Latino students pursue dreams, adapt to survive college life

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Yellow blue lizard Panther chameleon (iStock image)

Editor’s note: Omar Guadalupe Alcorta is a 2021 graduate from Buena Vista University, where he double majored in Spanish and digital media. While in school, Alcorta served as station manager at KBVU, the university’s radio station, and worked part-time as a producer for Iowa Public Radio and Storm Lake Radio. This story is a script of a podcast he reported and produced. IowaWatch and BVU are longtime partners.

ALCORTA: If a chameleon could talk, and you could ask it, “What color are you?” how would it respond? Would it even have an answer? Or if it did, would its answer be, “It depends.”

Omar Guadalupe Alcorta is a Buena Vista University graduate. (Photo courtesy of Alcorta.)

For Latino, first-generation college students, the chameleon can be an appropriate symbol. Like so many students of color, the chameleon has learned to adapt to the environment to survive. But that adaptability and continuous change can also lead to some identity confusion.

And for young Latinos, like me, when we add in the unique set of challenges facing those who are first-generation college students, things get even more challenging. We come from lower-income families, have no preconceived notion of what the college experience is like, or the slightest idea of how to navigate the questions of identity, cultural changes and the higher education processes. I often found myself questioning why it felt like I was living two lives, with my heritage and “professional” side of my identities clashing, all while attempting to create my own. This internal identity crisis that was occurring in me, was the driving force behind investigating the experience of other Latino first-generation students. These are their stories.

LOPEZ: Who am I? That’s a good question. Most of the time, I would be, like, I honestly don’t know who I am.

That’s Tania Toj Lopez, a senior at Buena Vista University. She is a triple major in accounting, business, and Spanish. She came to the United States from Guatemala in 2004 and is the first in her family to attend a four-year college.

LOPEZ: I come from a family of seven … and that’s where my pride comes from. I have three older siblings and three younger siblings. My three older siblings, me and my sister that follows me were brought into the United States. And so, even then, that’s five kids, five mouths to feed in a country that you just got to, you don’t know anyone, and, like, you have to find a job where they don’t require you to speak English so that you can provide for these five mouths.

ALCORTA: According to Desireé Vega in her 2016 study titled “Why Not Me? College Enrollment and Persistence of High Achieving First Generation Latino College Students,” “Latino students are more likely to come from low-income backgrounds and be first generation college students. The intersection of these identities compounds the difficulties faced when attempting to advance one’s education.” 

Tanja Toj Lopez

LOPEZ: Like graduating with honors in high school and things like that I was, like, going against the stereotypes of Hispanic women or girls. My little sister, she now blames me for setting the bar too high because they expect the same or even better out of her. But I don’t know, like, but again like, my mentality was like, “OK, I have to do the best I can to get out of this town.” It wasn’t more of a “oh, I want to do great for myself” it was more like “I want to get out of this town,” which is why I did so great. But then like, even coming to college became more stressful because I started to like the idea of school. And so, and then obviously with, like, coming to the university it’s hard to not have the thought in your head of, “Oh shoot, will this decision make my parents proud?” type of thing. I don’t know, that’s like, for me it’s hella stressful.

ALCORTA: For many Latino cultures, family is everything and that is something I understand as well. For this reason, it is often hard for students to leave home to pursue higher education. I spoke to Dr. Ashley Farmer-Hanson, associate dean of students at Rocky Vista University in Colorado and also a BVU graduate. Farmer-Hanson has both a personal and professional passion for helping first-generation students of color. She offered some insights on her personal experiences being a Latina first-generation college student, and some of the cultural pressures that are roped into that experience.

FARMER-HANSON: There were family expectations to be a part of my Latina family. My Latinx family. There were expectations of every holiday and every birthday, to come home, to be a part of that. If I didn’t come home, there were certain family members who were like, “You’re so uppity. You’re so white now. You don’t like, you don’t fit in with us anymore,” And so I was challenged by, not only like moving on with my education and my path in life but also this cultural and family dynamics because I was the first one to get a four-year degree in my entire family.

