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Advice for First Generation Students from a First Generation Graduate

February 01, 2023 - 6 minute read

I am a recently adopted Lutheran who was attracted to this theology by Martin Luther’s commitment to education and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s commitment to action in the face of injustice.

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer 

I am the first generation to graduate from college and the only one in my family and my village to get a Doctoral degree. I am still, to this day, 17 years after graduating from Harvard University fighting to gain access to the culture of academia. The consequences of being the first at accomplishing something are very profound and long lasting. I know through experience what it is like to not know how to navigate the culture of privilege that an education affords us while maintaining our roots and bonds with people who at best look at us with suspicion for wanting something different. Because I understand how hard it is to navigate this change and loss, I have always had a commitment to serve as a bridge to others like me. Through my vocation at Concordia University Irvine, I am eager to share my story to motivate educators pursuing a doctorate to address issues of equity in their own fields. Recently I have had the opportunity to support the efforts of Concordia University Irvine to serve other students like me through becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution.

Focusing on our Neighbors

Living in the beautiful cities of Irvine, Tustin, or the surrounding area it is difficult to remember that we are neighbors to other communities in high need of support. In our own neighboring city of Santa Ana, where 96 % of the population are Hispanic with 87 % of the student population residing in low income families and 45 % coming from a household where English is not the primary language, it is clear that the educational challenges are paramount. When comparing the educational level of Hispanics with that of the White, non-Hispanic population, the disparity seems immense.  The high school graduation rates for students who identified as White, non-Hispanic is 95 % and for Hispanics is 52 %. An even more severe disparity is found comparing these populations by bachelor degree completion: those who identify as White, non-Hispanic graduate at a rate of 40 % and Hispanics at a rate 8 %. As an educator, a first generation college student, and an immigrant, I am led to a mission of improving access for these students through my vocation. “Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Working at Concordia I have found the opportunity to advocate for students with an academic disadvantage. Recently, Concordia has become a Hispanic Serving Institution and received a Title V grant from the U. S. Department of Education to develop a support system for Hispanic and low income students in our undergraduate program. I have reflected on the challenges of my own experience and the meaning of my purpose to serve as a bridge for those students who come from families and communities where academic achievement is not the norm.  It is difficult to understand the needs of students who come as first generation to college. There are many issues that work against these students and the relationship between motivation and behavior is often overstated. We often assume that wanting to go to college is equivalent to succeeding in college and although a motivation to go to college is necessary, it is not sufficient. There are so many steps that students must take to succeed and many times these steps are not explicitly known to the students and are often difficult to take. In thinking about how I would love to be able to bridge the differences between culture of the families of first generation students and the culture of academics I have reflected on some of the challenges I found and the advice I wish I had gotten. These are some of the dilemmas that I encountered and impacted my educational experience during college.

Loving and Respecting our Families

  • Yes, we are a valuable part of our family and in a way we are their hope, which is a big load at times. In order for us to succeed and contribute to our family someday we need to prioritize our education now and it is not easy and it does not mean we don’t love our family, it is just a step we need to take to help us focus and succeed.
  • Yes, a college education will teach us how to perceive the world in different ways and those ways might be different from the way our families see the world, but that does not mean we will not love them anymore. Education may actually help us understand their ways better.
  • Yes, we will be around other people who are educated and have high status in our society, but we will always love our families most, they would never leave us, our bond is stronger than prestige. Parents often need to be reminded of their importance.

Asking and Receiving Help

  • There are many steps we need to learn (i.e., financial resources, study groups, editing, tutoring). Do not be afraid to ask for help. There are many people there for you, just ask and the right person will respond.
  • Do not take comments or even attitudes personally: you are where God has called you to be and if someone does not understand your journey help them to understand it.
  • Help other people help you. When someone advocates for you they are taking a chance on you, sometimes this requires you to rise to their expectations
  • Focus on gratitude and appreciation, you may find many people who will doubt you or even resent you, but you will also find some who are on your side and will push you to excel. The difference between these two positions is not always clear, but the risk is worth taking.

One Day at a Time

  • Remember you are in a new context, the context of academia is like a different culture or language, you are becoming multicultural by learning the academic language, this does not make you fake or “a White wannabe.” Nobody owns knowledge, it is there for you too.
  • You are the first at college and maybe the first to grow up in this country and the hope of many, do not let these high expectations overwhelm you, take it one step at a time.

This year Concordia University Irvine begins serving students as a Hispanic Service Institution with grant funds through the program “Advancing: Acceso y Éxito” (Advancing: Access and Success) which will provide support through direct and indirect services for Hispanic and low-income students. This accomplishment was achieved thanks to the vision of Concordia’s leadership team.  We are immensely grateful to God for showing us His will to help these students through this grant and for giving us the opportunity to serve.  I also extend my prayers for students to feel welcome and find inspirational models of a Christian life at Concordia University.  May God help us carry out His will through our actions in humble service. 

Dr. Blanca Quiroz, Associate Professor
Doctor of Education Program


Dr. Blanca Quiroz is an associate professor in the Doctor of Education Program at Concordia University, Irvine. Blanca began her career in education as an elementary teacher for Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). She has conducted extensive research in the areas of cultural psychology, early bilingualism, language and literacy acquisition, early childhood education curriculum, and professional development. After earning her PhD in the area of language and literacy development at Harvard Graduate School of Education, she transferred to Texas as an Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development in Texas A & M University. Dr. Quiroz developed parenting interventions for Latino families as a research associate at Stanford University and for the city of Austin, TX. Her work has been highlighted in local newspapers and early family intervention reviews. Her commitment to helping Latino families equip their children with school readiness skills by teaching strict scientifically researched practices is a reflection of her community-oriented pedagogical approach.

Areas of Expertise:

  • Language Acquisition
  • Early Literacy Development in Spanish/English Bilinguals
  • Second Language Acquisition
  • Child Development
  • Applied Linguistics
  • Cultural Psychology
  • Migrants’ Education
  • ESL education
  • Parental Involvement
  • Quantitative Methods
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