UT’s first-generation graduates, students share experiences

Maria Mendez

Carmel Fenves, a textile artist and First Lady of UT, said her parents always worked for her to go to college, but could not offer advice to navigate the college experience.

“As much as my parents supported me, I was on my own,” Fenves said.

First-generation Longhorns shared the obstacles they face at the inaugural Division of Diversity and Community Engagement’s First-Generation Network Reception on Wednesday. The reception was part of new efforts to support first-generation students at UT, who make up 22.5 percent of undergraduates for the 2017–2018 academic year. 

Fenves, a University of California at Davis graduate, began the event as the keynote speaker discussing her career journey. Fenves said she owes her success to her parents, but her success also made it difficult to connect with her family.

“From a young age, I saw my mom and dad as my role models,” Fenves said. “(But college) made my young adult experience different than theirs.”

For sociology senior Matt Thibault, the biggest obstacle was feeling guilty for leaving his family in San Antonio to come to UT.

“Coming to UT was tough because I had always helped my family, and I was doing something for myself,” Thibault said. 

First-generation students also have to learn how to do simple things that other students may already know. Richard Reddick, an educational leadership and policy associate professor, said he first realized this as an undergrad at UT. 

During a history class in Garrison Hall, Reddick was unsure if he could go to the restroom, so he raised his hand and asked the teacher, prompting laughs and stares.

“Nobody had explained to me that college was different,” Reddick said. “That makes me think of all the small things you don’t know as a first-generation student.”

Aurora Martinez-Jones, an alumna of the Texas Law School and a Travis County associate judge, said this affects first-generation students even before arriving at college. 

“When I was getting ready to apply, I was still figuring out how to do things,” Martinez-Jones said. “I thought I had to apply to every college that sent me an (application) fee waiver.”

But Martinez-Jones, who founded UT’s student organization Minority Women Pursuing Law, told students to embrace their experience to help others.

“I didn’t know that I was doing something extraordinary by being first to take these steps” Martinez-Jones said. “Embrace and accept that you’re extraordinary with everything that you accomplish.”

Alejandrina Guzman, former student body president, said she worked to organize the reception and UT’s Inaugural First-Gen Kickoff last November, which will now be annual events along with a spring symposium, in order to help first-generation students like herself. Guzman said she also hopes to establish a first-generation orientation and scholarship for students to attend Camp Texas over the next two years.

“It’s always been a big part of my identity … and I wish I had someone there to tell me everything is going to be okay,” said Guzman, a government and Mexican-American and Latino studies senior.