In this post, I’ve interviewed four “first generation” Verto students. First generation students are the first in their immediate families to go to college. Meet these amazing young people who are paving the way for the future of college and study abroad:
Jada Wesson is from Cleveland, Ohio. She intends to study at The Ohio State University and major in Psychology and Social Work. She recently completed the Verto Latin America semester in the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica, and she plans to spend her second semester with Verto South Pacific in Fiji, Australia and New Zealand.
Nick Simundo is from San Pablo, California. He recently completed the Verto Asia semester in China, Thailand, and Laos and is an up-and-coming entrepreneur.
Nayeli Hernandez is from San Pablo, California. She is undecided about where she’ll go next and wants to major in Communications. She also recently completed the Verto Asia semester.
Ruby Najjar intends to enroll in Hunter College and Pace University, both in NYC, where she is from. Ruby recently completed the Verto Latin America semester.
How did you first learn about study abroad?
Jade: I was fortunate enough to attend an international school, which taught me that there was so much more of the world I hadn’t seen yet. My freshman year is when I started looking into high school study abroad programs, and I realized I wasn’t quite ready at the time, which is when I decided to study abroad in college.
Nick: I’ve always heard about college students heading overseas in order to study abroad, but the first time I learned about this term was late in my senior year of high school. I have a girlfriend (Nayeli) who was planning on doing so, and to be able to fund it she was given the opportunity to intern for Verto Education. At the time I was making new connections and planning on becoming an entrepreneur. But I was given the opportunity to meet Mitch, CEO of the company so that I could speak to him about his business experience and what he was able to do to get to where he is today. He mentioned his passions for why he does what he does and mentioned that he just wanted to give students a better first year of college by allowing them to study abroad. This is where I learned about the term and what it actually meant to study abroad.
Nayeli: One of the Verto Representatives came to speak at my school. I remember the guy coming up to my friends and me during lunch handing us a pamphlet about the program. My first thought was heck no. My second thought was that this would be cool. My heart was set on Seattle at that time and whether or not I would get into my dream school which is why at first I didn’t pay any attention to it. One of my teachers, however, told me I should do it and that if anyone could take the opportunity it would be me. I held that comment closely to me, which in the end did help me make the courageous decision that I did, which is Verto.
Ruby: I was never the best student in high school and the idea of failing college was scary, but I knew I had to do something so I started considering a gap year. I learned about study abroad when I went to my local gap year fair and came across many programs but none of them was a study abroad program. I saw the Rustic stand and immediately went over because I did Rustic Thailand last year and loved it. They gave me information on Verto and after much consideration, I decided to take on the challenge and I applied for the Latin American semester.
When and how did you first hear the term “first-generation college student”? Do you identify with this term or is it simply a box you check on applications? Why or why not?
Jade: Like most parents, my mom has always wanted more for me than what she had and a large part of that was higher education. Growing up she was open and realistic about the fact that I would be the first to go to college but supported me the best she could. I take pride in being a first-gen student however I don’t let it define me. My accomplishments are not because I am first-generation but it was a motivating factor.
Nick: I remember growing up, and my father always telling me that he wanted to give me the best opportunity and set me up so that I may succeed. Neither my mother or father had attended a university or college, so they really kept pushing me so that I may get into a college of my choice and be the first in my family. Growing up, my teachers would actually have presenters come in and talk to us about what it means to be a first-generation college student and how we could achieve that goal.
Nayeli: I can’t put an exact timeframe on when I first heard the word. But, I do remember I was about 13-14 and my cousin was talking about it when my family and I were over for a family dinner. She was talking about things that I couldn’t really figure out what she meant. Like FAFSA, the college application process, etc. She had mentioned how she was a first-generation student. I didn’t know what that meant. However, as I grew older that was defined more and finally, my advisors and counselors told me I am considered first-generation, to graduate high school and go to college.
When I was applying to college my advisor would tell me to put down that I was first-generation. She said that that was an important factor to mention in my essays for the applications. At first, I didn’t mind it that much, I thought about it as a regularly used word because where I’m from, my friends’ parents weren’t able to get that education so it didn’t make me feel different. But, after a few months passed and graduation was around the corner, the pressure of getting into good universities and the anxiousness of walking the stage to get that diploma began to hit me. I was the first in my family to graduate high school and attend a four-year university, and that weighed heavy. Therefore, yes, I started to identify myself with that term because it felt like something I should be proud of and not ashamed.
