Learning the Ins and Outs of Higher Ed: My Experience as a First-Generation Latino College Student

Attending college as a first-generation student has its challenges. Read about a Latino student who is pursuing their dreams despite the obstacles.

portrait of Aldo Madrigal Olivarez
by Aldo Madrigal Olivarez

Updated September 23, 2022

Edited by Lorraine Mumby
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Learning the Ins and Outs of Higher Ed: My Experience as a First-Generation Latino College Student
Image Credit: Troy Aossey / Stone / Getty Images

My name is Aldo Madrigal Olivarez. Yes, "Olivarez" with a "z", not an "s". When I was born, the nurses made a mistake while writing my last name, and my parents did not know how to speak English, so they had no way of telling the nurses about the mistake. As a baby who was only a couple of hours old, I was already suffering the challenges of being a Latino born in the state of Georgia.

Throughout life, I've faced challenges that prepared me to become a responsible college student. But how was the process of choosing my major, my college, and even my financial aid? As a first-generation college student, I didn't have many people encouraging me to get a postsecondary education. When I made the first list of possible colleges I might attend and their tuition, my mother was looking at me like I was telling a baby a horror tale. From that moment, I promised myself that I wouldn't cause another financial burden on my mother's household — I would pay for my education with scholarships.

The Pressure to Attend College

When I was a senior in high school, the pressure to further my education increased significantly. I would need to start looking for affordable colleges and applying for scholarships if I wanted to be the first person in my family to attend college. I distinctly remember typing "cheap universities in the state of Georgia" into the Google search bar. There were thousands of results. Numerous public and private schools surfaced, but not all of them provided the programs in which I was interested.

My dream has always been to work in medicine, but I decided to do more than just dream about it. I decided to work towards my dream. Over the summer of 2021, I made the decision to double major in Spanish and biology on the pre-med track. I was looking for a university — not too big or too small — that was diverse. I wanted to see different types of people with different interests.

My College Application Process

When I began my application process, I thought it would be extremely hard, but no. The application process was very easy. I was used to filling out documents for my family and also translating them, so filling them out for myself was not an issue.

I remember students complaining about the difficulty of completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. I was curious as to why they were struggling, and then I realized that some students were not forced to translate, complete, or submit important documents like I had to.

"...I realized that some students were not forced to translate, complete, or submit important documents like I had to."

I believe that this is one of the best things about being a first-generation Latino student. Although my mother and brother were always there for me through the whole process if I needed help, I learned how to be independent and responsible.

Applying for Scholarships

As I searched for scholarships, the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) scholarship offered at Valdosta State University seemed very promising. The scholarship offered to pay 100% of the cost of school for the first year. I immediately looked at the requirements for the scholarship, and I matched perfectly. Soon after, I submitted my essay and every document necessary to get the scholarship.

Once my application was submitted, I repeatedly called Mauricio — the CAMP scholarship director at the time — to ask if they had reviewed my application. One day when I called, he said, "Your application has been approved and you are part of the class of 2025 cohort." I was in huge disbelief. I could not believe that I was one step closer to achieving my dream. After all, Valdosta State University had a beautiful campus with warm temperatures, and it was the perfect size. It was almost as if I was meant to attend Valdosta State University.

Since so many organizations offer scholarships to individuals like myself who are eager to change the world, paying for my education has never been a problem of mine.

Being President of a Latino/a Organization

In high school, I had always been an "A" student, and I had always been very involved in clubs and other events, so it was in me to try to continue helping my community in every way I could.

Once college classes started, I began meeting new people — even some important people, I would say. I strongly dislike using people's job titles to determine their level of "importance," but I learned that sometimes networking is necessary, so you just have to do it.

I became so involved in events through networking that I was able to get my first position as a leader during my first year of college. I became the Latin American Students Association (LASA) president. I thought that being a leader in college was similar to being a leader in high school, but let me tell you, I was totally wrong.

As the LASA president in college, I had to book events, manage a group of students with very different interests, and work with other officers to discuss better ways of engaging with students. This was not easy, especially as a full-time college student, but my desire to give back to my community kept pushing me to become who I am today.

Living Away From Home

Leaving my family was one of the worst feelings I have ever felt, but this was only for a short period of time because I would drive back home every now and then to visit them. Living on campus was one of my biggest concerns.

Living in a building where the students had to use communal bathrooms sounded terrible. I was used to having a lot more privacy and feeling more like I was at "home." This feeling only lasted for the first week of school, though. Soon, I became close friends with my roommate, who still talks with me to this day.

Go to BestColleges Hispanic Heritage Month hub to find more stories and resources.

My Advice to First-Generation Students

As a first-generation Latino college student who came from a family that was not the most stable financially, I recommend that students follow their dreams regardless of what people say, including their families.

Sometimes, parents have expectations of what their children "should" be in life, even before they have a chance to see the world. But that should be no reason to stop your dreams to fulfill theirs. Parents want to see their children succeed in life, but everyone can be successful if they do what they love.

"Sometimes, parents have expectations of what their children "should" be in life, even before they have a chance to see the world."

In addition to this, I would recommend that every student take advantage of the resources their universities offer and make friends around campus by interacting, helping, and participating in all possible ways. Push yourself out of your comfort zone to allow yourself to meet new people.

Fear is just part of being a human. Without fear, nothing would be fun. You would never feel adrenaline, which would make life monotonous and boring.

Meet the Author

Portrait of Aldo Madrigal Olivarez

Aldo Madrigal Olivarez

Aldo Madrigal Olivarez was born in Americus, Georgia. However, shortly after he was born, his parents moved to Michoacan, Mexico, where he was raised. Aldo is a junior at Valdosta State University, majoring in biology on a pre-med track. He is also studying Spanish.

Aldo enjoys volunteering, especially in the Latino community, and is the President of the Latin American Students Association on campus.