd

What are your pronouns? 

She/Her/Ella

Would you please provide the name of the school you’re graduating from? 

University of Illinois Chicago 

Are you graduating with your high school diploma, undergraduate, master’s degree, or a doctorate’s degree? 

Doctorate — Medical Degree 

Are you a first-generation graduate? 

Yes! 

Did you have a particularly memorable experience you’d like to share with us? 

AHH! So many to choose from. I don’t think I can choose a single one, but I’d like to highlight the collective amount of memories I obtained from hanging out with my best girlfriends from medical school. So many laughs, tears, experiences made medical school more enjoyable than I ever expected. 

Meeting two awesome Latinas with the same core values and the same vision of what medicine looks like is rare, and I was blessed with finding two! We named ourselves #LasChicasdeCOMW (COM-West is the main medical building on our campus) in hopes that our stories and presence will inspire the next generations of Latinx students that pursue medicine to continue advocating for our communities and persevering through this arduous process. 

What were some of the challenges you faced during this journey? 

In a way, there were so many, but medical school felt more like an endurance test rather than an intellectual one. Medical school was a different beast. Being told repeatedly that you don’t belong in that space, that you are not good enough, or don’t look like a doctor is not helpful or reassuring for your journey, but having mentors and friends who understood my struggle helped me make it through. 

Would you please tell us what you plan to do next? 

Heading to San Diego to start my residency in Family Medicine! I will be working with a predominantly Latinx population at the border and honing my skills as a family med doc. 

Do you have any advice for any other first-gen students from marginalized communities who are trying to make it?

People are going to say no; a lot of doors will be shut at first, but persevere! For many of us, the path is not linear and that is okay. Remember, these spaces were not built with people like us in mind. However, your community needs you   you are needed. Find friends, mentors, and sponsors that will help open doors for you and will give you advice and guidance. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help! 

If you don’t ask, people won’t know how to help you best. For those in medical programs, join LMSA/SNMA and find friends that share similar goals and vision for what medicine should look like. Finally, always remember why you wanted to pursue medicine, keep that mantra very close to your heart and on the difficult days remember why you decided to embark on this journey. “Para mi familia, para mi comunidad, y para mi cultura” is what I used to say to remind myself every time I felt like giving up. 

Anything else you’d like to add or tell us?

Here is a picture of the three of us, from left to right: Dr. Damaris Garcia, Dr. Elizabeth Garcia, and Dr. Karen Duenas Ruiz (me). Hoping that this picture inspires our community to aim for the stars, we need you in the field of medicine. Feel free to reach out to us! We are here to help.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Karen Ruiz/ Left to right: Dr. Damaris Garcia, Dr. Elizabeth Garcia and Dr. Karen Dueñas Ruiz Belatina, latina
Photo courtesy of Dr. Karen Ruiz/ Left to right: Dr. Damaris Garcia, Dr. Elizabeth Garcia and Dr. Karen Dueñas Ruiz

 

All these graduates deserve to be celebrated and, hopefully, they can inspire more of our people to pursue higher education. After all, that is the best way to decolonize a system that is known for disregarding our brilliance.