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The Clarion

The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

Independent and empowered: Stories of First-Gen Students

Four Bethel students share their experiences as first-generation college students.

By Molly McFadden and Talia McWright

Navidad Sanchez Resendiz

Asleep in the back of a yellow bus, Navidad Sanchez Resendiz made her way home from first grade, exhausted from a day of learning to navigate a school and make friends who spoke a different language. At the age of six, Sanchez Resendiz moved from Mexico to the United States, joining her parents and younger sister who were already living in the U.S. When the bus driver made his way to the back of the bus, checking to make sure everyone had gotten home safely, Sanchez Resendiz sat up, having fallen asleep and missing her stop. Many children’s worst nightmare became Sanchez Resendiz’s reality, but this nightmare had another layer: Sanchez Resendiz did not know her address and could not communicate with the driver. She didn’t speak English.

“It’s not just that she did it, but how she started. It’s very empowering.” – Saola Sanchez Resendiz

By consistently riding that yellow bus to a classroom with fast-talking English speakers and filling the hours after school with the music of Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé, this changed.

Saola Sanchez Resendiz, 19, watches proudly as her older sister works toward a degree in engineering.

“It’s not just that she did it, but how she started,” Saola said. “It’s very empowering.”

Passions for taking care of the planet and engaging in STEM, discovered in high school and continuing through senior Sanchez Resendiz’s internship at Xcel Energy, merged in her electrical engineering major. Sanchez Resendiz has worked for Xcel Energy for five years now and finds her place in the engineering world extremely valuable, not only because she is one of two women working in their location but also because she is a person of color, both of which are scarce in the engineering world. 

Navidad Sanchez Resendiz laughs with her sisters as they discuss who is the most emotional. Sanchez Resendiz is the oldest of the four, taking the responsibility of this role and setting an example seriously. “Having those responsibilities on top of school and also having a job,” Sanchez Resendiz said, “is sometimes way too much to handle.” | Photo by Ashlee Mortenson

“An engineer as a woman and a person of color, it means a lot,” Saola said. “It shows us that we can all do it.” 

Sanchez Resendiz is motivated in her career by learning more about climate and what affects it. Daily decisions, habits and what people consume on a regular basis can impact not only themselves, but the environment as well.

“Even the simple things like what we wear or what we eat, you know, it’s not just the cars that we drive that contribute to [climate change],” Sanchez Resendiz said.

As a first-generation student, Sanchez Resendiz has encountered a handful of challenges in finding resources to support her in her education, understanding how she learns best and feeling a sense of responsibility. As the oldest sibling, she sometimes feels pressured to guide her younger ones. She recognizes, however, that these challenges aren’t exclusive to first-generation students.

Sanchez Resendiz’s younger sisters, Saola, Ketzali (14) and Tonalli (11), describe her as determined, hard-working and joyful. They admire how she speaks her mind and lives independently while still being intentional about her relationships with her family.

“She has a strong character,” Ketzali said. “She is an inspiration for all of us. I’m really proud of her and happy for her.”

Sanchez Resendiz feels confident in her abilities to move from Bethel to her career as an engineer with the life lessons and “survival skills” she learned along the way.

“No matter how hard it was,” Sanchez Resendiz said, “I’m still here persevering through it all.”

Amber Pomeroy 

Independence. The word encapsulates Bethel senior Amber Pomeroy’s college experience. As a child, Pomeroy had a large appetite for education, and that excitement over learning never died. If anything, it grew. Both she and her family knew that her education would not end after high school, meaning she would be the first of their family to go to college. Without a blueprint of how to write admission essays, whether or not a minifridge was necessary for freshman dorms or how to pay off student loans, she would be discovering what independence looked like in her own adult life. 

“My parents instilled in me that if I’m going to do it, I’m going to learn to do it on my own,” Pomeroy said. “I’m really grateful for that, but it’s definitely been hard.” 

Entering Bethel as a communications major during her freshman year, Pomery soon realized that her calling was to be an educator. Before college, she’d spent much of her life working with kids, and the shift felt natural. 

“It’s important to honor everyone’s experience,” Pomeroy said. “Find a reason that excites you. What is your reason for going to college?” 

