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Casandra Esparza

Casandra Esparza

What was it like being among the first in your family to go to college?

Being the first in my family to go to college was a huge personal accomplishment. I have always loved school and doing well academically was always an expectation that I had for myself. However, I had no idea what the college-search process was like, and I never imagined that I would end up traveling 700+ miles away from home to continue my education. Not only was I the first in my family to go to college, but I was the first to move away from home to a new state without a single family member in sight. I struggled with what my family would think of me; I felt like there was always a question of, “Why does she have to go away for school, can’t she just stay home and do the same thing?” I realized very quickly that I was looking to further my education and gain new life experiences, and to do that I wanted to move away from home to somewhere completely new and different.

I was oblivious to the different types of schools and financial aid available, but my college counselor encouraged me to expand my options to out-of-state schools because she realized my potential. She recommended that I research the University of Portland because she felt that it would be a ‘good fit’ for me. At the time I had no idea what a ‘good fit’ meant, but I am forever thankful that she pointed me in this direction. I was able to adjust and be successful because of my parents’ support. Although the move was just as hard for them as it was for me, they never stopped supporting and encouraging me to do my best. My graduation day was not only an accomplishment for me, but for my parents, too. I can only hope that they are as proud of me as I am of them for allowing me to step out of my comfort zone and pursue my dreams.

Are there any unique challenges you faced as a First Generation student?

Navigating the financial aid process as a first generation college student was one of the more difficult things I had to learn how to do. I was under the impression that college was expensive, in-state or out-of-state, and that is one of the reasons why I didn’t initially consider out-of-state schools. There were many people encouraging me to apply for scholarships, but I didn’t think that I would qualify for anything and it became hard for me to stay motivated. I was hard on myself and didn’t think that I would be awarded any additional scholarship money because I was always comparing myself to my peers. I wanted to be excited when my first financial aid award letter arrived in the mail, but I did not know what any of the numbers meant and I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I had to learn to ask a lot of questions and to not be shy about my lack of knowledge. Thankfully, I landed a job as an office assistant in the Office of Financial Aid during my freshman year at University of Portland. This taught me everything I know about the different types of financial aid and ultimately helped me make smarter decisions moving forward when it came to paying for college. I wish I would have had this information as a high school senior, and I encourage all students to do their own research so they can make smart financial decisions. 

Do you have any advice for FGEN students at UP that are facing challenges?

My advice to first generation students at UP is to ask every question you have, no matter how silly it may seem. Everyone on campus is here to help our students become successful, especially those that are struggling with the transition to college life. I highly recommend getting familiar with the Shepard Academic Resource Center (SARC). I, unfortunately, didn’t get to know this office very well when I was a student and I really wish I had. They are the place to go with any question, and if they don’t know the answer, they will help you find it. It is extremely important for students to feel like they are being heard and not judged, and I believe that the SARC is a complete safe space for our students. 

Did a mentor play a role in your FGEN experience?  How so?

I didn’t have just one mentor play a role in my experience, but I had several. My parents played a huge role in my decision to continue my education and to pursue the opportunity to move away from home. My high school college counselor helped me find University of Portland by asking me simple questions about my preferences. If she had not taken the time to get to know me and what I liked, I would have never considered UP as an option. My academic advisor was supportive of my decisions during my senior year, and I felt comfortable discussing my post-graduation plans. I didn’t feel ready to pursue a graduate program, and he was able to help me find the right path for me. Everyone I worked with during my four years in the Office of Financial Aid had a huge influence on me, and that job led to my interest in working for the Office of Admissions. 

How do you feel your experience prepared you, both professionally and personally?

My experience has made me more outgoing and a better self-advocate. There was always something new for me to learn throughout this process, whether it had to do with my college applications or the exit counseling for my student loans, and I learned to take advantage of the resources available to me without hesitation. I have become more comfortable interacting with a lot of different types of people and that has played a crucial role in my professional life as an Admissions Counselor. I am happy to share my story with students who feel nervous about pursuing their education, and if I can motivate them to even consider attending college, then I feel that I have done my job. 

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