Navigating the Beast

Suesue Eldanaf Walkwitz, M.A., Marymount California University / The Center / October 28, 2020

College is an intimidating beast, especially for first-generation students. Where do you go for help? How do you navigate applications? How do you "do" college? I interviewed a recent first-generation college graduate named Giovanni Zarza on his experience navigating college these last four years. What follows is what he had to say.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. (Where are you from? When did you graduate from Marymount California University? What was your major? What are you up to now?)

My name is Giovanni Zarza, or “Gio” for short. I was born in Glendale and raised in Los Angeles, so I have been in Southern California my whole life. I graduated from Marymount California University (MCU) this past May 2020. I began my college journey by majoring in music, then business, then finished with a degree in Criminal Justice. I just wrapped up my student employment job (I worked throughout the summer). I worked on campus for the Department of Admissions for three years (office work, campus tours, spoke with prospective families, etc.). I then switched over to work as the receptionist during the pandemic. Currently, I am preparing myself to go to music school and go through their program to get a degree from the Music Institution. I am applying to different schools. 

What did your family think about you going to college? Did you always want to go to college?

Not going to college wasn’t an option; the expectation was that I go. At first, their expectations were a bit strict on what I could go to college for. They said I had to go to college and get a good job. Once I expressed my interest in singing and the arts, my mom was open to me receiving a degree and pursuing those dreams afterwards. She supported me in pursuing my dreams, but she required I get a degree and had a “back-up plan.” 

What are some challenges you had when navigating college?

Deadlines were the biggest challenge during that time. I was an athlete in high school and had a lot of senior responsibilities, so preparing for senior activities (e.g., graduation) while preparing and applying for college was the biggest challenge. Finding the “right” college was a challenge, as well. I toured a couple of campuses and was not feeling it. It was important to attend a school that I was going to feel comfortable at. I just knew that when I toured MCU, I felt comfortable.  

Did you have anyone supporting you through the college process? (e.g., applying for loans, FAFSA, scholarships)

My mom helped me. I was a bit luckier than most first-generation students because my mom has a lot of experience with everything. She attended college, but she didn’t finish. She was really on top of all financial items and to-do list items. My mom had a couple of friends that recently graduated college and talked to me and guided me through the process. They helped me and told me what questions to ask, what to look for, etc. 

Were you a part of any campus organizations or groups? Why or why not?  

I was involved in quite a few organizations on campus. To name a few, I was part of the Student Orientation Staff. I was a Resident Assistant (RA) for two years. I was on the tennis team. I was in Latinos Unidos. Personally, I work better on a team, so that is why I decided to get involved in different organizations. I was in sports in high school, so I wanted to continue that, which is why I chose to do tennis. As for Latinos Unidos, when I started finding myself and becoming more one with heritage and culture, I wanted to join this organization. I joined the RA team because I thought it would be a good stepping stone to bigger things due to the responsibility of the role and what it taught you. 

Did you doubt yourself during college? If so, how did you deal with it throughout your college journey? 

Yes, the whole time. One of my biggest character flaws was being my own biggest enemy. I would sit in my unproductivity but also give myself a pep talk to get things done. When I started college I thought to myself, “Wow, I’m here. I can’t believe I made it to a University.” I didn’t think I could make it. When I graduated and got the diploma, I thought to myself “Oh shoot, I graduated! Who would’ve thought?” The whole four years, I thought to myself “I could’ve done this better, I could’ve done that better, I could’ve done this.” I was scared the whole time, but that fear just pushed me to do better.  

If you could give advice to first-generation college students, what would you say?

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Being the first in their family to go to or complete college, first-gen students inherently have that pressure on them to be on top of their "A-game" and never mess up. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t be afraid to admit when you need help.

For more information on Marymount California University's approach, please visit their website here.