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Latoya Watson, assistant dean of the Associate in Arts Program, and Rony Baltazar-Lopez, community relations officer with the Delaware Department of State and vice president of the Milford School Board, are both first-generation UD alumni.
First generation students on UD’s campus, those aiming to become the first college graduates in their families, represent a wide variety of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, but all face a common disadvantage: They cannot rely on institutional knowledge from parents or grandparents who have navigated America’s higher education system. National First Generation Student Day, set for Monday, Nov. 8, is an opportunity to celebrate the grit and resilience of this community. Three members of this community, pictured here, left to right, are Johnny Perez-Gonzalez, Olivia Chowdhury and Rony Baltazar-Lopez.
“We don’t care about creed, gender, religion, sexual orientation,
anything,” said senior communication major Johnny Perez-Gonzalez about
the membership of HOLA, a Latinx/Hispanic empowerment group comprising
many first-generation students on campus. “We just want you to join the
At Sussex Central High School in southern Delaware, Johnny Perez-Gonzalez was a star — in a graduating class of more than 320, he ranked 24. But, when it came time to navigate the morass that is the college application process, he felt lost and alone. The son of Guatemalan immigrants, his parents had limited English language ability and no experience deciphering the American system of higher education. In other words, he said, “I was on my own.”
Fortunately, with a whole lot of grit,
Perez-Gonzalez successfully negotiated this bureaucracy, and he secured
the funding necessary to enroll at his top choice, the University of
Delaware. But the struggle did not end there. Because Perez-Gonzalez had
no one at home to prepare him for the vagaries of the university
ecosystem or coach him on appropriate study strategies, he floundered.
His first semester, he flunked each and every one of his midterms.
“I had never in my life failed an exam, so these low scores were
definitely upsetting,” he said. “I instantly called my mom and told her:
‘I don’t think college is for me. You have to come pick me up’.”
This is a story familiar to many first-generation students — aka,
those aiming to become the first in their families to graduate college.
None can rely on the institutional knowledge of parents or grandparents
who've navigated this system before. And, for students of color or for
those from low-income households, the systemic barriers are compounded.
So, when students like Perez-Gonzalez push through these barriers and
succeed — his mother convinced him not to give up, and he is now a
senior at UD and a dean’s list regular — this is reason to celebrate.
At colleges around the country, this celebration takes place annually on National First Generation Student Day,
set this year for Monday, Nov. 8. On UD’s campus — where 2,684
undergraduates as well as University President Dennis Assanis, Provost
Robin Morgan and Executive Vice president and Chief Operating Officer
John Long identify as first generation — Blue Hens from this community
will be treated to a 12 p.m. luncheon in the Rodney Room at Perkins
Student Center, complete with free giveaways and a raffle for Amazon
gift cards and cap-and-gown packages. Additionally, custom-made Zoom
backgrounds for use by all members of the campus community have been
created in honor of the celebration.
“People who see college as a possibility are typically folks who
have parents or grandparents or even brothers or sisters who’ve
attended,” said Stephanie Chang, director of student diversity and
inclusion, who is working to increase access to higher education.
While free food and swag are fun, it is
how UD can meaningfully honor and support first-generation students the
other 364 days a year that most interests faculty and staff.
“We want to bridge the gap between what happens on campus and what
happens at home,” said Stephanie Chang, director of student diversity
and inclusion who, having immigrated with her family to the U.S. from
Taiwan, was herself a first-generation college graduate. “We want to
help students achieve growth in each space.”
One avenue for achieving this bridge building is UD’s Associate in Arts Program,
or AAP, a two-year-degree option that serves as an intermediary step
between high school and the University’s main campus. With locations in
Dover, Georgetown and Wilmington, the AAP allows many first-generation
Blue Hens to stay close to home while earning credits in small classes
with much personalized attention. For eligible Delaware residents, the
tuition is free. For others, the cost is approximately one-third that of the main campus.
Assistant Dean of the AAP, Latoya Watson, is a first generation,
three-time graduate of UD, so she understands the importance of
representation on campus: “You cannot be what you cannot see,” she said.
“When people feel included, they are more likely to contribute to
conversations within the classroom and outside of it — and everyone
learns from that,” said Latoya Watson, assistant dean of UD’s Associate
in Arts Program.