Navigating a new environment away from the comfort of her home in Elk River, MN and her family, was not without challenges. Pomeroy felt Bethel was the right place to develop and expand her knowledge, but it came with a heavy price tag, one she’d have to pay for herself. While prioritizing school, Pomeroy privately tutors to provide for herself financially. When she does find space for free time in her schedule, she often finds herself thinking it should be filled with work as a means of productivity. 

“In my independence I’ve found that I really value my ability to have a job, pay for everything on my own and provide for myself,” Pomeroy said.

She recognizes pursuing higher education as a privilege – one that is fueled by the support of loved ones. At Bethel, she is a part of Woven Lives, a mentorship program that focuses on spiritual ministry for women. As a current mentee, she plans to become a mentor for the program in the future. Pomeroy has a close relationship with her mom, and leaving home for college made the distance difficult. Having a female mentor on campus has positively impacted her college experience, and made the transition more comfortable. 

“It’s definitely empowering [being a first-generation student],” Pomeroy said. “I feel really powerful when I can tell people that because it’s an accomplishment.” 

In her senior year, Pomeroy looks forward to teaching and continuing to shine a light on her passion for quality education. She desires to dismantle stigmas surrounding teaching, especially assumptions that her income might not be sizable; as for her the impact is the most rewarding part of the job. After completing her four year degree, she hopes to further her education. 

Pomeroy is fueled by her love for teaching and values the impacts educators have had in her own schooling and hopes to do the same for the students she will soon teach. 

“Something that I have learned being in college is that with my degree, I’m going to use it and I’m going to love it,” Pomeroy said. “That’s super important to me, furthering my continued education.”

Tania Acevedo Garcia

The CLUES Program. Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio. Latino Communities United in Service. A nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance “social and economic equity and wellbeing for Latinos in Minnesota.”

“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am right now,” junior Tania Acevedo Garcia said.

It was this organization and its mentorship program, Youth in Action, that Acevedo Garcia attributes to pushing her to grow and pursue college through seminars, academic support and community service-learning opportunities. Now, she drives from the Bethel campus twice a month to visit her Youth in Action group to volunteer and mentor students, hoping to make an impact similar to the one she experienced as someone who has been in their shoes. Acevedo Garcia walks alongside students as they navigate the balance between school and life.

Studying community health and social work, Acevedo Garcia, plans to use her degree to work within communities with the goal of meeting needs. On top of schoolwork, she balances having an internship with working overnight at Target. Studying and attending classes during the day, then going to sleep in the evening to wake up and head to work when most other students, like her roommate, Htoo Paw, are sleeping. 

Juniors Htoo Paw and Tania Acevedo Garcia laugh as Acevedo Garcia’s mother lectures through the phone. Describing Acevedo Garcia as nice, respectful and willing to help those who need it, her mom Lorraina is proud of Acevedo Garcia for going to college and setting high goals. While Acevedo Garcia is away at school, her mom said she “misses her every day.” | Photo by Ashlee Mortenson

Attending Bethel, a predominantly white institution, Acevedo Garcia experienced a culture shock. Close friends, the UCB subgroup Vos Latinx and her Act Six, leadership and diversity based scholarship community, have helped provide safe spaces where she feels welcomed. 

“I didn’t really know what to expect, especially because no one in my family had gone to college beforehand,” Acevedo Garcia said.

Acevedo Garcia spends most of her time outside of classes pouring into neighborhoods beyond Bethel’s population. In January, Acevedo Garcia volunteered with the Ramsey County Children’s Mental Health Collaborative, as a family support specialist. Currently, she works on Fourth Ave in Minneapolis, doing case management work with the MN Community of African People with Disabilities, an initiative that helps provide resources and opportunities that fit client needs and empower them. 

Acevedo Garcia’s mother, Lorraina, describes her as someone who is willing to “help anybody who needs help.” Acevedo Garcia has held responsibility in her home throughout her entire life, as her mom was seven months pregnant with her when they moved from Mexico to the United States. Both of her parents’ education stopped at an elementary-school level, and they have often faced communication barriers as non-English speakers. Due to this, Acevedo Garcia was often asked to help her parents complete paperwork and documents at a young age. 

“It is really hard not having Tania at home, but I’m happy she’s putting effort into her school,” Lorraina said.

