Editor’s note: This story is part of the Purple Threads series, which aims to tell the stories of Kansas State students who, despite their different experiences, are all connected in some way through the K-State.
On a sunny Thursday morning, Brian Mota sat quietly in a booth at Radina’s. While timid at first, Mota is anything but insecure. He’s confident in his identity: Mota is a junior, the eldest of six children, bilingual and a first generation student studying marketing at Kansas State.
“My parents are from Mexico [and] they didn’t really get any education,” Mota said. “My mom stopped right after elementary school — she kind of just stopped to take care of her parents. And then my dad — he finished high school, but instead of going to college, he decided to come over to the United States, and he brought my mom with him.”
Mota said when it came time for him to decide on college, he had to figure out his path on his own. He said his experience was like “using a map to explore all his options.”
“I didn’t know I was going to come to K-State,” Mota said. “I was still exploring my options and I knew I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t know if I was going to be able to due to my resources and lack of information.”
But his exploration was cut short when his mother gave birth to his younger twin sisters prematurely and his parents needed to remain in the hospital for a couple months. Mota said he spent that time taking care of his siblings and didn’t take much action on any acceptance letters he received.
“Eventually on the last day my dad called [and said], ‘We’re coming back home,’ and that was good to hear because they were always in the hospital — I never saw them for that whole month [and] I was kind of taking care of my other siblings,” Mota said. “Then I got another call … and it’s actually Rebeca Paz.”
Paz is the assistant director in the office of first generation students at K-State. Mota said Paz talked with him regarding the First Scholars opportunity at K-State. The First Scholars program helps first generation students by providing opportunities and guidance. Mota, though excited, said the entire process was still confusing for him and his parents.
Mota is not alone in facing the obstacles — Lauren Ewing, senior in mathematics, is also a first generation student involved in First Scholars who shares similar struggles.
Ewing grew up in Arizona. Her mother gained her associates degree after becoming pregnant with her older sister, and her father never finished high school.
Ewing said her life in Arizona was rough — that people often told her she wouldn’t go very far in life. She was told that she was meant simply to raise a family and not to do much else. But despite the toll it took on her, Ewing persisted.
“Education has always been really, really important to me because it’s like the one place that like nothing like bad happens — you just kind of forget about your worries, you forget about the outside world when you’re in school; you’re there for school, and nothing else is going on,” Ewing said. “So, it’s kind of always been this little haven for me to go to school.”
Ewing had two final choices to decide between: Fort Hays State University and K-State. After visiting K-State’s campus, Ewing made her decision.
“I got to K-State and I was just like, ‘Wow, I love it here,'” Ewing said. “It just felt right — it just felt like home to me, and everyone I interacted with was just so kind. I know that we really push family a lot here at K-State, and it may seem a little cheesy or like cliché to a lot of people, but I truly believe in that.”
Ewing has an older sister, though she didn’t end up going to college.
“The same thing happened to my older sister that happened to my mom — she was going to work on her college degree, but then she got pregnant, and now she’s raising a family and she has a career and everything like that, so she’s not too upset about it,” she said.
Her sister does desire to go back and get a college education, Ewing said, and her younger sister has started her own path to nursing school. But as it stands, Ewing is the first person in her family in a long time to attend college. She described her parents’ reaction as slightly timid, yet encouraged and excited.
“It was really cool because they were just very supportive of my decision,” she said. “They haven’t always been like super supportive of like my major choice, per se, because in their heads you go to college to get a degree that’ll pay a lot of money.”
Ewing came to K-State as an education major, intending to become a high school math teacher, but ended up dropping her education major and becoming a full-time math student.
“They had it in their brains I was going to be like an engineer and that I was going to go do all these things because I pondered it, I thought about being aerospace engineering I thought about going into actuarial sciences — I thought about all those other things,” Ewing said.
Circumstances led her down a different path. A supervisor encouraged Ewing to explore ideas related to helping others.
“He kind of showed me the importance of just kind of dealing with people and being OK with past experiences and using those to sort of help others pursue their goals,” she said. “And so that’s what got me into the RA position, and the RA position is what got me into higher education.”
First generation students continue to learn even after application season. Mota said though he was researching, he didn’t even know what a student union was.
“I was kind of lost so I was exploring everywhere,” Mota said. “The first time I ever came here was during orientation and enrollment. I was literally confused by how college worked.”
When Ewing was questioned on the obstacles she had to overcome, she laughed.
“Absolutely everything,” she said. “It’s like its own realm of experiences just because your parents can’t help you with anything. I would call my mom and I’d be freaking out about something — it would be a number of different things, and she’d be like, ‘Well, you should go talk to someone about that,’ and I was like, ‘Well, no kidding.’”
Ewing said it was frustrating because her parents were unable to help her with some of the experiences she was going through as a first generation college student.
“It sucks because you feel really alone, even though you’re surrounded by a lot of people,” Ewing said. “I think that’s why I’m so prideful in the whole family aspect here — because we’ve carried each other through the past four years.”
A lot of first generation students had to take care of their families, grow up at a young age and learn to be independent faster than others, Ewing said.
“I think that being first generation just sort of means that you’re used to putting other people before yourself, and then when you’re in college you have to put yourself first,” she said.
The power is in the unity — both Ewing and Mota said their support system at K-State helped them through many of the struggles they’ve endured.
“When I first got here, I was in a cohort with 20 other peers, and that’s one word [resilience] you can describe our whole cohort as,” Mota said. “We all had setbacks we were all trying to figure out what we wanted to be — we all got together and had that conversation and then we all told our personal stories and saw how hard we worked to be in that room.”
Ewing said there are many things other students don’t think about that can be obstacles for first generation students. To overcome some of those obstacles, those students involved in First Scholars would often take classes together, attend sessions about financial aid and learn about other opportunities they had available.
“First Scholars is completely comprised of students, and we have definitely helped each other through this whole thing because we all are going through the same thing where none of our parents have gone to college so no one really knows how to navigate anything,” Ewing said.
Paz said she would describe first generation students as resilient because of their ability to bounce back and overcome the obstacles thrown their way.
“Graduating students receive a cord toward graduation, and we gave them green cords and we chose green because it really symbolizes resilience, and first generation students are very resilient,” Paz said.
Aside from resilience, Paz described the first generation community as a diverse one.
“They are diverse in the sense because we have first generation students who come from rural America, from big cities,” Paz said. “They cross racial and ethnic boundaries.”
The Office of First Generation Students also coordinates the celebration of First Generation Student Day.
“We form committees, and we engage students and just want to create awareness what it means to be first-gen,” Paz said. “And also, we want to create awareness that the first-gen students are bringing a lot of strengths to our campus.”
Paz said the Office of First Generation Students exists to provide guidance for the students. They produce dictionaries full of college lingo that provides students with definitions for terms they may not have been exposed to, along with other resources.
“They’re here to help me — I can do this,” Ewing said about the Office of First Generation Students. “Then freshman year, some stuff happened, and I was like, ‘Man, [I] can’t recover from that. And then here I am, and I did.”
Mota said the First Scholars program helped him be successful.
“When I got to college, I had major imposter syndrome, I didn’t think I’d be able to stand out and have the skills needed to keep progressing, but the First Scholars program and the first-gen office helped me see myself in a different perspective that I was blind to,” Mota said.
Mota said that if given the opportunity go back in time to guide his freshman self, he wouldn’t. He said he values his first generation identity.
“I prayed every day about a couple [things] growing up: having an older sibling, becoming Spider-Man and giving back to my parents,” Mota said. “Although I can’t become Spider-Man, I have had many mentors and peers that have helped me progress towards having a career and giving back to not only my parents, but others.”