ALCORTA: Farmer-Hanson, talked about how the odds are often stacked against minority first-generation college students to begin with.

FARMER-HANSON: I’m gonna geek out a little bit here, but if we look at the history of higher education, higher education was not built for people of color or women. The institution itself was built for white men. We may know that. We may not know that. We may acknowledge that the systemic issues that are within higher education end up having a huge impact on how minorities or underserved students end up navigating that college experience.

ALCORTA: I asked Farmer-Hanson to explain some of the challenges that Latino first-generation students face. According to a 2019 study by Excelencia in Education, Latino first-generation college students face many barriers to success. For example, 71% work more than 30 hours per week while enrolled in college, and about one-third of Latina students are also caring for dependent children. But it’s the harder-to-quantify family pressures that serve as some of the biggest emotional hurdles.

FARMER-HANSON: There’s a whole gamut of challenges that they face.

ALCORTA: Farmer-Hanson elaborated on these feelings of not belonging and self-doubt, explaining that these students are suffering from imposter syndrome. As Lopez clearly expressed earlier, feelings of not belonging and self-doubt can lead first-generation Latino students to frequently question their own choices. Farmer-Hanson’s research indicates that imposter syndrome is all too real for students like Lopez.

LOPEZ: I’ve become, obviously way more independent than I was in high school. I learned to reach out to people if I do need help with things. I don’t know, I’ve just grown to be more independent in a way. I don’t know, learned to manage a lot of like activities at once. But I’ve also like mentally drained myself. A lot. There were two years, I think it was my freshman and sophomore years, where I was only getting about four hours a sleep a day.

Dr. Ashley Farmer-Hanson

ALCORTA: Farmer-Hanson explained that like chameleons, humans can learn how to adapt to their surroundings, too.

FARMER-HANSEN: There’s actually a lot of research on this, this chameleon kind of lifestyle where in one situation you’re one thing but you adapt very well to another situation. To me it’s like a skillset where I’m like, “Oh yeah, I can adapt to my environment at the drop of a hat. Like whatever I need to do I’ll do it to survive in that environment.” And I think a lot of people develop that skillset. It’s hard, though.

ALCORTA: For Lopez, this skillset did take time, and for her first couple of years at college, she felt she had to adjust her values and even how she communicated in order to fit in.

LOPEZ: I just like, again, I didn’t know anyone, and this was the only group of people that talked to me. So, I just kind of went along with everything they said. I remember one comment she made about, like, my facial features was: Oh, you’re not like most Mexicans and you don’t have the, um, basically saying a hump on my nose or a bump on my nose. She’s, like, you’re not like most Mexicans that have that bump on your nose. And I’m, like, I’m not Mexican. I’m Guatemalan. I didn’t correct her because again, like I didn’t know anyone else. Tania now would have slapped the crap out of Tania back then.

ALCORTA: Along with the questions of identity, the feelings of loneliness and depression, and the cultural pressures of being a family member while away from home, there are more difficulties that Latino first-generation students face. In a 2020 USA Today article by Chris Quintana nearly half of Latino students are the first in their family to go to college. And just under half of them were eligible for federal Pell Grants, money only given to those with high financial need. But the process for asking for financial assistance is both emotional and confusing for first generation students, as Lopez explains.  

LOPEZ: With being a first-generation college student, it’s like literally not knowing who to go to, to ask them. Like when I first got here my freshman year I came in here blindly. FAFSA, I didn’t know what the heck it was.

ALCORTA: Farmer-Hanson said that it is common for minority first-generation students to struggle with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and explained her personal struggles with the application as well.

