First Gen Grads of Silicon Valley Extension

To celebrate the annual UC Santa Cruz First Generation Initiative, we bring to you 12 stories of our UCSC Silicon Valley Extension staff and instructors. Thanks for blazing new trails and sharing your experience and wisdom. First Generation College Celebration Day is Friday, Nov. 8, 2019.


Do Everything Possible

Carlos Ortiz, General Accountant II, UCSC Silicon Valley Extension

I grew up in Madera, an agriculture town located in the Central Valley. Going to college or joining the military was one of the only ways to be successful in our town. After briefly contemplating joining the Army, l met a counselor who took interest in me and encouraged me to go to college. She was really influential through my high school career and is the main reason I went to college. I believe she was a UCOP employee that “recruited” students from low-income high schools and helped plan their courses in order to be eligible to apply to UCs.

What really helped us was joining clubs and and extra curricular activity. I remember in the fifth grade hearing that we needed to do that to compete with better schools. I wanted to go to college, to leave Madera and live outside of the Central Valley for a while. Everyone who didn’t go to college was still working in the fields or in some manufacturing job. I did everything possible—I joined band and choir, sports and community service.
Learning how to study was the hardest thing to learn in college. In high school it was easy to absorb information by only doing the homework assignments and paying attention in class. In college I realized that group studying and reading the textbook was actually necessary in order to be successful. It was not until my third year that I can say that I had a routine down.

— Carlos Ortiz
General Accountant II
, UCSC Silicon Valley Extension
BA, Environmental Studies/Biology, UC Santa Cruz

It All Matters

Jeaneen Wallis, MBA, Ph.D., Instructor, Clinical Trials Design and Management Certificate Program, UCSC Silicon Valley Extension

I am the second to go, but the first to finish college and the first to continue on to my doctorate. My dad went to college on a football scholarship, but he dropped within a year to raise me since I was two years old and my mom was still in high school.
 The biggest challenge was money. I went away for college on scholarships and grants, so having to take care of myself across the country was the challenge. I did sports, had a full class load, was a teaching assistant, and worked as many hours as work study would allow.

Don’t be afraid to participate. Ask for help or for ways to work and learn. If you are respectful, people tend to help you find opportunities to support your interests. Being a teaching assistant was very rewarding and I felt a sense of pride since I felt more connected to the professors.
Sometimes I asked for help, got help, and I still didn’t improve. I felt often that I let my family down and myself. But, the only way to let them and myself down was to quit after all they had done to get me there. Every gift, holiday dinner, pair of shoes, jacket, every hug…it all mattered and I didn’t quit.

— Jeaneen Wallis
Clinical Trials Design and Management Certificate Program, 
UCSC Silicon Valley Extension
BA, Science, Technology and Society, Pomona College
MBA, Global Management, University of Phoenix
Ph.D., International Psychology, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology

Take Care of Yourself

Cynthia Hernandez, Student Services Representative, UCSC Silicon Valley Extension

I grew up in East Side San Jose, a daughter of immigrants from Mexico. My parents inspired me to attend college, they have always been hard-working individuals that aspire to provide the best life for my siblings and I. Moreover, I was primarily inspired by the willingness of my parents to move to a new country in search of new opportunities. I have always looked up to my mother who has not let her third grade education become an obstacle for her perseverance in this country. With that in mind, I knew pursuing a college degree would help me support my family, but also provide an opportunity for mobility.

The biggest challenge about college was balancing work, school, and family. It was difficult being in school knowing there were issues back at home and having to juggle work on top of that. It can become a difficult journey if we do not take care of our mental and physical health first.

Do not be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. Do not feel guilt for being able to receive higher education. Do not forget about those who helped you pursue your degree. Never forget where you came from.

Do it for your own personal growth. Take advantage of all the opportunities that are available such as office hours, talk with your advisers about academics and possible career options, and always remember to make time for yourself.

— Cynthia Hernandez
Student Services Representative
Student UCSC Silicon Valley Extension
BA, Economics / BA Psychology, UC Santa Cruz

Seek Support Systems

Claudio Sanchez, M.A, Instructor, TESOL Certificate Program, UCSC Silicon Valley Extension

I was born in Colombia, moved to the U.S. at age 10 to live in San Jose. My parents inspired me to go to college because they understood the importance of education.
 The biggest surprise was that there were dedicated and caring advisors who helped me to plan in detail my educational path.

What advice can I give others to first-generation college students? Seek support systems! The university offers many services to those who are willing to seek them!

— Claudio Sanchez
Instructor, TESOL Certificate Program, 
UCSC Silicon Valley Extension
MA, TESOL, San Jose State University

Explore Different Fields

Kathy Harrington, International & Workforce Student Advisor, UCSC Silicon Valley Extension

I grew up in the Bay area. My high school friends were all headed to college so I decided to do what they were doing and I went to UC Berkeley. I wasn’t scared, but I wasn’t prepared enough. I didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to study chemistry, then bio chemistry, then I left the sciences altogether, and I went into social welfare.

