Dean Charles R. Martinez, Jr: The struggles and strengths of being a first-generation college student

Though Martinez's father couldn't relate to his success in college, he always expressed being proud of him.

By Charles R. Martinez, Jr. 
Dean of the College of Education at UT Austin
Originally published in the Houston Chronicle on Nov. 7, 2018

I was born and raised in Southern California and identify as third-generation Mexican-American. My story is less about life's challenges and more about how key people played a role in my becoming a first-generation college student, which helped pave the way to a successful career.

My parents divorced when I was young. My sisters and I lived with our mother, but our lives were unstable. We had little money, though my father worked multiple jobs and did all that he could to provide for us. At some point, my mother was no longer able to care for us, and we found ourselves moving from place to place, living with extended family members. 

From second to fourth grade, I attended many schools. There was never time to make friends, establish routines or start focusing on schoolwork before we had to move again.

All this time, my father was working to find a place where we could live with him. He finally met a friend who would make this possible and change our lives forever. 

"Nino," as he would come to be known by all the children in our family, had just moved to Southern California from Minnesota and was an elementary school teacher. He met my father at a social gathering and was looking for a roommate. They quickly became friends and decided to put their money together and rent a small place. Eventually, they were able to buy a house together.

Nino somehow didn't mind that his new roommate had children. In fact, he helped provide the stability we needed. When my dad was working long hours late into the night, Nino always made sure we were fed and got to bed on time.

He was passionate about education and quickly realized that we were lagging far behind our peers academically because of the many disruptions and challenges. For years, each summer Nino prepared an ad hoc summer school program for us at home — instruction in spelling, math, reading, homework assignments and tests were all part of the routine.

Going to college

Though I excelled with Nino's help, no one in school ever talked to me seriously about going to college. I didn't know anyone with my background who had graduated from college. It was at home where I learned that going to college was possible. Nino taught me the skills I needed to apply and succeed in college, and my father instilled the belief and self-confidence that I could do it.

I eventually attended Pitzer College, a private liberal arts college in Claremont, California, and earned an undergraduate degree in psychology. There were few people like me at Pitzer at that time. I knew few students of color, few first-generation students and few who received financial aid and worked full-time while attending school.

I was a serious and driven student — always studying, sitting in the front row of my classes and doing extra work. I worked excessively hard, in part, because I deeply understood how precious the opportunity was for me, and I was paying for it.

I gravitated toward other nontraditional students, often students who were older than I and who were working to pay for college, too. I was ultimately able to graduate in four years, with honors.

Lessons learned

My father didn't have the lived experience to help guide me through the college years, but he did teach me confidence and instilled in me the belief that I could do anything if I put my mind to it. This acted as a buffer against the creeping self-doubt I experienced about whether I really deserved to be in college. He also taught me the values of working hard and advocating for myself.

As a first-generation student, I often felt everyone else had knowledge about how things worked that I didn't have. Advocating for myself meant asking for help and pressing for access to this insider knowledge.

Though my father couldn't relate to my success in college or to my career, he has always expressed being proud of me. I remember talking to him the first time I had a scientific paper published in a prestigious journal. I said, "Dad, I just got this paper published!"

My dad said, "Mijo, I'm proud of you."

I said, "But, Dad, you don't understand. This is a big deal."

He simply said, "Good for you."

To me, he didn't seem to understand just how important these things were to me. I thought that maybe it was simply because he had no direct way from his experience to appreciate what these achievements meant to me. I finally asked him about it and shared my sadness that he wasn't fully celebrating with me.

What he said next surprised me: "I am very proud of you and your achievements. But, while those things may be important to some, the successes that matter most to me are about the person you are. That you haven't forgotten where you have come from. That you're a good husband and father and a loving son."

My advice

If you are a first-generation student, I say you are not attending college by accident. You are not an exception to a rule. You have earned this opportunity through your hard work.

Like me, you also had key people in your life at critical moments who provided the foundational skills and mindset for your success. They changed your life's trajectory and are in your corner, even now, rooting you along. Your background as a first-generation student is a strength to harness. It will help you persist toward reaching your goals and maybe help keep you grounded in what's really important.

Don't just have a dream for your future life. Truly see yourself achieving that dream, and seek the knowledge and tools you need to accomplish each step along the way.