FARMER-HANSON: I also struggled with the financial aid process. Like many people do, the FAFSA is incredibly difficult. There’s recently a research article … that talks about how financial aid officers have bias when they are reviewing FAFSA information specifically from students of color. I did the FAFSA all by myself. And a lot of students do that and it’s incredibly difficult and it’s incredibly challenging. It does go back to the systemic processes back in K-12 of underfunding, underserved schools that have predominantly students of color. They don’t have the staffing. If I went to a high school that had the proper staffing maybe I could have found someone and said, “Hey can you help me fill out my FAFSA?” But I didn’t. I didn’t have that opportunity.

Part of the challenge is, you have to know how to jump through the hoops, but if you don’t know what the hoops are, you can’t jump. And that’s what happens a lot with first gen students. It’s trial and error. You don’t have anyone to go to to help you navigate that process. And people say that they are willing to help you, but there’s also that, like, “Can I trust you yet? Are you an advocate for me?” And you’re so new and you’re so fresh that and it’s like, “How do I trust you with my parents’ tax information?” Like, that’s really private information.

ESCARCEGA: My name is Diego Escarcega. I am from Amarillo, Texas, and I am a sophomore.

ALCORTA: Diego is another one of the few Latino first-generation students at Buena Vista University. Although he has felt a majority of the difficulties expressed by Lopez and Farmer-Hanson, Escarcega has found ways to navigate this new experience, and explained how his college experience has been a little different than the rest.

ESCARCEGA: I would say that mine is probably different. Being in wrestling, it kind of helps with stress and being sad. Last year my grandma passed away, and I told my coach, I was like, I’m not going to none of my classes, I don’t feel like seeing anybody.

ALCORTA: Like a chameleon, Escarcega found a way to adapt to the struggles of being away from home, and used the wrestling team and other out-of-state students to help him during his journey.

ESCARCEGA: Like I said, other people are here from out of state, so I felt like I was here. … I know I’m smart enough. I just have to keep myself on track and I came here for a reason. I came here to study, of course, and to wrestle. What I believe is that God brought me here for a reason, so I keep things to myself. You know, I’m here in Iowa for a purpose, I have a purpose here.

ALCORTA: But like Farmer-Hanson, Escarcega battled the emotional pressures of leaving his family for the first time and mentioned that this was probably the hardest part of going to college.

ESCARCEGA: Sometimes, I think a lot about my grandma. Like, is my grandma proud of me? Am I doing the right thing? The hardest part, like I said, is not being able to talk about my grandma. Just hearing her voice, would probably be a different thing, be a different feeling. Like, I’ll never get that feeling back.

A Latino student graduating (iStock image)

ALCORTA: Despite all the obstacles, Lopez, Escarcega, Farmer-Hanson, and millions of minority first-generation students unconsciously learn to adapt to their environment for survival. These students are chameleons, constantly trying to blend in with everyone else just to feel comfortable. And while this may not be easy due to the cultural expectations that Latino students face, with time, strength, and support, these students have learned to adjust to life on campus and life on their own. But it was not easy. Farmer-Hanson explained that universities must also step in to help their first-generation students of color.

FARMER-HANSON: Higher ed doesn’t have enough people of color working in it.

Even today there’s still a lot of research out there that says that if you want to recruit and retain students of color or underserved students you have to recruit those faculty and staff. And this is an example of why I needed someone to go to, to help me navigate my family challenges and to help me have those conversations with my family.

ALCORTA: In a Latino household, pursuing higher education is a conversation that happens with the whole family. For this reason, many first-generation students often times blur the lines of pursuing a degree for our future or doing it for our families that couldn’t.

These are just few of the many difficulties that first-generation students face. These are their stories, their experiences, and their truths. We learn to adapt and capitalize on this skillset for survival.

We are chameleons, in the wild and in the unexplored world of higher education under a system that is not yet fully able to support us.

We have the same shoes, just different dreams.

Buena Vista University is a private college in Storm Lake, Iowa, and a longtime educational partner with IowaWatch. This story was published with permission by Alcorta and with the support of Dr. Andrea Frantz, a professor of digital media.