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accents on english

Newsletter of the Department of English
at Arizona State University

Fall 2018-Spring 2019
Volume 22

What 'University' Means to Two First-Generation College Students

Reach high, for stars lie hidden in you.

—Rabindranath Tagore

As first-generation college students (the first in their family to go to college), Gilbert Islas and Samuel Dimeny feel a sense of responsibility. And they want to make their loved ones proud.

I taught Islas and Dimeny in my English 102 class in fall 2018. They both had perfect attendance. They both did their work. I can remember commending Dimeny on his natural writing ability (in his personal memoir) in front of the class, and I often called on Islas to share his insights. In Islas’s memoir, he spoke of his parents—and their hard work—as a driving force.

A view of ASU's Charter sign. / ASU photo

I sat down with both of these students at an Einstein’s Café to find out what motivated them. Dimeny spoke of his girlfriend, Moza, as his main encourager. “I hadn’t been to school in 15 years,” Dimeny told me. He had five or six jobs in that time, and his girlfriend wanted him to get an education to have more potential in the job market. “Basically, she wants me to get a good job,” he told me candidly. Dimeny sees his education as a way to “get to the next step in his life.” He has been with his girlfriend for 10 years and wants to get married. Dimeny’s major is Chemical Engineering, and he’s currently a sophomore.

Islas’s major is Construction Management (his third pick for a major), and he plans to stick with it. He’s enjoying the challenge of the field and sees his degree as “something he has to do to get where he wants to be.” He reiterated the respect he has for his parents and what they’ve done for him: “I want to make my parents proud. It means a lot to them.”

Islas and Dimeny both emphasized the importance of funding—how the combination of scholarships and grants helped them enter a university. Islas said that if it weren’t for scholarships, he would have gone to community college. He also relayed that he wanted to take a break after high school, but his family encouraged him to go to college right away: “My parents encouraged me a lot to come to school. They wanted better opportunities for me. I kind of wanted to go to college (in high school) but didn’t know where I wanted to go.”

Samuel Dimeny / Courtesy photoDimeny also talked about overcoming funding hurdles: “I always thought that I could never afford to go to college, but with the help of grants and scholarships, I was able to afford it.” Moza wanted him to go to ASU instead of a community college; since he lives in Phoenix, he picked ASU because of the location and “because it’s a university.”

When I inquired more about what it’s like to be first-generation college students, Islas and Dimeny told me about some of the challenges. Islas lives off campus with his parents. He likes it because his parents help keep him positive, but he said “it feels harder” in some ways. There are times when he feels like he’s missing support and encouragement from his peers on campus. “I’ve made friends that live on campus, though, so that really helps.”

Dimeny, after having been out of school for so long, told me that one big challenge was math: “It is difficult, especially with math. I had to start with college algebra, then I did pre-calculus; and now I’m in calculus. That was the hardest for me. Everything else I could pretty much catch up on.”

Islas and Dimeny both take pride in where they are in life. When I asked them what they were most proud of, Islas shared: “Where I’m at today, that I’m still in school—even through the obstacles I’ve been through. I want to prove to my parents—and brother and sister—that it’s possible. “And,” he told me, “Being on the Dean’s List for the last year (both semesters of his freshman year).”

Despite the challenges that being a first-generation college student brings, their advice to other first-generation college students is this: stick with it. Islas imparts: “If you really want it—and you set your mind to it—it’s definitely possible.” Dimeny offered similar encouragement: “It’s gonna be hard, but you have to just stick with it. You’ll get through it.” He also spoke of endurance: “Don’t get overwhelmed because when you first start college, it can seem like a lot to take in. When you first start a new subject or major, it seems like a lot. Just try not to get worked up over it. Try to calm yourself if you’re getting anxious or worried about it. Over time, the workload levels off.”

From the perspective of these first-generation college students, the place of the university is something they don't take for granted.

When they’re not working, Islas and Dimeny are like many young men their ages. Islas likes to hang out and play basketball with his friends. He joked, “When I take a break, I take a break.” Dimeny enjoys watching YouTube videos, and though he doesn’t drink, he likes bar food and the atmosphere of bars. He also loves to travel.

When I asked these young men what character trait they thought was instrumental in their commitment to school, both pointed to their work ethic. Islas said, “I like setting goals and being determined.” Dimeny also stressed, “If I get determined and want to do something, I push myself to get it done right away.”

And though they both consider themselves to be independent, each had a ready answer when I asked them who had been their biggest supporters: Dimeny pointed to Moza, and Islas pointed to his parents. For now, Islas is focused on getting his degree and says he will think about career options later. He thinks he wants to stay in Arizona, while Dimeny sees himself (possibly) getting a job in the petroleum engineering field, getting married, and starting a family right away. He and Moza have even talked about moving to Canada.

These young men are focused, and I have no doubt they will make their loved ones proud. From the perspective of these first-generation college students, the place of the university is something they don’t take for granted. It’s a place where their work ethic and commitment to their loved ones intersect—creating the hope for better things to come.

Meghan Bacino

Image 1: A view of a sign engraved with ASU's Charter, which articulates that the university is a place that should be "measured not by whom it excludes, but rather by whom it includes and how they succeed." Photo by ASU.

Image 2: Courtesy photo of Samuel Dimeny.