Her goal, Watson added, is to equip for success new Blue Hens
navigating this journey. One of her tips is to go ahead and ask for
help: “A lot of first-generation students believe the need for tutoring
means they don’t belong on the university campus, but this is not
necessarily the case. Many high-achieving students are getting tutoring —
and it’s part of the reason they are successful.”
It is this climate of support that allowed for the success of Rony
Baltazar-Lopez. The son of an immigrant father from Guatemala and an
immigrant mother from Mexico, this alumni said his parents only went
through the eighth grade, and they saw higher education as their
children’s ticket into the middle class, so they desperately wanted him
to earn a college degree. But Baltazar-Lopez had responsibilities at
home — like taking care of his siblings, helping with the family
business and serving as his parents’ “unofficial translator” — that
would make enrolling at a campus far from his Millford home difficult.
A solution that allowed Baltazar-Lopez to attend to these familial
obligations while still getting his foot in the higher-education door
was AAP, which then opened the door to a bachelor’s degree in political
science from UD. Now, he is working on his master's in public
administration from the University, and he serves as the community
relations officer for the Delaware Department of State as well as an
official of the Milford School Board, inspiring other first-generation
students of color into leadership positions.
“It never felt like you were just going to class or just trying to
pass,” he said of the AAP experience that laid this career foundation.
“It felt like you were fostering relationships.”
UD has “put action behind the words” when it comes to supporting
first-generation students, said Rony Baltazar-Lopez, who went through
the Associate in Arts program before earning his political science
The support does not end once students
matriculate onto UD’s main campus. For Perez-Gonzalez, the senior who
nearly quit his college path, much-needed support came from reaching out
to “amazing” members of faculty who, he said, regularly articulated a
commitment to inclusivity and who frequently took time outside of
designated class hours to provide additional help. Now, he serves as the
president of the HOLA
organization for the empowerment of Hispanic/Latinx students on campus
as well as the president of the Zawadi Chapter of the Lambda Sigma
Upsilon Latino Fraternity, Inc. In both roles, he mentors new first
generation students on campus, encouraging them to keep going when they
experience their own moments of doubt.
“Members of this group have to run an extra mile just to be where other students are easily,” said Perez-Gonzalez, a communication
major working toward a career as a television national news anchor. “So
it can be very rewarding for them just to hear: ‘Hey, you’re doing a
Other Blue Hens find resources in the form of several initiatives, including the Student Support Services Program, which provides peer-to-peer mentoring to enrich the college experience both culturally and academically, as well as the We’re First
registered student organization, which connects first-generation
students to one another as well as engagement opportunities on campus
Take Olivia Chowdhury, a junior international relations
major from Atlantic City, New Jersey. With an immigrant mother from
Poland and an immigrant father from Bangladesh, she said she often feels
extra pressure to succeed, to achieve the American dream and to
validate her parents move to the U.S. It is a first-generation stressor
so common, she focused her research on it for UD’s Summer Fellows
program. But, she added, when the anxiety gets too much, she can
channel that energy into her work with We’re First, which hosts
scholarship workshops and recently completed a charity project making
blankets for children in need.
Olivia Chowdhury, a junior international relations major, is
considering a career as a U.S. foreign service officer, possibly doing
educational development work in southeast Asia.
“It has been a nice way to form a
community and to connect with people from a similar background who are
doing amazing things,” Chowdhury said.
According to UD leaders, none of this is for the benefit of the
first-generation population only — it’s for the betterment of the entire
“The more diverse our campus population is — in terms of social
identity, background, school of thought and, yes, first-generation and
non first-generation status — the more we can interact with people who
are not like ourselves, and the better able we will be to expand our own
critical thinking,” Chang said.
To this end, UD is working to expand its first-generation recruitment
and retention efforts. (One student shares her experience in this video.) The Office of Institutional Equity, Diversity and Inclusion
is running a research study about the first-generation student
experience, so the University can better identify where and how to
In the meantime, Perez-Gonzalez has a message for first-generation hopefuls.
“There will be obstacles, but sometimes you have to take risks, you
have to go that extra mile, because it’s not impossible to work through
the challenges,” he said. “My one piece of advice: Just keep pushing.”
Article by Diane Stopyra; photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and Maria Errico and courtesy of Olivia Chowdhury, Johnny Perez-Gonzalez and Rony Baltazar-Lopez
Originally published November 05, 2021