Self-imposed and external pressure to achieve. Challenges that necessitated working two or three jobs. Confusion in filling out a college application. And cultural and language differences. These are just a few barriers some Hispanic/Latino students at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business have faced as the first in their families to attend college.
More than any other racial or ethnic group, Latinos are more likely to be first-generation college students (Excelencia in Education). It is estimated that more than 44 percent of Hispanic students are the first in their family to attend college. In the latest figures, there are 3,685 Hispanic students at Georgia Tech and 11 percent are first-generation college students. There are over 6,000 Hispanic/Latino Georgia Tech alumni worldwide.
To celebrate our community during National Hispanic Heritage Month, we interviewed a few Scheller students and alumni who were or will be the first in their family to obtain a college degree. Their stories are a testament to their perseverance and determination of not only themselves, but their families.
Making the Decision to Pursue Higher Education
For Brando Angel, MBA ‘23, who was raised in San Diego by parents from Guatemala, he knew higher education was the right path for him.
“I first made the decision to attend college while I was still in high school. My parents had always spoken to me about going to college and pursuing higher education. However, I didn’t really have any idea of how to apply. One of my best friends who was a year above me helped me with the process,” Angel explained.
For Cassandra Canales, BSBA ’23, who was raised in Marietta but whose family is from Jalisco, Mexico, she was fortunate enough to attend a college prep school, and they provided her with the resources to help navigate the admissions process. Yet, she said it was her supervisors at the Cartoon Network, where she’d interned through a corporate work-study program, who played an even bigger role in her decision to attend Scheller.
“My supervisors were mainly women and people of color, and they all encouraged me to attend college by showing me that people who look like me are capable of getting to higher positions in the corporate world,” she said.
Ivan Donoso, IM ‘82 and MBA ’84, who was born in Quito, Ecuador and spent almost 23 years in various roles with UNESCO, spoke of his hope of attending Tech.
“After graduating from high school, I dreamed about becoming a mechanical engineer. Along with a high school friend, we thought that studying in the States would be an opportunity to develop our own objectives,” he explained. “Two years into my studies, I took my first class in thermodynamics. This totally changed my mind about engineering and helped me decide to seek a degree that dealt more with people.”
He ended up earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Scheller in organizational behavior.
Oscar Guerrero, BSBA ‘25, who is from Atlanta, said he never doubted he’d attend college. “It was the only path I saw that would take me where I wanted to be in life, so I always knew I had to do it and I set goals to get into a good school,” he said.
While all these students knew that going to college would provide them with opportunities not available to many Hispanic/Latino individuals, many faced struggles along the way.
Facing Challenges in College
Sara Rios, Full-time MBA ‘23, who was raised in Bogota, Colombia and Georgia, explained some of the challenges she personally faced.
“As a first-generation college student, I had to learn everything on my own since my parents weren’t knowledgeable on the American education system. I had to learn the college application process, how to take entrance exams, and ways to finance my education. It felt as if I had to work two times harder than my peers, but luckily, I had my family’s emotional support and constant encouragement throughout the process,” she said.
While Angel faced financial challenges during school, he succeeded. “I worked up to three jobs at once as an undergraduate to pay for gas, clothes, outings, or whatever it may have been. I made it work though and still received good grades,” he explained.
For Canales, her struggles were internal, as she set high expectations for herself. However, she’s learned to deal with the pressure by taking breaks and reminding herself how far she’s come.
“In these past four years, I’ve had trouble dealing with the pressure of being the first person in my family to graduate from college. This pressure came from me being too hard on myself, and it caused mental burnouts and perfectionism, which made it difficult for me to stay motivated in school at times,” she said.
When Donosco attended Georgia Tech, most of his challenges were external.
“At the beginning, language was the first challenge I needed to overcome. Later, the one challenge that I faced was integration with other students that were either American or European. There was a big difference in cultures. They were very forthcoming, and I was a bit more reserved,” he recalled.
The Impact of Being First
Most of our students spoke about the example they’re setting for future Hispanic/Latino students, as well as members of their family.
“Not only am I the beginning of generational wealth, but hopefully once the next generation sees that college can make a difference, they’ll be more willing to continue their education past high school. Being the first in my family to attend college means so much more than just this, it’s hard to explain. I feel like I have endless opportunities now that I am here, which I am extremely thankful for,” said Guerrero.
Canales not only sees the importance her story may have for other first-generation students, but the importance of integrating her culture into the corporate culture.
“For me, being the first in my family to graduate from college means that I’ll be an example to other first-gen Hispanic/Latino students who don’t see others who look like them in universities and the corporate world,” she noted.
Angel has no regrets about his decision to return to school for a degree.
“To me, it means a lot to be the first in my family to graduate from college,” he said. “I like to set an example not only to my sibling but people who have a similar background as me and show that we Latinos have a place in higher education.”
The group gave profound descriptions of the perseverance, tenacity, and sacrifice their families went through to ensure they went to school. Each one of them had a story to tell about the influence of family members.
“My parents have always supported me throughout my education because they were also in school back in Mexico. However, they were forced to drop out due to poverty and were left with no choice but to work. So, when they found out I was accepted into Georgia Tech, we all broke down and cried because they knew how much this meant not only for me but us as a family. This for them is what they always wanted for themselves but never had the opportunity to do, which is why they continuously support me, and this is also why I don’t give up. They keep me going,” said Guerrero.
Angel also describes the moment his family found out he’d been accepted to college.
“It was the proudest I’d ever seen my family. It meant they could finally move away from the typical labor-heavy jobs that our family had, and that all the sacrifices they made to move to this country and raise a family here paid off. Even now as a graduate student, they continue to be just as proud as they were of me as an undergrad. It’s a good feeling, having their support,” he stated.
The idea that first-generation college students set an example for other generations rings true for Donosco too.
“For my mother who carried the full cost of my studies, my success at university and my later success in life have represented her greatest pride and achievement. For the rest of my relatives and my children, it has been a source of pride and an example. In fact, my four children have gone to college,” he said.
Words of Advice for Others
When asked what advice they’d give to other Hispanic/Latino students, each of them provided words of encouragement.
“There is a place for us in higher education and plenty of resources to make our parents’ dreams and our dreams come true. If you are not sure how to apply or if you don’t have the resources to attend, reach out to the administration or people you know who have graduated. Use your time wisely while you are in school and build genuine connections with people to build up your network. And just enjoy the experience. It is truly a growing and learning opportunity that you will look back on for the rest of your life,” Angel said.
Canales, who is currently a member of the Georgia Tech Latin American Student Organization, sees the value of seeking out the camaraderie of students with similar backgrounds who understand the Hispanic/Latino experience.
“I think it’s so important to surround yourself with other students who may be facing similar obstacles and come from similar cultural backgrounds as you, because it helps remind you that you aren’t alone,” she said.
Hard work is familiar to these students and alumni, and for most Hispanic/Latino students overall. These Scheller students still face a lot of hurdles as Yellow Jackets, but their success has made a deep impact on those who came before them and others who will come after.
As Guerrero states, “My advice to my fellow Hispanic/Latino students considering Scheller and Georgia Tech would be to always keep your hopes up. While it may seem impossible and feel like the odds are stacked against you, if you work hard, you deserve to be here, and the admissions office will acknowledge that! Keep working hard, always strive to be the best version of yourself and never give up. Échenle muchas ganas y Primeramente dios aquí estarás en Georgia Tech!"
Hispanic/Latino Resources at Georgia Tech