First generation civic-minded professionals

No veas para atrás” [don’t look back], “no tienes excusa” [you have no excuse], “si tenemos que vender la casa la vendemos” [if we have to sell the house, we will]. These are some of the phrases that several of our Iowa College AmeriCorps Program (ICAP) and AmeriCorps VISTA alumni heard growing up. Even more so as they were about to graduate high school and travel the unknown world of college.

We  wanted to better understanding how first-generation Latino students think about their preparation to become civic-minded professionals, so we asked Yvette Bahena, ICAP alum and current grad student pursuing her masters in College Personnel Affairs at Illinois Wesleyan University, Luis Sanchez ICAP alum and current Full-Time AmeriCorps member at Loras College, and Geovanni Almanza, ICAP and VISTA alum and current VISTA Leader.

Picture of Loras College students
Geovanni Almanza (fourth from left), Luis Sanchez (third from right), and Yvette Bahena (second from right) with other Loras College students.









Statistically, more Latinos are entering postsecondary education than ever before. Latinos represented the largest group of the traditional college age population (18-24 years old with a projected 27% increase by 2022). Yet, Latinos still lag other groups in obtaining a four-year degree. As of 2016, among Hispanics ages 25-29, just 15% have a bachelor’s degree or higher. This noticeable gap is due in part to the fact that Latinos are less likely than some other groups to enroll in a four-year college, attend an academically selective college and enroll full-time.

Like most students, first-generation Latino students choose to attend college for a variety of reasons. They want better jobs and better futures, and they want to give back.

“I have a memory from when I was in either kindergarten or first grade and the homework for that evening was to read to one of our parents. My mother was the first to get home and I read to her. In the process of me reading this child’s tale she fell asleep. I finished reading the book and then shook her to wake up. I proceed to tell her ‘I’m sorry for boring you mommy.’ Now my mother insists I have been traumatized since, but to me it was the precise moment when I knew that I did not want to come home physically exhausted as my parents did on copious nights,” said Geovanni Almanza when asked about his decision. “I would argue that for many first generation students  we share a similar tale. We experienced something that triggered us to pursue a collegiate degree and not be like this or that.”

Family examples can guide desire to give back.

“Coming from a family of immigrants, my parents have always worked hard for all they have and have taught me the same ideas. A foundation from my upbringing is building community and giving a voice to those who might lack it,” said Luis Sanchez.  “I have been exposed to people that want me to pursue my dreams in higher education because they see me as a great student rather than a delinquent from my ethnicity. I have been called illegal, undocumented and many racial slurs. They see me as a problem rather than a possible solution with a bright mind that could potentially benefit our country.  I want to vocalize the voices of those who are unheard and allow them to see the potential within themselves to us that voice.”

Like others, these students have gained a new understanding of the world and skills for their careers through volunteer experiences in the community through service-learning classes, students organizations, and other means of engaging.

“What I learned from my experiences is that people are not powerless; in fact, we have a great deal of power and potential,” said Almanza. “By being involved in the community  I learned how empowering it is to realize how much agency we can have in our own life and how beautiful it is to share that with others in hopes of them discovering it for themselves.”

Using these ideas and skills as civic-minded professionals.

“The skills that I am able to transfer to the community needs are as simple as networking and being in tune with the situations around me,” said Yvette Bahena. “The experience opened my critical and self-assessment mentality more in tune to the needs of the communities.”

These students hope that their involvement will inspire others to find their way to get involved. They also hope it will help those who see them in the community see a different side of first generation Latino students.

“Our life may not be easy, secure, or certain, but we have something that others may not have,” said Sanchez. “As first generation students, we have the potential to build on the road we are on as no one has ever been there before. The mistake may hurt, the perils may be great, the dangers may be high, but we build the road the way we want it to be. There is much we can do and little that can truly stop us when we are determined to accomplish it.”