Looking back, I wish I had asked for help sooner. Once I had a network of friends who were all studying together, I was much better. I wish I’d gotten help, found a mentor, and listened to people’s advice. When I was a freshman, I met with a counselor who said, “That sounds like too heavy of a load.” But, I didn’t listen to her. I also wish I had explored lots of different fields in the beginning. What I tell students now is: Meet the students in your class. Find a mentor. Ask lots of questions.

— Kathy Harrington
International and Workforce Student Advisor
UCSC Silicon Valley Extension
BA Social Welfare, UC Berkeley

Ask Questions

Derek DeMarco, Academic Program Director, UCSC Silicon Valley Extension

Please ask questions. About your housing, class registration, dining, financial aid, gym access, campus transportation, organizations, support services – all of it. The people who work on campus are literally paid to answer your questions and help you succeed. Take advantage of it!

— Derek DeMarco

Academic Program Director
, Bioscience • Design • Education
, UCSC Silicon Valley Extension
BS, Physics, Wayne State University
M.Ed., Educational Leadership and Administration, Wayne State University

Make a Plan of Action

Priscilla Marino, Program Assistant, UC Scout

I grew up in Los Angeles. My mother had me when she was 15. I didn’t want to go to college and my mother never pressured me to go. She said that as long as you’re happy, you can do whatever your want. We also didn’t have the money for college. But, when I was 17, I had to move out and I wasn’t making a lot of money. I decided I wanted to have a better quality of life. College would open up a lot of opportunities for me and I wouldn’t be as limited.

I went to community college for four years while I was working full time and then transferred to finish up my bachelor’s degree. After that, I said, What the heck! I’ll get my master’s too.

One of the challenges you face in college is learning how to manage and compromise your social life and academic life while you’re working so you can pay for college. You also have to figure our your major and what your passion is. I see a lot of people wanting to do something because it’s going to make them a lot of money, but I encourage people to think about what makes them happy. Regardless of what you do, you’re going to spend time making money so you might as well enjoy it.

My advice would be:

  • Come up with a plan of action of how you can accomplish your goal, whether that’s a paper, a test, finding time to study, figuring out what your major is going to be, or how you’re going to graduate.
  • Remember that getting a bad grade isn’t the end of the world. Life goes on. Setbacks are part of what is being successful.
  • Ask for help.
  • Take time to build good relationships with your peers.
  • And, most importantly, have fun!

— Priscilla Marino

Program Assistant, UC Scout
BA, Communication Studies, San Jose State University
MA, Communications Studies, Emphasis on Education and At-Risk Youth, San Jose State University

Don’t Give Up

P.K. Agarwal, Dean, UCSC Silicon Valley Extension

My siblings and I are the first generation in our family to graduate from college and several of us went on to get higher degrees. My father inherited a family business and decided to work rather than finish college. My mother was born in a time when women in India were only expected to read and write. Yet, both of them compelled us to go to college. The reality is that they were so insistent I couldn’t even imagine a scenario where I wouldn’t go to college

I studied engineering, earning a bachelor’s and a master’s and later a Master’s degree in Operations Research. Later, I would tell my own three children to go even further. A bachelor’s degree is the minimum. You need to get a master’s degree. Then, you need to keep learning. It’s a different time. While lifelong learning is not new, it has become more urgent. None of us can expect to prosper without continuing to update job skills and our knowledge base throughout our lives.

Although we don’t always come from the strongest academic backdrop and it seems hard with so many factors working against you, don’t give up. Stay focused on your vision. Think of yourself as a trailblazer. You’re going to alter the paradigm of the family.
The only other thing I would offer, is to remind people that the world has changed. The middle jobs are not going to be there. The pathway from a low-end service job to the middle class is shrinking. Even if you were to choose a path of least resistance you should finish college.

— P.K. Agarwal

UCSC Silicon Valley Extension
Bachelor of Technology, Mechanical Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi
MS, Mechanical Engineering, CSU-Sacramento
MS, Operations Research, UC Berkeley

Have Good Friends

Calvin Lee, Desktop Support Specialist, UCSC Silicon Valley Extension

Where did you grow up and who or what inspired you to go to college?
What was the biggest challenge or surprise about college?
What advice can you give others to first generation college students?

My parents told me I had to go to college. They emigrated from China and were hard workers. My dad was a store manager and my mother worked at various jobs; she worked at a cannery and as a diamond sorter.

I picked geography because I enjoyed the cartographic aspect, but college was harder than I thought it would be. Classes were difficult. I was lucky to have a good program advisor. He was very encouraging.

My advice would be to study something you like but also be open to other possibilities. Keep your options open. Don’t pigeon hole yourself. Also, you always want to have good friends and be a good friend. That helps a lot in college.

— Calvin Lee
Desktop Support Specialist, UCSC Silicon Valley Extension
BA, Geography, UC Davis

Work Hard

Mai Nguyen, Chief of Staff, UCSC Silicon Valley Extension

I grew up in Vietnam. I went to college because I didn’t want to be a cashier at McDonald’s forever. I was an office manager in Vietnam, but I couldn’t get that kind of a job here. I worked at McDonald’s for three years while I was in community college. I had to start from the bottom.

