A truly special moment in the journey of a first-generation college student is when their family sees them dressed in graduation regalia for the first time. It signifies the culmination of both a student’s hard work as well as the sacrifice and support their family has provided as they aimed to reach new heights.
To celebrate National First-Generation College Celebration Day, and with December commencement season just around the corner, FIU gave three first-generation Panthers’ families a “sneak peek” at their beloved soon-to-be graduates in their caps and gowns. It was a day brimming with emotion – and even a few tears of joy.
Kassandra Velazquez is double majoring in psychology and women’s and gender studies. She has participated in TRIO Student Support Services since she entered university, and she says the support has made all the difference as a first-generation student.
During her studies, Velazquez worked with the Women’s Center and as a student assistant in the College of Business admissions department. It inspired her to look for jobs as a college recruiter or admissions professional following graduation while she applies to graduate school. She intends to earn a master’s in higher education administration next, followed by a doctorate in psychology.
“The sacrifices you’ve experienced allow me to experience these opportunities,” Velazquez told her parents after the big reveal in her cap and gown. “Thank you for everything. Everything I do every day is always for you. And my future is dedicated to you just like everything I accomplish will always be dedicated to you.”
“Thank you,” her mother said. “I hope you accomplish all your dreams and continue reaching high. You’re a beautiful star. Keep on growing and never change.”
Ernesto Perez is a finance major and a member of the Honors College. Following graduation, Ernesto will move to Charlotte, N.C., where he has been hired to work in the chief financial officer’s group at Bank of America headquarters.
Ernesto was joined by his sister, Maria, and his mother, Elizabet, who raised her children as a single parent and an immigrant. She said the sacrifices she made to support her children so they could go on to college are made worth it by seeing them achieve their goals.
“For me, [the emotion] is too much. All of the efforts that were made, for me, are fully realized with him,” Perez’s mother said.
Isabel Leal is majoring in public relations, advertising and applied communications and already works full-time alongside her studies. As a student, she participated in the FIU Communicators, a staff-guided student group charged with creating relatable, on-brand social media content for the university’s main channels. Leal is awaiting acceptance to her dream internship with The Walt Disney Company, and she hopes to pursue a career as a content creator for a major label such as Disney, Meta or Microsoft.
Leal’s mother, Romaira, was moved to tears seeing her daughter for the first time in her cap and gown.
“As immigrants, you leave with two suitcases from a country – with clothes and dreams. And really, thanks to FIU, Isabelita is going to fulfill her dream,” her mother said. “For us, this is very important. It's the first day of the rest of [Isabel’s] life.”
Championing first-gen success
At FIU, 38 percent of undergraduate students are among the first generation in their families to attain a bachelor’s degree. The journey can be difficult – being the first in the family to attend college presents unique challenges, as these students’ parents cannot draw from personal experience to help them navigate college life.
FIU has a wealth of wrap-around support available for these trailblazing students as they endeavor to realize their dreams and forge new traditions. The Office of Student Access & Success facilitates success coaching, academic assistance, professional development and much more. The university is also home to five federally funded TRIO programs that support first-generation and other underrepresented students, including Student Support Services and the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program.
Additionally, the First-Generation Scholarship Program has provided more than $23,000,000 in scholarships since its founding. Donations to first-generation scholarships are currently matched 2-to-1 by the state of Florida, tripling the impact of every dollar given.
It's support that pays off: Among first-generation students, FIU has a 93 percent first-to-second-year retention rate – a metric which is critical to predicting a student’s likelihood to not just continue but complete their college career.
For its commitment to these students, FIU received a prestigious designation as a First Scholars Institution by the National Association for Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) and the Center for First-Generation Student Success in 2022. Learn more on FIU's First-Generation Initiatives website.