As a first-generation student, I felt intimidated by the idea of college. I knew I wanted to attend college but had no idea what college entailed other than anecdotal experiences I had heard from my teachers. I was accepted and offered a substantive financial aid package from the University of California, Merced (UC Merced). My high school A.V.I.D. teacher, Mr. Beale, emphasized the importance of moving, “as far away as possible to reach [my] full potential.” I chose to attend UC Merced with high academic expectations. I grew up in San Diego, CA, only ten minutes away from the border in a busy city full of diversity. Moving to UC Merced put me nine hours away from my family and in a rural area that I never had experienced. The geographic and ethnic demographic of UC Merced was something that impacted me in a way I had never experienced. For instance, I had never even seen a sky so vividly dark with little light pollution.
I had also never lived on my own without my family and at the age of seventeen, everything felt new, exciting, and intimidating. While I created a strong support system at UC Merced, I still had severe issues with self-efficacy. I felt insecure as if I wasn’t at the same academic rigor as my peers. This comparison was self-deteriorating. It affected the way I saw myself, how I interacted with others, and externally affected my academics. I wasn’t happy where I was at.
I signed up for the Success Mentor Program, an organization that paired me up with a mentor. I was paired with Diana Hernandez. The Success Mentor Program allowed for growth in a way that was fully supported by my mentor. Meetings with my mentor were decided by us and our conversations were not limited. I was supported in every way possible, and Diana always had a resource for any issue that arose. I felt comfortable speaking with her about any topic, which also made me feel confident in any new experience I would have. I had someone who was older, wiser, and successful guiding me over similar obstacles she had experienced. More importantly, Diana fully understood my discomfort about being in an environment where I felt like I did not belong. She explained, “When you feel like that, remember that every single person is in that room with you. No one is better than another; you are all in the same room.” This continues to resonate with me.
Although one person could not cure my self-efficacy issues, it burst a sense of confidence in the way that I approached college. But, building a sense of confidence was only one step towards the ladder of achievement. I was placed on academic probation during my first year of college and was forced to re-evaluate my focus and happiness. I was a bio-engineering major at that time and was more interested in writing than any other course work. I changed majors to Management and Business Economics with a minor in Professional Writing. I felt like I had failed myself in that point of time. However, this decision changed my perception. I had the opportunity to pursue activities that I enjoyed. Previously, I consistently felt drained studying material that I did not find as interesting as writing. This was the first time I was able to turn a hobby into something professional. I often wrote for fun but didn’t think I could make tangible change through my writing. I joined The Prodigy News, The UC Merced school newspaper, and was able to witness the impact that writing had and its potential for stirring up change when utilized properly. This thirst for change led me to join the Associated Students of University of California, Merced.
This change of mindset created a ripple effect on my of happiness. Even when college got increasingly more difficult and I felt like quitting, I didn’t because what I was doing made me feel happy and fulfilled. I sincerely encourage others to follow their rainbow of happiness. Go apply for jobs, join organizations, and enroll in classes that create a sense of inner fulfillment. If you do things that make you happy, you will always want to move forward.
Katherine Cervantes is a graduate of the University of California, Merced and a Fall 2017 intern with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.