Acevedo Garcia knows her parents didn’t have the opportunity to pursue higher education, leading to a deep value for her own education. 

“I think it’s really cool to be able to go back to the community that you grew up in and be able to serve them,” Acevedo Garcia said.

As an Act Six Scholar, Bethel became a clear choice for Acevedo Garcia to continue her education post-high school, chasing a career that would allow her to do what she loves: serve her community. College has allowed her to explore her drive for social work, and be a part of organizations that work to provide resources and opportunities to those in need and value the greater needs of the public.

Htoo Paw

Amid laughter, the translation of English to Knyaw and jokes about her daughter’s hospitality skills, Naw Sheh looked to her second youngest daughter, sitting beside her on the blue college dorm couch “I don’t want her to leave, because if she leaves, it would be harder for me to take care of her if she gets sick,” she said.

A look of surprise and sadness appeared on Htoo Paw’s face as the words of her mother began to sink in. Then the translation from Knyaw to English. In that moment the jokes and laughter paused, an all-too-relatable feeling of understanding overtaking the room. 

Paw is a junior at Bethel majoring in elementary education with the hopes of teaching abroad. At nine years old, Paw left Mae Surin Karenni refugee camp on the border of Burma and Thailand with her family to live in the U.S. Surrounded by culturally and ethnically diverse communities in the U.S., Paw was inspired to pursue a career that would immerse her in an active social role in her neighborhood. 

“I want to give back to my community, having someone that people can see and look up to,” Paw said.

“Because she’s the first one to go to college, everything is new. She’s far ahead and gaining new experience.” – Ree Mi Yar

An Act Six Scholar and first-generation college student, Paw has navigated her independence and adulthood with support from programs like Urban Ventures and the Office of Inclusive Excellence, along with her friends and family. In college, she has been able to expand her network and become involved with organizations on campus. Paw is a BUILD mentor, Asian Student Alliance member and has studied abroad in Europe both her sophomore and junior years. Her involvement on campus, Paw said, has created some of her best college experiences, especially during her time spent abroad, as it shaped much of her curiosity for her future post-college.

Htoo Paw grabs her mother’s arm while laughing. One of Paw’s goals through her elementary education degree is to teach abroad. Her mother has encouraged her immensely to seek the education she needs to do what she wants to do for a career. | Photo by Ashlee Mortenson

“Because she’s the first one to go to college, everything is new,” Paw’s younger sister Ree, 18, said. “She’s far ahead and gaining new experience.” 

Captivated by an early love for learning, Paw hopes to honor her degree and represent her Karen (Knyaw) heritage in her future classroom. Where that classroom will be remains a question. Paw struggles with conflicting desires to teach internationally or domestically. In a country like Thailand, she feels she could better reconnect with her cultural identity, but in a Minnesota classroom she could teach in local Karen communities.

“It’s very cool, because there’s not a lot of Karen teachers,” Ree said. “I feel like there’s going to be a lot more support for Karen students and that’s very cool.”

Although Paw faces uncertainty about where her future will take place, she’s certain of her family’s support. Paw has witnessed the pressure that some parents put on their children to pursue higher education, especially children of immigrant parents who did not always receive the same opportunities. Paw’s mother wants her children to decide their own futures: to work where they want to work and go to college only if they want to. This is an encouragement Paw is grateful to receive.

Htoo Paw looks at her sister Ree as she translates English to Knyaw for her mom. As a first-generation student, Paw has navigated her independence and adulthood with support from many people and resources, hoping to repay some of that one day. “I want to give back to my community, having someone that people can see and look up to,” Paw said. | Photo by Ashlee Mortenson

Though these four students have unique stories, with their own individuality and perspectives, they share some things in common. As first-generation students they have been the first in their families to experience higher education and are now looking ahead to their careers and futures post college. Sanchez Resendiz, an engineer, will continue to encourage the representation of women, and women of color in STEM fields. Acevedo Garcia’s ongoing desire for social work and community health is to actively contribute to work that fills communal and individual need gaps. Pomeroy plans to lead her own classroom this fall, and Paw dreams of teaching abroad.

“I’m very confident in what my future holds and my capabilities of doing what I want because of Bethel and the skills that it has taught me,” Sanchez Resendiz said.

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