The Carson College honored first-generation students with a reception and panel discussion.

“You Belong Here”
Carson College Celebrates First-Generation Students

By Becky Kramer

Flor Ramos’s parents often told her “school is full of opportunity.” Their words encouraged Ramos to keep up with her studies and eventually led her to WSU’s Carson College of Business.

“They wanted me to have an easier path in life, with more opportunities than they had,” said the 23-year-old Yakima resident, a management major who is the first person in her family to attend college.

On “First-Gen Day,” November 8, the Carson College honored the courage and initiative of its first-generation students with a reception and panel discussion in Compton Union Building’s ballroom. Ramos was part of the crowd of first-gen students, who represent about 25 percent of the college’s Pullman enrollment.

“You belong here,” Stacey Smith-Colon, the Carson Center for Student Success’s assistant director of academic advising, told the audience. “Don’t worry; WSU didn’t accept you by mistake. They had faith in your ability to do something no one in your family has done before, and that’s to earn a college degree.”

First-gen students represent about 25 percent of the college’s Pullman enrollment.

Navigating the college experience

During the panel discussion, Carson College alumni reflected on their experiences as first-gen students. Being a ground-breaker comes with the pride of achievement, the challenges of navigating a new environment, and moments of self-doubt, the panelists said.

Suzy Fonseca (’14 Mgmt. Op.) recalled the expectation she put on herself to excel academically when she returned to school as a new mom.

“My husband and I decided it was the best time for me to get the degree to have the least impact on our daughter,” said Fonseca, president and CEO at Lower Valley Credit Union in Sunnyside, Washington. “I was fortunate enough to work for an employer who paid for my degree, and I wanted to pay it back by getting good grades. It took me a little longer than planned, but I graduated cum laude.”

Jesus Hernandez (’19 Int. Busi.) said he struggled at the beginning of his freshman year.

“I felt I wasn’t good enough or ready to be here,” Hernandez said. “But when I surrounded myself with optimistic people and people who came from a similar background, I realize I could define who I wanted to be.”

He also wrestled with the choice of a major, torn between pursuing a high-income career to help his family financially and finding fulfilling work.

“Not coming from an affluent family, I was very money driven. I looked at the top-earning degree I could get—it was chemical engineering,” said Hernandez, a recruitment coordinator for Amazon. “I later learned there are jobs out there that would make me happy, and the money would follow.”

Ginger Cermak, an accounting and finance major, received a $500 scholarship through the Carson EDGE First-Generation Graduate Award for Academic Excellence. The award is given by the college to the graduating first-gen senior with the highest GPA. Cermak also received a special honor cord, and her name will be engraved on a plaque in the Carson Center for Student Success, gifts made possible through a donation from alumnus Rob Sample (’70 Busi. Admin., Mktg).

“Be the best version of yourself”

The panelists encouraged students to view their first-gen status as a strength and to be true to themselves.

“Being first-gen gives you a new perspective, whether it’s in college or the workforce,” said Max Prado, (’18 Fin.) a regional cash manager at Boeing. “You already have something that other people don’t have.”

Early in his career, Prado said he tried to model himself after the finance professionals he saw on TV. “I thought I had to talk and dress a certain way. I wasn’t happy,” he said. “I realized you have to be the best version of yourself, not an idealized version that you think is best.”

Ramos, who was a transfer student, credits the Carson College for providing a welcoming community and resources to support first-gen students.

“I went to a predominately white high school, and the counselors didn’t really know what struggles we would go through,” she said. “WSU is way more prepared and versed in the experiences of first-gen students.”

Alumna Suzy Fonseca described returning to school as a first-gen student and new mom.