Equal Voice

First-Generation Students Blaze Trails, Face Challenges

September 19, 2014

By Holly Martinez | Special to Equal Voice News

For Jon Hernandez, going to college wasn’t part of his original plan. While it may be difficult given that he can’t always ask family members for advice, he intends to complete his bachelor’s degree within three years with the help of his father’s GI Bill.

As the country’s population changes, more first-generation students – or those who are the first in their families to attend college – are showing up on campuses. They can face challenges but they also are inspiring others, including their families. Photo by Kyle Green of The Roanoke Times via AP

“I usually address faculty for questions about school,” he said. “Everyone became my mentor when I began to mature and become more open minded. As Einstein once said, ‘Every one you will ever meet knows something you don’t.’”

For many college students, this experience is becoming a more common one. One out of every three students is the first in their family to continue education after high school, according to a recent Georgetown University study. Known as “first generation” students, these pupils – both young and older – face challenges and odds, as they pursue an education that has long-term benefits.

Some, though, have a powerful support system, as well, with the help of universities and nonprofit organizations throughout the country.

Or as San Diego City Councilman David Alvarez observes about his experience: “We didn’t think we could afford something like college.”

Alvarez comes from an immigrant family. Growing up, his parents only received a third-grade education. When they came to the United States, they knew they wanted better opportunities for their children.

His mother became involved in the Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE), a California-based organization created to help parents best support their children through school. PIQE classes cover a variety of topics, ranging from academic expectations to paying for college.

The organization started, in part, because, “there was a misconception that since [parents] didn’t have an advanced education, they didn’t have the ability to contribute [to the education of their children] and they were relying entirely on the teachers,” David Valladolid, president and chief executive officer of PIQE, said.

PIQE has grown to offer support classes in 16 different languages. Many families enroll in classes multiple times as the topics and programs change from elementary through high school.

“All of these parents know the importance of education for their children. We helped them realize the importance of parental involvement,” Valladolid said. “These parents have done incredible things for their kids.”

PIQE serves communities in nine states and has worked with over 600,000 families in California alone.

“I’m a testament to the return on investment when you invest in people,” Alvarez, the councilman, said. “There are tremendous opportunities [for first-generation students] but you have to be willing to take advantage of them.”

Programs, such as PIQE, rely on parental involvement. But some first-generation students graduate from high school without the support of their parents.

Soledad Strubhar grew up in Torreon, Mexico and her education was never a priority in her family. One reason, she said: Her gender.

“When I told my mom I wanted to go to college, she said, ‘No, that’s enough. If you go to college, no one will want to marry you,’” she recalled. “I told her that if she didn’t send me to college I would run away. And I did. I ran away from Mexico and came to America.”

Strubhar came to the United States, focused on her studies and earned her associate’s degree from Mount Hood Community College in Oregon. She graduated with honors. At age 40, she went to South Seattle Community College to pursue her bachelor’s degree and was presented with the President’s Award upon graduation.

Strubhar’s daughter, Alice Espana, followed her mother’s steps. In June, Alice Espana, graduated from Seattle University.

“Throughout my life I have seen my mom go through more struggles than anyone can imagine,” Espana said.

Soledad Strubhar (right), who grew up in Mexico, talks about her experience as a first-generation student. Her experience inspired her daughter, Alice Espana, who graduated from Seattle University. The two sat down in Seattle to talk about life, college and family. Photo courtesy of Holly Martinez

“When I was very young, my mom had foot surgery while she was in college. She had me carry her books while she raced down the hallways in crutches….This woman was motivated…That is the first vivid memory I have of my mom, displaying her determination to succeed academically.”

Students who have at least one parent who graduated from college are more likely to continue their education after high school, studies show. And creating a life with more opportunities is one reason many first-generation students are so determined to break the mold.

The growth of family can serve as a strong motivator and influence for many first-generation students and their relatives.

William Watson, a Seattle transplant, noticed that his college education had an almost immediate positive influence on his family.

“My dad got his degree after I graduated. He worked for his lifetime goal,” Watson said. “I’m proud of my dad for getting his degree, and in some way, I feel responsible for that.”

Similarly, Destiny Cacy of Midland, Texas hopes her college experience will inspire future generations of her family to break free from a life of limited possibilities.

“There was no preparation for the expenses of college,” she said.

“But I could make my life whatever I wanted it to be…and break beyond the boundaries that kept my parents and the rest of my family from doing the same.”


Holly Martinez is a freelance writer based in Seattle. She is a first-generation student who earned her bachelor’s degree from Seattle University. In 2012, she received a Journalism Fellowship on Poverty from Marguerite Casey Foundation, which publishes Equal Voice News. 

First-Generation Students Blaze Trails, Face Challenges