Building a Bridge to the Future
For some first-generation college students, higher education offers a way out – a chance to break cycles of poverty, escape low-paying jobs or leave behind a world of challenges and hardship.
In this episode, we meet Alan Muñoz Valenciano who earned his sociology degree from Colorado State University. Learn how his path forward would lead back to the community he loved.
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Read the Full Story Behind "Building a Bridge to the Future"
Tapping Into the Talent and Passion of First-Gen Students
“What He Didn’t Want for Me”
It all started when Alan was born in a small Mexican village. With hopes for a brighter future for their young family, Alan’s parents Mariela and Luis emigrated to a largely Hispanic community in rural Colorado.
“It was very difficult in the beginning,” Mariela recalls. “As the years went by, with time, we got more accustomed to different kinds of people, to different activities, which were very different in many ways from our country. “
As is often the case with immigrant communities, Alan grew up among family and neighbors who worked primarily in construction or service industry jobs. “A lot of my family works in a roofing company,” he explained. “And I also have family members who are house cleaners. It’s a type of work where they’re up starting work before the sun gets up and stop working after the sun goes down.”
In Luis’ case, his first jobs in America required him to leave home at 3 in the morning, spend six to seven hours shoveling snow, then go to a restaurant where he worked until 10 at night. Although he has progressed into a more stable construction job since then, Luis wanted something better for Alan.
“My dad, first-hand, knows the physical pain, the physical intensiveness of being a construction worker and he didn’t want that for his son,” Alan said. “That was his big motivator, telling me he didn’t want to see me waking up at four or five in the morning, working a 10-hour day, then coming home, going to sleep and doing the same thing the next day. That’s what he didn’t want for me. He wanted to make sure that I picked a job where they hired me because of my skills, my abilities, the stuff that I knew, my knowledge, and not because of the work that I could do with my physical body.”
According to Eric Ishiwata, CSU Associate Professor for Ethnic Studies, Luis’ hopes for his son illustrate one of the most important drivers of first-generation students attending college.
“The fact is, for people coming from immigrant backgrounds, people coming out of refugee experiences, those parents understand that higher education is one of the most reliable levers to get out from low-income, unskilled or semi-skilled occupations into middle-income jobs where you have a heated office during the winter and an air-conditioned office during the summer – where you get paid for what you can provide in terms of your mind and your background rather than just the physical labor that you can provide with your hands,” Ishiwata said.
Through hard work and determination, Alan was able to begin his higher education journey at Colorado Mountain College, where he earned an associate degree in two years. He then continued his studies at CSU – where he joined an undergraduate population composed of nearly 25 percent first-generation students.
“I knew that I needed to go somewhere where I could get different perspectives, learn new things and really just open my mind to a lot of new things about the world,” Alan said. “CSU for me was a no-doubter, a no-brainer, that was a place that I wanted to go.”
“In thinking about the importance of higher education for first-generation students, it really represents an opportunity to break cycles,” Herman Shelton, Executive Director of CSU’s Access Center, noted. “Either cycles of generational poverty, or exclusions from being able to have the kind of life and career that you desire to have because choices become limited when you don’t have those credentials or those experiences or even access to the networks of resources that really make those things possible.”
“The Person I Didn’t Have Growing Up”
While in college, Alan was introduced to a youth-led organization called AJUA (Associatión de Jóvenes Unidos en Acción), a grassroots group focusing on immigrant rights and social justice advocacy. AJUA consists of students, community members, families and committed allies who understand the struggles of immigrants and marginalized groups.
“Once I was introduced to that group, I knew that was something I wanted to do, because it allowed me to be the person I didn’t have growing up – the person people can count on and rely on, can go to with questions and be able to answer them with proper resources, or just have someone to listen,” Alan said. “I get a sense of fulfillment being in situations like those because I know that I’m probably planting a seed or sparking something up in someone who’s hopefully going to be able to do something similar later on.”
Alan now works as a community organizer, providing support to working class immigrants and other low-income community members. “I want to make sure that I’m there for students of color, for Latino males, for first generation students, for low-income students. I want to be the person that they can rely on,” he said.
Shelton said Alan’s sense of purpose is not uncommon among first-generation students. Their determination and passion to contribute, paired with unique life experiences and knowledge, represent a growing and largely untapped source of talent for forward-looking organizations.
“First-generation students represent solutions to problems we’re currently facing, as well as a lot of understanding and innovation that we haven’t yet cultivated,” Shelton said. “I think it’s imperative – not only for the communities that our students are coming from, but also the ones that they will be going to after they come here, and for the improvement of our nation as a whole – that we recognize first-generation students as a key to success.”
For the Munoz family, Alan’s success as a student and young professional is not surprising. In fact, they see even bigger things ahead.
“I think that maybe right now he does not see how much change he can bring to the community,” Luis said. “The time will come as he continues to work, that he’s going to be a key part of the community.”
“For me it is a great source of pride to see that he has put in so much effort,” Mariela added. “But with him, always putting all his work in, that’s how he made it to where he is now. And I think he can still go much further… higher still.”
How You Can Make a Difference in the Lives of First-Generation Students
Regardless of your educational experience or background, CSU experts say there are steps any of us can take to support first-generation students.
“Everybody has an educational story,” Shelton explained. “And it doesn’t matter what your educational journey was. Talk to a student that’s in your life. If you know a young person, ask them, ‘What are you going to do after high school? What are you thinking about?’ You don’t have to have a degree. You don’t need to be a post-secondary education counselor. But invest the kind of care that lets somebody know that you’re thinking about them articulating their next steps.”
According to Albert Bimper, Interim Chief of Staff to CSU’s President, similar ongoing conversations with current students and graduates can help university officials better understand and support the first-generation college experience.
“It’s important that we allow first-generation students to tell their story,” Bimper said. “In that we’ll find that there’s a uniqueness, that there’s a certain path which has prepared them to be successful and to thrive here at CSU. We might also find that as they tell the story, there’s some common threads amongst them that tells us about who we are as an institution, who we are as a country, who we are across our communities, and so it helps us as an institution ask even better questions when we learn and listen to those that are first generation.
“I think we will hear stories of perseverance,” he added. “We’ll hear stories of resilience. We’ll hear stories of grit. We’ll hear stories of overcoming obstacles and challenges. We will hear stories of those that have been very strategic and methodical, and those that have been very passionate. I think we’ll hear stories that affirm who we are as an institution, but we’ll also hear stories that will help us ask better questions of who we want to be. That’s the value of first-generation students on our campus.”
How You Can Get Involved
- Connect with CSU to learn more about CSU around the state and opportunities to work together.
Build Bridges: Connect with your Community
- CSU’s Center for Public Deliberation aims to improve the way our community is able to talk through complex issues so that we can arrive at better decisions. Learn more about their events and community projects.