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Navigating Academia As A First-Gen Latinx Student: From A Latinx University Professor

Estimated reading time ~ 3 min
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Dr. Oswaldo Moreno, a tenure track Assistant Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, VA.

As a Mexican-born, first-generation college student raised in Arizona, my ultimate goal was to graduate college. My parents had less than a sixth-grade education, so I never thought I would become a university professor teaching in spaces my family hadn’t entered. But I did know from pretty early on that I had a passion for learning and a willingness to challenge myself to go after more.

My journey from first-generation Latinx student to college professor with a number of advanced degrees has taught me a lot about navigating academia. Among the lessons I’ve internalized are to work hard, be determined, seek mentorship, stay open, pursue your dreams, and most importantly, even when a door closes, brush it off and seek other doors.

Here’s what else helped me navigate the ups and downs and find success.

1. Focus less on what you don’t have and more on the tools that you do.

The best tools I had at my disposal were resilience, self-determination, and a desire to grow. When I wasn’t in class, I was informing myself about grants and scholarships; I applied to every possible scholarship I could. It was a lot of work, but it paid off. I’ve been fully funded throughout my entire educational journey with zero loans. I didn’t come to college or graduate school with a familial background that exposed me to this knowledge, so to some extent, I was at a disadvantage. But don’t see lack of resources as an obstacle; consider it an opportunity to learn about yourself and continue to grow. I believe Latinx students must embrace the challenge of not only learning what is presented in the classroom, but also learning how to confront the educational system.

2. Find your cheerleaders.

As an undergraduate at Arizona State University, I had a Latino psychology professor who transformed my career journey. He not only introduced me to the field, but he also instilled in me a love for maximizing human potential and helped me clarify my academic identity as a Mexican-born student. He exposed me to research by hiring me as his undergraduate research assistant. He introduced me to other principal investigators and allowed me to pursue experiences that could make me competitive for graduate school. I recall visiting this professor’s office hours frequently, not just for course clarification, but also for developmental and academic growth. Through him, I learned the importance of mentorship in higher education. Growing is a process (not an outcome), and so if we all want to grow, we should always have mentors at different stages of our academic development.

So how do you find a mentor? When seeking a mentor, students need to have an idea of the direction they want to pursue. College students constantly ask themselves, “What will I do with my degree?” A mentor can help you answer that question. Now, let’s be clear: a mentor is not a guidance school counselor or a role model. A mentor is someone that is investing in your life so you can grow, not just academically, but as a whole person. When seeking a mentor, find someone who is willing to invest time and energy into your life; someone who has the desire to listen to your struggles, burdens, and dreams. This person also has to be someone that you entrust to challenge you to grow.

Moreno. Teaching 3 (1)

3. Remember that who you know is as important as your accomplishments.

Professors, mentors, and other academic scholars have networks. Use them as mediators. My Latinx mentors coached me through my graduate school applications, interviews, and even negotiations. What I later learned is that they encouraged me to apply to programs where they themselves had strong networks, so they could actively make introductions for me. If Latinx students encounter a professor who shows strong commitment to the work they desire to pursue, establish a relationship. Be open, and demonstrate your hunger to grow.

Latinx students should use their relational skills as they network and build their academic circle. Whatever educational journey you are on, ask yourself: Who do I know who can help me get to the next level? Whenever you are at an academic event, ask yourself: Who can I assist that will inch me closer to my educational goal? Every day is a new opportunity to build your academic network. Applying this principle will help you navigate the educational system. And when you least expect it, the next generation of students will want to get to know you, so you can assist in helping them advance their academic career just like someone did for you.

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