Ever since I was little and my family of four lived in Mexico, my parents repeated the phrase “primero la escuela,” school comes first. I can recall in high detail the countless times my journey as a Pokémon master was paused for homework or other school-related tasks. Although both of my parents earned the equivalent of a college education in Mexico, neither fully exercised their degrees. My mother worked as a secretary in Mexico although she studied agronomy. My father earned a degree in agricultural machinery management, but he migrated to the U.S. the year after I was born to work as a carpenter. My family relocated to a new country, effectively removing themselves from the immediate comfort of their loved ones and forgoing reasonably consistent employment in their home country. This has given me a good reason to pursue my passion, for they had no other choice but to accept what was available without the opportunity to complain or work for more.
Together we lived through the recession of 2008 where my father had to swallow his pride and stand in line to pick up his unemployment check, while my mother stood amongst many at the nearest food bank hoping they didn’t run out. This episode taught me that one’s education is the only thing standing between fleeting and consistent employment. Not once did my parents discourage me from staying in school, if anything, what happened during the four years of recovery following the recession further reaffirmed their hope of me graduating high school and pursuing education beyond it.
Yet, throughout my high school career I was rich in encouragement, but deficient in guidance. My parents, having no idea how to navigate the American education system, left me to do the heavy lifting. Along the way I made many mistakes, including losing a full-ride scholarship to my local public university all because I was unaware that I had the scholarship at all. After enrolling at a local community college fresh out of high school, I went through a denial phase that poisoned my hopes, but eventually became my antidote. I decided to take matters into my own hands by attending workshops on how to fill out a FAFSA and apply for scholarships so that I could fund my education beyond community college. Eventually I saw myself putting to practice what I learned by helping at-risk, college-bound youth, students like myself, through a local Phoenix nonprofit. This series of events led me to expand my definition of a family. My family included all of the mentors I had along the way: the teachers and professors who nurtured my love for science, the advisors who helped me consolidate my education into small achievable goals, and the community activists who helped me realize that I alone can make a difference.
In many ways, I am grateful for having to struggle at first, because were it not for my mistakes I would have taken my education for granted. However, that doesn’t mean you have to struggle because the point of an education is to learn how to take existing information and synthesize one’s own ideas. Unfortunately, earning a quality education without taking on crushing debt has become a privilege in our society. On average, today’s students graduate with over $30,000 in debt. Acquiring staggering amounts of student debt is an expensive and risky investment for at risk college-bound youth who lack immediate monetary resources. This makes it all the more important that schools set up students to get good jobs post-graduation.
As you make your journey, remember those who helped open a door toward opportunity for you, and reciprocate onto someone else by helping them where you once struggled. Explain to your parents what you are doing because their understanding of your struggle and path will help them better channel their support for you. As you learn about scholarships, internships and such, explain to your family why it is necessary that you develop yourself beyond the classroom, it will go a long way and touch the lives of your siblings and cousins. Understand that your academic journey does not have to be spelled out from its beginning, it is an open book whose story and ending you decide.
Jesús Contreras Rodríguez is a first-generation college graduate and a second-year Graduate student pursuing a PhD in Biochemistry in the Molecular and Cell Biology department at UC Berkeley, where he is studying the complex of proteins and the enzyme which helps keep chromosomes from unravelling at their very ends. He is the son of Mexican immigrants, and an immigrant himself.