Navigating the First-Gen Journey: A Story of Triumph and Resilience
Nezi Cuellar, a junior at St. Mary’s University, is the first person in her family to attend college. November 8 is recognized as National First-Generation College Celebration Day and we caught up with Cuellar to learn more about her personal experience as a first-generation college student.
About one-third of current college students are considered first-generation. This can uniquely shape their college experience. “Being a first-generation student has weirdly shaped my college experience. If you have ever heard the statement, “It is not about the destination but the journey” sometimes that is exactly how I feel,” shares Cuellar. Interactions with other students have brought to light just how different her experience has been while attending college. “Last year I heard a group of friends talk about the things they are looking forward to after graduation, including feeling stressed about choosing a house to live in that their parents are going to be paying for,” said Cuellar. She continues with her wish to have a similar problem but also appreciates her unique experience in learning about different opportunities to grow her network through work-study jobs and future life goals. With this perspective also comes feelings of both pride and loneliness. “This “weirdness” comes into play because you feel the weight on your shoulders of making your family proud and making yourself proud but there is a mix of loneliness. This feeling comes out not because I don’t have friends but because my parents and family do not understand the experience and struggles of higher education.”
What has made the most significant impact on Nezi during her time at St. Mary’s University? Her answer was clear: the friends she has made on campus. “The friends I have here on campus just provide so much support like studying together, struggling together, and even providing validation on things I seem unsure about. Support like this goes a long way and I know if I didn’t have it, college would be a lot harder for me.” Furthermore, getting close to professors at St. Mary’s has been instrumental. The smaller campus environment allows students to build meaningful connections with their instructors. Nezi emphasized that professors see not just the students’ work but also their work ethic, interests, motivations, and skills.
Despite these challenges, what truly stands out is the beauty of this “weird” journey. It’s a path that fosters resilience, self-discovery, and an unbreakable spirit. Cuellar’s advice to fellow first-gen students is simple: Be brave, believe in yourself, and don’t hesitate to seek help when needed. Embrace your feelings, find a support network of friends, and build meaningful connections with professors and staff who are there to guide you.
In the spirit of National First-Generation College Celebration Day, let’s celebrate the strength and tenacity of first-generation students. Their journeys are unique, their challenges significant, but their achievements are nothing short of inspirational.