Terry Allen

Ph.D. student, Education, Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, UCLA

My backstory

Raised in the projects of San Francisco, I was just 13, sitting on my front porch, when I watched my oldest brother be killed. From then on, I learned how destiny can be determined by a step in the wrong place — or a step in the right one. I became aware of an inescapable fear of African American men in my community. Over the course of my life, the question “am I next,” became all too common.

What motivated me to go to college

My parents sought to reassure me that education was salvation, a safer place in the schools. UC Berkeley was only 15 miles from where I grew up, but it might as well have been many states away. I remember the excitement when I received the acceptance letter. I had been granted the opportunity to strengthen my own potential. I went on to graduate from Berkeley in 2013 with a degree in rhetoric.

What I would tell my freshman self

Don’t let your first bad grade cause you to doubt who and where you are. A single grade does not reflect lack of intelligence or skill. What appears at first to be an academic failure will actually be an opportunity to learn, grow and discover what will eventually be the thing that you’ll appreciate most — majoring in rhetoric. It’ll take you places that you never would have imagined.

How my background helped me

For me, being black, being a man and being raised in a low-income community are three equally important identities — parts of a whole that are inextricably connected. Almost every aspect of my identity has been linked with poor educational and social outcomes. I have seen family and community members suffer declining health and negative trajectories. This fueled me to focus on education. I owe my journey to the individuals who took an interest in my growth as a scholar. It is now my responsibility to do the same for others.

The best thing about my college experience

I never would have thought that a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric would lead to working at the White House under the Obama administration, traveling around Europe to write my first book (which will be published this year), launching a nonprofit that helps underdeveloped communities achieve lasting sustainability, and pursuing graduate study at UCLA, where I study the historical origins of racial inequality in education and juvenile incarceration.

“I draw from hardships to find creative, simple and often overlooked solutions.”

Susana Ramirez Perez

Undergraduate, Mechanical Engineering, UC Davis

My backstory

I was born in Mexico, and I was brought to the United States at the age of five. I am the second of six children, two of whom are in college and one is a recent nursing program graduate. My family moved around when I was young, but I mainly grew up in Visalia, California. My parents’ formal education was only elementary school in Mexico. They encouraged my siblings and I to pursue a college education because it is something they wished they’d had the opportunity to do.

What motivated me to go to college

My parents, teachers and community had a large role in my decision to attend college. I love to learn. People around me took notice of this and guided me on my way. Everyone told me I could be anything I wanted, but I had a fear of rejection that hindered [me]. But I worked really hard in high school, and graduated as first in my class. The staff at my high school became my advocates. They gave me scholarships open to undocumented students and helped as best they could. This really helped me to let go of my hesitations and put all my energy into going to college. 

What I would tell my freshman self

Spend time getting to know yourself by doing things out of your comfort zone. Do not let fear stop you from achieving your goals, and do not let external people or circumstances determine your decisions. As a first-generation student, it is easy to do things because you feel pressured to be the first. Do not do things to be first. Do something because you love it and are passionate about it.

How my background helped me

There is a large gap of knowledge about college that I face as a first-generation student. This can be a challenge, but it can also be an asset. I developed a skill in asking the right questions and seeking help when needed. I have no fear of failure because I have already accomplished so much. This leaves me with the ability to take risks. As a mechanical engineering student, I use my experiences find creative solutions and navigate obstacles. Other people get frustrated by simple problems but I draw from hardships to find creative, simple and often overlooked solutions.

The best thing about my college experience

My college experience has been great so far. I have conducted research, attended conferences and won awards for research, service and academic excellence. Any opportunity that has presented itself I have taken. This has allowed me to know places, people and campuses I would have not known otherwise. All my experiences have shaped the person that I am today, and helped me expand my skills. As a peer adviser I get to help new students navigate the university. Mentoring and helping other students has truly been the best part of my experience, and it has made the difficulties worth it.

“I understood early in my life that just because you’re not educated doesn’t mean that you’re not smart.”

Carlos Anthony Vasquez

Undergraduate, Chemistry, UC Irvine

My backstory

My father, Carlos, emigrated from Mexico at age 10. He wasn’t able to attain his high school diploma, but is extremely talented at fixing and building things. My mother, Ana, grew up in Tejutepeque, El Salvador and came to the United States at 14. She learned English within three months by staying after school and listening to vocabulary words on a cassette player. I understood early in my life that just because you’re not educated doesn’t mean that you’re not smart. It simply means you didn’t have have the opportunities or the right exposure and support.

