For the fifth-straight year, the University of Washington is joining colleges and universities throughout the nation to participate in the National First-Generation College Celebration on November 8.
It is estimated that up to 50% of college students are first-generation, defined as students with one or more parents with limited or no postsecondary educational experience. Despite their academic skills and achievements, many first-generation students face unique challenges navigating the college experience. The National First-Generation College Celebration is an opportunity to celebrate the success and resilience of first-generation students, as well as raise awareness of systemic barriers to higher education.
This year, the Department of Global Health invited four remarkable first-generation students from our academic programs to share their stories, insights, and perspectives.
MEET THE STUDENTS
Hometown: Dho-Tarap, Dolpa, Nepal
Academic Program: MPH-Global Health
Born in a small mountain village in Nepal, Tsering Wangmo believes in living for something larger than yourself. Perhaps this perspective comes from being among the first generation of people – and women – from her community to receive formal basic education after a school opened in her village in 1994.
“My community never prioritized girls to attend school at that time, but my father placed great value in educating all children,” said Wangmo. “I lost both my parents at a young age, but education is my gateway to my freedom, dreams, growth, and expanding the horizon of my world beyond the mountains.”
After primary school, Wangmo traveled to Kathmandu for secondary schooling and went on to earn a nursing certificate. She then spent five years working as a nurse in her village and other villages in Upper Dolpa, an experience that motivated her to continue her education in order to improve her skills and knowledge to better support her community. She went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree in nursing science and to join Nepal Nomad Clinic, a non-profit organization that helps fund treatment and healthcare programs in remote mountain communities, as a travel nurse.
A strong advocate for both healthcare and education justice, Wangmo says the barriers she faced in attending college are representative of inequities and disparities faced by indigenous and minority communities worldwide.
“Unaffordability, inaccessibility, and unavailability of college education result from greater systemic oppression, discrimination, and injustice,” said Tsering. “It is the same in global health issues. The only way to try lessening the global health issues is through an equity lens.”
Today, Wangmo is co-director of Nepal Nomad Clinic and a student in the UW MPH in Global Health program. She says carving her own path from Nepal to the United States as a first-generation indigenous woman has not been easy, but that her perseverance, determination, supportive community and desire to pave the way for others kept her moving forward.
In fact, “keep moving” is Wangmo’s message to other first-generation students who may be doubting their dream of going to college. “Things will be hard but remember how far you have come and that is a big achievement in itself,” she said. “If you have made it this far you can make the rest of the journey too.”
Hometown: Louisville, Kentucky
Academic Program: MPH-Global Health
Nico is a change-maker. Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, she was discouraged from pursuing higher education. When she graduated from high school, she followed the same path as many of her other female friends and married young. It wasn’t until her marriage ended five years later that she finally had the opportunity to explore alternative options for her future.
“I felt like I’d been given a second chance to create a brand-new life, and that’s exactly what I did,” said Nico. “I left the religion for good, and decided to go to school.”
In 2018, she graduated from the University of Louisville with dual bachelor’s degrees in both anthropology and Latin American studies. Having unlocked a passion for language acquisition, she earned a Fulbright scholarship to work at a university in Colombia before entering the MPH in Global Health program at UW.
For Nico, being a first-generation student means breaking decades of generational repression. Her message to other students in similar circumstances is to embrace their unique experiences, journeys, and perspectives instead of comparing themselves to others.
“Trust your process and know intimately that you can and will succeed,” said Nico. “I’ve done something I was never even allowed to dream of doing, something I was consistently told I couldn’t do. A different path was never an option, but I made it one anyways.”
Academic Program: PhD Student, Pathobiology
Hometown: Dallas Texas
Orlando Cervantes’ parents knew his best shot at upward mobility was to go to college. The child of Mexican immigrants, Orlando says he was lucky to come across teachers who empowered him to reach high and prepared him for higher education. Through QuestBridge, he earned a scholarship to Rice University, where he started conducting microbiology research as an undergraduate student and found mentors who supported his goal of attending a doctoral program after graduation.
Now a PhD student in the Pathobiology program at UW, Orlando says furthering global health research is a means to build stronger communities by lowering disease burdens, thus enabling these communities to support the aspirations of the next generation.
“As a child of immigrants, I feel a sense of duty in advancing better health outcomes for my kin in Latin America. I believe my values as a first-generation doctoral student are deeply tied to my upbringing in a Latino household,” said Cervantes, who credits his community of family, mentors, and educators with pushing him to pursue his dreams.
Orlando says he also feels a responsibility to set an example for those who might follow in his footsteps, be they relatives or other people from his hometown. His advice to future first-generation students like himself is to always seek help.
“First gen students have grit and a pioneering spirit, even though we may not know how to navigate higher education as successfully as some of our peers,” said Cervantes. “Never feel embarrassed to ask others for help in class or in your research endeavors. Realize that there are some things that you can't easily find out by yourself. People around you want to help, so take advantage of that!”
Hometown: Anchorage, Alaska
Academic Program: PhD Candidate, Pathobiology
A natural lover of learning, Brianna Traxinger always planned to go to college. Although neither of her parents had college degrees, they recognized the opportunities that come with formal education and encouraged her to pursue her own path.
Even with the support of both her parents and teachers, Brianna says navigating the college application process was difficult as a first-generation student. “My parents hadn't gone through the experience themselves, so they couldn't help much. My mom reached out to a friend's mom and she stepped in as an unofficial school counselor,” said Brianna.
After earning a substantial scholarship, Brianna was able to attend her first-choice school – Colorado College. She enjoyed her undergraduate experience so much, she decided to continue her education by pursuing a PhD in pathobiology at UW.
Because of her own experience, Brianna says she’s more aware of the barriers that might discourage or prevent someone from pursuing higher education or receiving the benefits of health care.
“Although I was slightly disadvantaged by being the first in my family to attend college, growing up in a relatively low-income home, and being a woman in science, I also have a lot of privileges,” said Brianna. “I understand how someone without some or all of these privileges may be excluded from global health education and/or the resulting healthcare, and we in the global health community need to fix that.”
Brianna sees education as a tool that can break negative cycles. She advises other first-generation students to be realistic about how debt they can take on and to pursue education in the form that makes sense for them, including community college or a trade program. In fact, while Brianna was in college, her own mother followed this advice: she started taking pre-requisite college courses, got into nursing school, and became a nurse at age 50.
“In the end, where you get your education doesn't really matter. There are smart, hardworking students at every school,” said Brianna. “Don't let others' backgrounds intimidate you. If you want to learn, you will learn and succeed.”