Sí se puede! We can succeed; we will succeed.
By Saúl Valdez , Alumnus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Washington
NOTE: This story is part of a larger story “Why Celebrating College Signing Day Matters”
My brother and I left our life behind in Chicago in 1997 so that our parents could pursue their dream of owning and operating their own Mexican restaurant in Nebraska. We moved to a rural part of the state where some family relatives had secured employment through the local meat-processing plant.
There, growing up in a Spanish-speaking household in a predominately-white school district, I quickly became conscious of the different levels of resources, knowledge, and support that my classmates and I possessed in maneuvering the local education system. My parents worked tirelessly to realize their dreams of owning a small business—just last week, they celebrated their remarkable 20-year anniversary. However, my brother and I struggled through high school, navigating the college enrollment and financial aid application process. Even then, it was difficult to not notice how significant it would be if both my brother and I were to become the first in our families to enroll and graduate from a college or university.
While we valued our tranquil surroundings, we both decided that leaving our small town to earn a postsecondary degree would provide us with new opportunities and connections to advance in our respective fields. When the time came to decide where to apply, I decided to follow my brother’s footsteps and attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln at Lincoln, Nebraska (UNL).
Like many students of color, arriving to a campus with thousands of students took some time to adjust. I felt compelled to silence my tongue in large lecture halls and even in smaller spaces where I was the only Latinx student in the classroom. It wasn’t until I became involved in student organizations like the Mexican American Student Association and Sigma Lambda Beta that I found my voice and understood the unique experiences and skills that I brought to campus as a first-generation student. Thankfully, through mentoring, leadership opportunities and academic assistance services, I received my bachelor’s degree in international business and Spanish.
On College Signing Day held at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) this year, I could not help but think back to the day that I walked into my parents’ restaurant to share that I would be joining my brother in attending UNL. So many stories of perseverance and hard work, and successes and failures occurred between the time that I shared the good news to my parents, stepped foot on campus and walked across the graduation stage. Nonetheless, the shimmer of pride in my parent’s eyes never faltered. As a result, my views then and thereafter, on being a first-generation graduate has become: Sí se puede! We can succeed; we will succeed; and our communities have the power to shine the way!
Along with my colleague, Angela Sanchez, I too, congratulate all the recent high school graduates and transfer students across the nation. Also, a special shout out to all our grantees that are working day and night to make sure that more students can share those transformative words: “I’m going to college!” with their families and friends.
Saúl Valdez is a Program Officer of the College Success focus area at ECMC Foundation . He holds an MA in public administration with a nonprofit management certificate from the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, a BS in international business and BA in Spanish from University of Nebraska-Lincoln