Sammy Lopez '16

sammy-familyMajor: Biology

"I am about to begin the Doctor of Chiropractic degree program at the University of Western States."

What was it like being among the first in your family to go to college? Tell us about your story and what you think helped you succeed.

A: I was ready to attend college since I was in 4th grade. My parents believed that I was capable of pursuing any career I wanted and were very supportive of any path I took. Unfortunately, due to language barriers and their lack of a formal high school education, they were unable to help me at all during high school. I knew that I would have to be self-motivated and be willing to ask for help in order to continue my dream of attending college. The first step I took was to find all the resources that were available to me and go on from there. I was not afraid to work hard and push myself. My parents instilled those values in me, unfortunately, the downside of being a first-generation student meant that the best they could do is say “echale ganas mijo, no te desanimes,” which translates to “keep working hard mijo, don’t give up.”

I think I was able to achieve success at the University of Portland because of the values and lessons learned from my parents. Thanks to this, I was able to meet and find the support group I needed in order to feel comfortable being myself, but at the same time pushing me to strive for more. When I was younger, my parents would always tell me that any talents that I possess were given to me by God because someone else could benefit from it. I became more aware of this when I volunteered to work with low-income K-8th grade students. I though they benefitted from having me as a positive male role model, but their perseverance, their love for challenges, their curiosity, and their ability to make you laugh under any circumstance pushed me to be a better students and a better human. They pushed me to expect the best from myself and keep finding ways to learn more from others. Essentially, my support group and the children I volunteered with helped me in my personal development and gave me the energy and will to overcome any obstacle in my school work, professional and personal life.

Are there any unique challenges you faced as a first gen student? How did you overcome these?

Being a first-generation student I knew that as soon as I enrolled to UP, I would not be able to depend on my usual support system, which were my parents. I enrolled into Ohana, a pre-orientation retreat, knowing perfectly well that I could benefit from having some familiar faces to go to during the early stages of my college experience. While I was happy to meet new people, it did not lessen the pain of leaving my parents for the first time. Living in Woodburn (Oregon), you live in a bubble where everything is familiar, Mexican food tastes the way it should, it is common to listen to people speak in Spanish or a car passing by playing Banda music or Corridos. Coming to Portland, I did not see the paletero on his bike, I could not smell my mom’s tortillas fresh out of the comal (griddle), and I felt uncomfortable to speak Spanish, which essentially means, I was not comfortable being myself.

I also had the unfortunate experience of having an experience where my identity and my culture were questioned. Things changed when I talked to the Hall Director and I was able to find many people who share the same values as I do and who speak the same two languages. Since then, I have worked hard to make sure that every first-generation student and multicultural are able to find a place to call home. Sometimes all it takes is a simple cup of coffee and your undivided attention. By listening to first gen students, I have been able to point people to resources they need or could benefit from. By exchanging our experiences as a first-generation student I have been able to learn more about the unique resources and tools that first-generation students need.

Did a mentor play a role in your experience? Why or how?

There have been many people who have helped me develop into the person I am today. I have learned life advice and how to be genuine with others from one of my best friends, who is a barista at the Commons. The volunteer coordinator I worked with taught me the value of direct-service and how to love and care for your community. My last supervisor taught me the value of self-love, reflection and community building. A great friend who works at Shepard Academic Resource Center taught me the challenges of getting institutional support for meaningful projects, but also taught me how to listen to others, as well as the value of exchanging and collecting stories. The list can go on, but everyone has contributed to my personal and professional development, and I in debt with everyone I have met along the way.

What is your advice to first gen students at UP who are facing challenges?

The best advice I can give to all first gen students is to invest your time in people. Get to know others and share your experiences with others. Say hello to the custodians, the cooks, the baristas, your professors, that student you see in most of your classes, because there is a lot of wisdom in this campus in unexpected places. By sharing your story and making yourself vulnerable, you tell others that you are comfortable with yourself and you believe someone else can benefit from what you have to offer or have to say. As first gen students, we all share the same unique challenge of not having parents who attended college, but by opening yourself to others and willing to learn from others, you will be able to create a greater sense of community and possibly help support the next generation of first gen students.

How do you feel your experience prepared you for your personal and professional life after college?

Overcoming the unique challenges of being a first gen student and finding the right support group has helped me develop into an aspiring community leader. I know how to build community with others and listen to the needs of those who are experts of their own struggles. I am willing to be vulnerable and empathize with others. I feel comfortable with myself and the direction I am going, and I have many people to thank for that. I know that I will come back to the University of Portland as an alumni and continue to help make UP a little bit better for first gen students thanks to the people already there and those who have yet to come.