It's Your Process, Own It

Damariz A. Castelan Simon, Southeast Technical College / The Center / April 08, 2024

Southeast Technical College first-gen student

When I began to consider attending college, I had the privilege of having the support of my loving parents. This is something many students don’t have, regardless of being first-generation students or not. In high school, my mom would constantly ask me what my plan was for college. She was on it, ever since I started my sophomore year of high school. She would ask me about my interests. I was encouraged to become informed about my options. There were countless nights we would sit together and talk about my goals and what I was looking for.

My parents didn’t attend college, but they were aware of the importance of education. They always encouraged that for me. I was able to see the importance of it, too. And because my parents hadn’t attended college, I looked for help from counselors and the parents of some of my friends. What were my friend’s plans, and how did they make their decisions? I read stories, blogs, and watched videos of other first-generation students and their experiences. I would read the comments and I would feel encouraged by the huge communities of support out there.

My advisors provided general information, but it didn’t seem targeted at students whose parents couldn’t help. They would always tell us to ask mom, dad, or someone who went to college, but I didn’t have that person. But one way or another, people have been placed in my path to guide me. My French teacher in high school was one of those people. She would print out informative sheets with college plans. She had questions to make us think and start asking ourselves what we truly wanted. I’ll be forever grateful to her for that gesture.

Once I committed to attending college, the most difficult thing for me wasn’t to apply. Applying was probably the easiest thing I had ever done. I had all my prerequisites met. I just had to turn in my application, and I would be accepted. The most difficult thing was being emotionally prepared. Did I choose the right thing? Would I be able to afford it? Will I be able to do all that work? Do I want this experience? Do I need this degree? Should I just start working? It was a lot of inner conflict as I prepared to be fully committed. For me being able to make those final decisions was the hardest part.

My advisors provided general information, but it didn’t seem targeted at students whose parents couldn’t help. They would always tell us to ask mom, dad, or someone who went to college, but I didn’t have that person.

By the time I graduated high school, I knew I wanted to go to college and that I could. I ended up taking a gap year after high school, and not long after, I enrolled as an accounting major at Southeast Technical College. The first support program that crossed my path during the summer before classes was the mentorship program led by the office of Access and Workforce Opportunity at Southeast Technical College. This program has been wonderful to many others like me, providing endless help to incoming students with a nurturing environment. In the mentorship program, Marcella, the director, pairs new students with second-year students. My mentor was also an accounting student, and she made sure I knew what was to come and how to prepare for it. My first year came and left and when the opportunity to become a mentor myself arose, I decided to give it a try. I had made meaningful connections as a mentee. As a mentor now, I want to encourage those who maybe aren’t too confident about themselves yet or those unsure about what to do. I wanted to encourage them to speak up because only then can they get what they need. If we stay quiet, it’s difficult to progress forward. During my second year, Marcella reached out with an email about a new opportunity. This time it was to invite first-generation students to a meal. I felt pride being in that room. We had managed to obtain higher education, and although I don’t know what they went through to get to that room, I was proud they pushed through.

Southeast Technical College first-gen program logo
Southeast Technical College constantly presents me with opportunities. I have gone with Marcella to the KELO studio, a local news station, to speak about my experience as a first-generation student. I have spoken to high schoolers about the mentorship program and about being a college student. College isn’t easy, and it takes dedication to complete the program. I have had an immense support system, and from my first day in class to today, all my struggles have been heard. My efforts have been seen. I have new friends. My worries don’t terrify me, I feel capable and grateful for the process I went through. I hope my future mirrors the life I have lived so far. I am proud of myself and my peers, we’ll be able to call ourselves college graduates this May!

I want to encourage anyone who’s thinking about going to college to give it a try. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been out of high school for a while, or if the support of your family isn’t there. Everyone can believe in you, but if you don’t believe in yourself and put in the work, very little will happen in your favor. As scary as it is, visit the colleges, visit counselors, ask your friends, ask for guidance, it is very rewarding. Become involved and obtain strong connections that will also help you after college. It’s a rollercoaster, but it’s your process, own it. 

For more information on Southeast Technical College's approach, please visit their website here.