Ruby: I went to school with lots of people whose parents are immigrants, so I always knew that there are students who are first-generation college students. I see how proud parents are when their child gets the education they never got. I do not identify as first-generation because my mother was born in NYC and went to Brooklyn college when CUNY schools were free so she got a good education and has a good job as an elementary school principal. Although I am adopted and an immigrant to an extent so I could also say I could be a first-generation college student on my birth parent’s side. Living where I do and the status I have in American society I have the opportunity to go to an affordable school because of my mother.
Despite the many barriers that have been identified for first-generation college students, they are known to be resilient and driven. How does that show up in your life?
Jade: My entire life I have hated being told I couldn’t do something and although I prefer the terms “resilient and driven”, I must admit I am also quite stubborn. I’ve found that when you tell someone they can’t all their life and then they persevere and accomplish what was thought to be impossible they often ask themselves “what now?” You often get this feeling like you’ve reached the end and there’s nowhere else to go. However, I’ve chosen to live my life by asking myself “what’s next?” instead.
Nick: Being given the opportunity to be something bigger than is expected of you, proving others wrong, and showing that you can break those standards in order to succeed just like everyone else is what fuels first college generation students. This shows up in my life because growing up I always noticed how my parents struggled to constantly work their 9-5 jobs just to barely get by, all the while sending money back to the Philippines to provide for the family. This has driven me to constantly step out of my comfort zone and take more risks in order to one day become successful enough to take care of my family and give back by practicing philanthropy.
Nayeli: I suppose when one says resilient and driven I think about a time in life where I was probably anxious and frustrated. I think back to how I had to let my situation hurt me for a minute and then I let it motivate me. I allowed the weight on my shoulders and the pressure of being a role model for my siblings that came with being a first-generation, push me to do better and get back up. I am driven in a way where I have to set a standard for my younger siblings and do more than what our parents did. Resilient in a way where I don’t allow the situations I’m put in affect what I do next.
Did you have difficulty convincing your parents/family about studying abroad or was it easy? Tell us about it.
Jade: I’m the baby of the family, so me going off to college was a hard thought for my mom let alone me traveling the world. At first, she didn’t quite understand why I wanted to go so far away or why I didn’t want a more “traditional” route. It was definitely a long conversation but I know her concerns and fears were valid.
Nick: At first it was difficult convincing my family that this education program was not a scam. It was hard for them to believe that I was given an opportunity to travel the world and study at the same time. When I first gave my family the good news about meeting the CEO and being given a scholarship for this program, they instantly rejected it, and my father was angry at me at first. He didn’t believe that this was a real college and that it was worth it to even try and do. Finally, weeks after I was able to (convince him).
Nayeli: My mom would religiously tell me that going to a four year university is a must in a life in order to succeed. She held extremely high expectations for me because she wasn’t able to attend a university, let alone finish high school. This is why when I first told her about Verto, she was frustrated with me. Before Verto, I continuously kept changing my mind about what I wanted to do. So, when I told her about Verto, her first thought was the finances. How was I going to be able to pay for this? However, after proving and working, it allowed her to be open-minded about this nontraditional path. She ended up having trust in my decision.
Ruby: When I went through a rough period in my senior year where I had no idea what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go for college, I had much on my mind. My mother, who works in the field of education, was very supportive and offered many suggestions and one being a gap year. I was so scared of college that a gap year sounded like a safe option. After we found Verto there was still much to do and she helped me all the way through it.
If you experienced difficulty, what eventually made the difference in convincing them?
Jade: Ever since I was little I’ve talked about wanting to live all over the world so my mom knew that this was something I truly wanted. Not only that, she knew that I was strong enough to do it. I was persistent and did endless amounts of research. Being truly passionate about something is the most convincing argument there is!
Do you think your experience abroad has been different from other students who aren’t first generation? In what ways?
Jade: I think studying abroad specifically in a place like the Dominican Republic has affected me differently than non-first-generation students. Education is something that is often taken for granted, and you see that under a microscope when traveling outside of the US. It’s been refreshing to see the genuine excitement the kids here have for learning, and it gives me that extra boost to continue and take pride in my educational accomplishments.
Nick: I think that my point of view studying abroad is different from students aren’t first-generation students. This is because this is my first time ever traveling outside of the U.S. I would have never imagined myself immersed in an entirely different culture having a once in a lifetime experience. But other students who come from wealthier families, have been able to have similar experiences, and I feel like they don’t take advantage as much as a first-generation student would. No disrespect to anyone else, but I feel like there is much more pressure on first-generation students because we are afraid to (not) succeed, and we don’t want to let our families down.
