For Jennifer Gonzalez, her first few days as a college student at the University of California, Irvine, were typical for a first generation student.

“I felt like I didn’t belong. I felt like an imposter and wanted nothing more than to connect with my new identity as a college student but all I felt was intimidation. My parents were immigrants from El Salvador, who did not have the opportunity to go past sixth grade. I am appreciative that they instilled the value of education but they didn’t understand how to help prepare me for it and that was not their fault. In the first week, my feelings almost turned to panic and I knew that I needed help.”

Jennifer’s experience might resonate with you too, if you are the first in your family to attend college. 

But her story is more than her parents not attending college and not knowing how to help her through the process. Her story is one that we all face at different times in our lives and it is a story of adjusting to new environments. It’s about meeting new people, learning new systems and adapting to change. 

In high school, Jennifer was in AVID, a program to assist high school students who need guidance during the entire process of applying for college. 

“They helped with everything from applications to financial aid and were so pivotal in me getting through the process to get into UCI. One of the main things I learned in this program was that it is okay to ask for help.”

Knowing that the transition to living on campus would be a challenge, Jennifer jumped at the opportunity to live in a Freshman hall with other first generation students. She knew that the shared experience of being a first generation college student could help her to find others like her, who shared the same excitement and fears. 

Upon learning of the TRIO Scholars Program in her dorm and how it provided support for first generation students, she applied right away.

When asked to reflect on the program, and her experience in comparison to the program promise, it is clear that the TRIO Scholars Program made a lifelong impact.

“The TRIO counselors influenced my trajectory in the best way possible. It is crazy to think but I am positive that I would not be where I am today without the support that TRIO gave me when I needed it the most. The program not only validated my feelings and experiences but they convinced me to advocate for assistance. They encouraged me to get involved and taught me how to build my portfolio. They held workshops on communication, networking and countless other real life skills that I didn’t realize were so important. TRIO did a good job at creating a safe space for me to practice my newly acquired skills. Whether I needed to get feedback on a presentation for class, or help me with mock interviews for grad school, I knew that TRIO was where I could go. 

It was because of TRIO that I was connected with my counselor Joanna Hernandez, who single handedly made the biggest impact on my college experience. She was someone I looked up to, had similar values to and our relationship was exactly what I needed. She helped me see the best in myself, taught me how to gain confidence one step at a time and ultimately she is a big part of my success at UCI. I couldn’t help but shed the happiest of tears when I received my diploma in Spring of 2019! 

I loved meeting with Joanna, because she was like my mom on campus. She knew everything about the university system that was so foreign to me and she helped me find the resources I needed for all four years. Each session ended with a big hug and after every meeting, I would leave the office with a new perspective, new motivation and/or a new outlook. 

One of the first things Joanna encouraged me to do was to join an ethnic organization to get more involved. I did some research and found the Latinx Student Psychological Association. When I joined, it was a turning point. I finally felt like I belonged and I felt like I could contribute value to others. I went from being too shy to apply, to taking on multiple leadership roles in the organization and other campus opportunities. My involvement helped me grow fast and I was able to learn how to articulate my thoughts and use my experiences to develop my own story. Through this program, I met a mentor, Dr. Jeanett Castellanos who instilled the value of a graduate education. It may seem crazy, but before that, I didn’t even know it existed! 

The more involved I got, the more leadership roles I took on campus, including Student Coordinator with the Early Academic Outreach Program, Team Leader with Jumpstart, Peer Mentor with the School of Social Ecology, Co-President with the Latinx Student Psychological Association, and Student Researcher with the School of Social Sciences. Doing research taught me the worth of attending a four-year research institution. My team’s undergraduate research focused on the role that psychosociocultural constructs has on the transition and college adjustment of first-generation Latino transfer students.” 

Coming to UCI as a Biology major, Jennifer switched to Psychology and Social Behavior as well as Educational Sciences, and then continued on to graduate school at CSU Dominguez Hills, where she is pursuing her Masters in College Counseling. 

“Once I graduated, it was hard finding a job, but after three months I was able to find one. I am currently working as a Career Guidance Counselor Assistant at LA Harbor College assisting non traditional students in gaining the skills necessary to find employment or continue their education. I also work as an AVID tutor at the high school I graduated from. It is a great feeling to go back to my community and help students at my old high school do their homework and learn better study skills. I love talking with them about my college experience and it’s exciting to be a role model for them.

TRIO helped me realize that I want to help and mentor students that find themselves in my shoes like when I first stepped onto the UCI campus. Joanna helped me realize that my struggle of not knowing what to do, was not a bad thing. She empowered me with the confidence to understand that asking for help was not a weakness. Now looking at my life, I realize that I want to be like Joanna and help students make the most of their educational experience. 

Once I graduate from grad school in two years, I hope to come back to UCI and give back. I am a product of TRIO program. I want to come back and help students in their transition to UCI and their path to personal development as a TRIO counselor. 

At the end of the day, I am so honored to have experienced the support and love from the TRIO Scholars Program. I know it changed my life, and I am excited to mentor and help students wherever my career takes me.”

If you would like to learn more information about the TRIO Scholars Program, and how you can support their efforts to increase success for first generation and low income students, click here