First Generation College Students: The Go-Getter

First Generation College Students: The Go-Getter
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First generation college student Cecilia Lopez. (Photo courtesy First Generation)

This is the first of three interviews in RealClearEducation’s coverage of first generation college students. Read more about the series here.

Cecilia Lopez has the fabled American Dream story. The daughter of migrant Mexican field workers, the then-teen’s father was deported while she was a student at North High School in Oildale, Calif., but she continued her education even as her family gradually unraveled.

Lopez graduated from North in 2009 and continued on to California State University at Bakersfield. She majored in criminal justice, minored in political science, and completed her degree in four years – a feat for any first generation student. After graduating college in 2013 with no debt, she took a year to work for the Go College! initiative, study for the GRE and apply to graduate school.

She’s now enrolled in San Diego State University for the homeland security graduate program and wants to attend law school at UCLA to study immigration law after she earns her master’s. Her current two-year program is costing $25,000 a year, most of which is being covered by scholarships and $7,000 of which she’s taking out in loans.

But her path to success was littered with obstacles.

Lopez was known in school for being a star track athlete. Her parents, however, weren’t supportive of her ambitions when she first expressed interest in running, so she started attending school practices behind their back.

“It was a female thing, they were worried I’d be running in little shorts,” Lopez said. “They were protective of me. And they would work all day and wouldn’t be able to pick me up after practice, so my coaches started giving me a ride home.”

But her parents eased up when they saw how good she was, and that she truly loved her sport. It was also her stellar athletic performance that earned her a full scholarship to California State University at Bakersfield, which she accepted over applying to her dream school: UCLA.

Shortly after Lopez’s father was sent back to Mexico, her mother considered following him back with her two younger brothers. Lopez opted to stay in the U.S. and lived with the family of a close friend – even moving to Tennessee with them at the beginning of her senior year of high school. When the move proved too much, Lopez returned to North High School to complete her senior year and graduate in California.

RealClearEducation recently caught up with Lopez to hear about how education has changed her life since high school as she reflects on her experience as a first generation college student.

Why was college, and an education, so important to you?

It was important because I didn’t want to fall into the same steps as my family members did: not want to go to school, just get married, have kids and follow that routine. It was important to me to think outside the box, go to school, and make a name for myself and become an independent career woman.

It was a struggle explaining that to my parents and getting through to them that I was serious about this. Especially the money problem: they thought it was a huge amount of money for college and that there was no possible way I could afford it. Once I got my scholarship, though, it was a more reasonable goal and they were more open to the idea.

I think that a lot of my characteristics were built from my sport. Cross country takes determination, it’s all in your head – you have to be strong, you have to accomplish a goal.

What was your biggest lesson or takeaway during the college application process?

Deadlines are very important. Do not forget deadlines, make sure you stay on top of them, that’s number one.

How did your college experience -- whether complete or incomplete -- shape your current outlook on life, society and economy?

I think they made me aware that to get a higher paying job you need to get more degrees and more expertise, become an expert in a certain field and there’s a lot more you have to do to compete in this country now. I feel so different. I feel like I’ve grown into myself. Education has empowered me in priceless ways and it just makes you the person you are meant to become, and it’s great.

I feel like I can give my opinion on a lot of the issues going on in the country, especially as a political science student I know that my words matter. I now realize how unaware some of our teenagers are and how not caring they are sometimes. It’s nice to be updated and stay updated with what the current events are in our country.

Looking back on the entire college application and college-going process, if you could do something over again, what would it be and why?

I would write my personal statement that I didn’t write for UCLA because I think everyone has a story and it’s meant to be told, and everyone should not be scared of sharing their story. I was away from home, I was living in Tennessee with one of my best friends’ family because my mom had to go to Mexico after my dad had been deported. So I moved with my friend, but I didn’t have the support system and didn’t know what was going to be my first step for applying so I chose not to write the statement for UCLA and take the scholarship from Bakersfield and just be done with the process. I advise students to go for their dream and not let anything stop them.

One hardship was definitely that we come from a low income background, and it was tough to have the privilege to get an education for free, and my mother and dad were in Mexico, seeing them suffer through their lives in Mexico.

Are you where you want to be in life right now? Did the college application and college-going process get you here? What do you think you need to do to get where you want to be in five, 10 years?

I’m happy, I’m content with everything that I’ve done. My ultimate goal is to go to UCLA law after graduate school.

I think that education is empowering and I feel empowered by the four years that I endured and went through and graduated. I accomplished so much from my life just because of that four-year piece of paper. It’s a true test and shows what type of person you are.

I want to be a judge perhaps, by the time I’m 30. I want to do a lot of things in the future, that’s my goal, and I think college set me up for that.

7/15/2015: This piece has been updated to reflect that Lopez's mother only considered moving back to Mexico.

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