In college, the challenge for me was language. I spoke a little English when I got to the U.S. and started from the very beginning with ESL classes. The other challenge was working part-time and being a full-time student. A few quarters I took 16 or 18 units so I could finish sooner. I did it in 2.5 years.

My advice for people is to work hard. Getting a degree in the U.S. is so easy. You don’t have to be a genius. All you have to do is put effort into it. Sometimes it kills me that people in the U.S. don’t take advantage of the education system here.

I earned two bachelor’s degrees from UC Davis, one in Economics and one in Human Development. I’m now working on my MBA at Santa Clara University. I plan to graduate on June 12. I make a backwards design. I have the date and execute toward that.

— Mai Nguyen
Chief of Staff, UCSC Silicon Valley Extension
BA, Economics; BA, Human Development, UC Davis

Just Stand Up Again

Phuong Kim Pham, Student Services Representative, UCSC Silicon Valley Extension

I grew up in Vietnam and escaped by boat to come here when I was 14. What inspired me to go to college? My parents risked their lives to come here, for the freedom for us to be able to go to school. My father was in the war in South Vietnam. He never got to go to school. Neither did my mother. They were too poor. As the children of parents fighting against the north, we wouldn’t have been allowed to go to school if stayed. This is one thing they dreamed of, for their kids to have an education.

When I was in high school I had a lot of support to learn English, but in college I felt like I was alone. It was harder. I had a work-study job at the university to call alumni for donations and I worked at a jewelry store to help support my parents.

I would say don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are a lot of people willing to help—counselors and professors and classmates. I was so afraid I didn’t ask. But, don’t be afraid to fall. I fell many times. I just stand up again.

— Phuong Kim Pham

Student Services Representative, UCSC Silicon Valley Extension
BS, Information Resources Management, San Jose State University
Credential, Family Development, Cornell University
Certificate, Administrative and Executive Assistant Program, UCSC Silicon Valley Extension

Everything Was a Challenge

Sarah Harmon, Instructor of TESOL UCSC Silicon Valley Extension

I grew up in San Mateo, the oldest of three children. Neither of my parents had the opportunity to go to college—my mother had to work right after high school to support herself and my grandmother, while my dad went into the Air Force after high school because of economic hardship in his family. They were both intent that my brothers and I go directly to college after graduating high school, doing everything they could to academically prepare us. That included working with us on various disciplines and pushing us to continuously fuel our curiosities. From birth, as it were, we were only given one choice—we will be going to college, preferably a UC, and finishing our baccalaureate education within four years. And they got their wish!

I started UC Davis in 1993 and don’t remember any programs for first generation students. Maybe there were programs, but I don’t remember them. I wish there had been! Everything was a challenge! One of my biggest challenges was to set up my schedule—although it was easier than it is today because I could get into counseling appointments. Another was learning how to study in a way that would yield the desired results. While I have always been a naturally independent person—and at the time I was eager to go my own way—I had to learn to strategically plan my schedule between work and school in order to get everything done. Money was an enormous challenge—I had a Cal Grant and worked, and still took out a small Stafford loan just to pay my way. My parents couldn’t afford to pay for much, so they helped with the housing bill. But I still had credit card debt, mostly to pay for books and going out with friends. I took a class on financial responsibility, but it was difficult to employ the strategies when all of my friends—whose parents were footing the bill for everything in college—had the money to do whatever they wanted. As for the surprises, I was amazed at the entirety of the UCD campus—it was huge, and yet small, since my life really was centered in the main part of campus (Olsen Hall, Voorhees Hall, Kerr Hall). I was blown away by the different view points that I was exposed to—San Mateo was, and still is, a highly diverse city, but this seemed larger in so many ways. Oh, and the rain…and the heat! (The Central Valley is a wee bit different than the Bay Area, climate-wise.)

So much has changed. This is based more on my work in the last 20 years teaching at community colleges and four-year universities.

  • Get to know your faculty. The benefits are real. It’s even more so at the four-year institutions, because there are so many more students.
  • Know your learning center. I can’t stress this one enough! Between note-taking services, tutoring services, and so much more, these are crucial elements that all students need. And if you’re exceptional at some of these skills, you can earn money by working there—I was a note-taker and I tutored at UCD, among other jobs.
  • Work with your colleagues. Many years ago, I started teaching my students that they needed to ‘work with their class colleagues’ because you have to get in the habit of thinking that these people you’re taking a class with are in the same boat as you, but with different experiences and backgrounds. This is exactly like the work environment. And the more you think in this mode, the easier the transition is after your academic career has finished. Besides, they are frequently your best study buddies, and the information you will glean from each other will truly be beneficial.
  • Sleep. Enjoy Life. These are self-explanatory. You will work a ton, but you will learn a ton. Give your brains time to relax and enjoy life.

— Sarah Harmon
Instructor, TESOL Certificate Program
, UCSC Silicon Valley Extension
BA, Spanish Language and Literature
MA, Linguistics, UC Davis
Ph.D., Romance Linguistics, University of Texas at Austin


You can learn more about the UCSC First Generation Initiative here.

Leave a Reply