What motivated me to go to college

One of the questions that I had as a child was, “Why does my family work so much?” I can rarely recall times when my mother, my father and my grandmother were all in the same room together, even on the weekends. That’s because they each had two or three minimum wage-paying jobs to pay the rent and other living expenses. I didn’t know what college was at the time but I knew I needed to get there, whatever “there” was. This way, my family wouldn’t have to work so hard to support us, and we could all be together.

What I would tell my freshman self

Seek out people that want the best for you, and who truly believe in you. Also, don’t be afraid to seek guidance, it’s okay to need help. I learned that the hard way. I enrolled in DePaul University after high school and dropped out. What led me to try again was the fear of letting my younger siblings down. Thankfully, at Santa Monica College and continuing to my time at UC Irvine, I’ve had great mentors that have helped me realize how to accomplish my dreams. I now aspire to earn a Ph.D. and become a faculty member conducting research to help combat diseases.

How my background helped me

There’s a beauty in creating paths that no one has made. Mankind’s ability to venture into uncharted territories is what makes us great. That’s why I’ve taken pride in doing something that my family has never done before. The scientific community continues to need scientists with integrity and perseverance who aren’t afraid to challenge conventional thinking. That’s a life experience I have as a first-generation student. The fact that I’m here no matter how difficult it was speaks volumes about how much I care about fulfilling my dreams and aspirations.

The best thing about my college experience

The freedom to pursue knowledge, and having the opportunities to push your limits every single day, which allows you to learn about yourself and develop into the best person you can be.

“My college pathway was not the traditional one, but it has been the right pathway for me.”

Denisse Porter

Master’s student, Nursing, UCSF

My backstory

As a Mexican immigrant and mother of three with 15 years of marriage, my backstory is anything but traditional. Out of high school, l I knew I wanted to continue my education but had little guidance in how to achieve my goals. I started at San Bernardino Valley Community College and worked as a medical assistant. That sparked my passion to work in underresourced communities and led me to go on to study nursing after completing my undergraduate degree. My college pathway was not the traditional one, but it has been the right pathway for me.

What motivated me to go to college

With a love for learning and the help of passionate educators, I realized I had the ability to succeed in college and I believed I owed it to my family, my community and myself to live up to that potential.

What I would tell my freshman self

Make relationships with faculty, clubs and with student organizations. These entities are there to support your purpose and will help strengthen you as an individual.

How my background helped me

When I began my college journey I felt that being a mother and an English learner would hinder my studies. Although these facts are barriers to structural components of academia, they have become a core part of my strength and my drive.

The best thing about my college experience

In the end, what you learn will help mold and shape the impact you will make in this world. Some of my most genuine relationships have come from the individuals I have met through college, who clearly understand my needs and my goals. The ups and downs of college have shown my true self.

“Always strive to be better than the average — but worry about YOUR own path.”

Malcolm Jacob Rashid

Undergraduate, UC Santa Barbara

My backstory

When I was four, my little brother and I were taken away from my mother by Child Protective Services, separated from each other, and placed into foster care. I remained in the foster system for about five years before being adopted by my grandmother when I was fourteen. That was when I started to focus on academics and began to excel in school, ultimately attaining a full ride scholarship to UC Santa Barbara.

What motivated me to go to college

While I was in the foster system, it was impossible to imagine college, or any life outside of the streets. But my grandmother, who was left to fend for herself at the age of fifteen, always stressed the importance of education. Late in junior high school, I gave school a try — and, surprisingly, I was good at it, acquiring straight A’s and becoming the only male to graduate my 8th grade class with a 4.0. This was instant motivation, and I was able to keep up the effort to graduate as one of the top five students in my class in my high school, with a 4.5 GPA.

What I would tell my freshman self

Freshmen shouldn’t expect to find their niche right away, it’s okay to be in the discovery phase. I spent so much time stressing out about my future plans and goals, but if you trust in the educational process and focus on your grades at hand, all will come together. If you receive your first C or D, use the negative outcome as a positive force for your next set of classes, next quarter around. Always strive to be better than the average — but worry about YOUR own path. Your performance and way to success is no one else’s but your own.

How my background helped me

I have had to learn to discover and define my self-worth without parental support. I learned to deal with the pain of independence early — and have come to cherish it. Knowing that your goals are being accomplished all on your own makes your successes that much more significant.

The best thing about my college experience

At first, I became quickly discouraged when I struggled academically. But over the last year, I’ve been able to become more inspired as I’ve learned that failure is necessary to master the art of success. I also have a flourishing life, and with the people I met here, I’ve grown more as an adult than ever. Being able to relay my story to thousands of kids like myself reinforces my purpose.