Nayeli: In a way yes but also no. The experience that comes with studying abroad is different for everyone. I know some people in my cohort that have said this is one of the hardest things they’ve done and some that it’s one of the most eye-opening, self-impactful experience they’ve gone through. Everyone on this trip has grown a lot from when we first met each other and I think that it’s such an amazing thing to witness. However, it is slightly different for me. I am the first to do both. Graduate high school and go to college and get out of this small bubble everyone thinks they’re in back at home. The opportunity to see the world through an academic lens while also indulging myself with the culture. I am incredibly grateful and blessed to be here, I try not to take anything for granted. Never in my life would I have thought I would be traveling this early in my life.
Ruby: My experience abroad with other college students was similar in certain aspects and different in others. Many college students who are away from home at some point feel homesick or miss something from home. Being abroad there definitely are things you wish you could bring with you or something/someone you had to leave at home. Another similarity was school work. People tend to think you live the full life of luxury while abroad, but because you are in college there is a lot of studying time. Don’t get me wrong there is a lot of fun being in another country, but there is no time for slacking either. College and study abroad students have to work equally as hard. Where we differ is where we study. Studying in the states there is lots of familiarity such as food, language, and culture, while abroad you have to live in a whole new environment. You have to adjust to a whole new lifestyle and that in itself is a challenge. Learning a new language, trying to order your food through a lot of charades, seeing new animals and experiencing a culture first hand is so exciting.
What has been the most impactful moment of your study abroad experience?
Nayeli: In a personal perspective, the most impactful moment of my study abroad experience would have to be hiking the Great Wall of China. I didn’t notice as much then but now reflecting back, I’m realizing that this is crazy. I was at the exact place where I would see the photos in history books. Somewhere where my closest relatives will probably never experience. It made me realize that this is what I have a passion for – traveling. That this is what I want in my life, to get out of my comfort zone and push for better than what is thrown at me. It made me realize that where I’m from and what category I am put in, doesn’t matter. Because like anyone else, I am able to accomplish these goals and experience more than what I thought.
Jade: It’s hard to pick just one but the first one that comes to mind is my relationship with my host family in Angostura. I asked one of our professors to translate a conversation between me and my host dad because I wanted to know what he thought of having me in his home. He said “she’s become like a daughter to me. I love her and wish that she gets nothing but the best from life because she deserves it”. To hear this from someone who was a stranger to me up until a week ago and reflect on the impact I can have in such little time truly meant the world to me, as I have always struggled to see my own potential.
Ruby: The most impactful moments were when I got to meet and work with people ranging from super influential to the discriminated. In the Dominican Republic, I got to work in Angostura assisting locals in the building of an aqueduct, I mixed cement for Haitian homes living in the DR, handed out medicine, replastered walls, met amazing teachers, and in Costa Rica, I painted benches for schools, worked in an indigenous community, and listened to a Costa Rican trans women activist speak about LGBTQ community in Costa Rica. These short 1-2 hour interactions have broadened my thinking and the way the world works. These people I met are more than just teachers, volunteers or activists, they change the world, and it really makes me think about my place in the world. These people are making changes to their community and have impacted me so much that when I go home I will start to make changes in my community.
What advice would you give to other first-generation students who are considering studying abroad?
Nick: Embrace where you are from. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion, and don’t act like someone you’re not. Some people like to change themselves for the pleasure of others, but I don’t think that this is necessary. Be yourself, be proud of where you are from, and make connections. Take full advantage of this experience you are given.
Nayeli: Take the risk and do it. Everyone around you will tell you one thing or another, but in the end, the decision is yours. What you want to do deep down inside, where you can feel your heart explode and when it excites you when you talk about what your aspirations and goals are, do it. It’s not easy, I know. And to be quite honest, it isn’t easy being on a program like this. It requires a lot of internal strength and openmindedness. You will 100% be pushed out of your comfort zone. You will experience things you never thought you could and you will gain more than what you think. Personally, being on this program has shown me a lot and has made me grow as a person and with my experience here, I don’t think I am able to get that at a regular university.
Ruby: While there is pressure for first-generation students to succeed in college there is also success in studying abroad. The world is your classroom and to learn you need to go out and experience what life has to give you. There is nothing wrong with being conflicted with going to college or doing a study abroad, but there’s always time for college, while study abroad is not often an option for first-generation college students. While leaving home is scary, it is always there and you always come back home no matter where you go.