First-Generation Experiences

Leri Argueta, Associate Director of Diversity Recruitment, University of North Georgia – Gainesville

Can you share a little bit about your journey as a first-generation Latino male through higher education? Who/what inspired you to work in higher education? What has been your experience working with students prior to higher ed? 

I always say that it is an honor to be a Latino in higher education since we are underrepresented in this field, especially in leadership roles like the one I am fortunate to have now. The journey has not been easy as I have had to battle a lot of issues systematically in this field that affect both students and staff. Often, I am put in places where I need to be vocal on issues that affect minoritized students since rarely do people look like our students in the spaces where the decision-making process happens. On the other side, it has also been one of the most rewarding professions that I have been blessed to have! With the headaches of the policies and comments made about minoritized students, the students themselves inspire and motivate me to keep pushing through! Being their champion in this field and giving back inspired me to work in higher education. Looking back at my experience, I had few student affairs professionals of color that helped me with my tough college career. To now be in this space and to be a guide for students that look like me means the world to me. I am Latinx, son of immigrants, first-generation, and from a very low-income community. I statistically am not supposed to be where I am today. Yet, here I am. To be in this position where I can assist with breaking the cycle of poverty and increasing the number of underrepresented students that attend college, that is the dream. Before higher education, I worked in a non-profit for four years assisting first-generation college students in the state of Georgia. I worked with roughly 300 students during my time there.

Tell us about your first-generation programming/workshop efforts you put on for high school counseling offices and their students.  

Before COVID, we started a Shadowing Tour experience with some high school counselors that would identify first-generation students and bring them to our campuses. We would then pair up the student with a current University of North Georgia (UNG) student, and they got to experience college as “a day in the life of a UNG student.” We launched this program to show first-generation students what college was really like by attending classes and joining on-campus activities. Another program I started was partnering with a county’s academy specialist and a county-wide mentoring program in Georgia to facilitate virtual workshops such as “College like a Pro” and “College 101” with first-generation students from grades 8-12. High school counselors would promote it to their students, and I would cover various topics such as scholarships, 2-year vs 4-year degrees, and understanding financial aid. I also attend first-generation conferences and facilitate workshops for first-generation students at college fairs.

What are some effective outreach strategies that you use for counselors, students, families, etc.?

Honestly, everything. Text, call, email, and even making personal home visits. First-generation students will vary on their level of engagement and the type of communication they prefer. The key, I find, is that messaging has to be personal (not generic like “hey don’t forget x,y,x.” When the pandemic hit, we sent messages that said simply, “We know college is probably not a priority right now, but we are here for you.” Showing first-generation students that you care when you outreach, I find, tends to be the most effective way to get students to engage. Also, emailing and texting their parents too! They can help or nudge their children to respond and get ahead of the curve. We often think that our students live in a digital world; the truth is they do. However, first-generation students might need that personal and extra support from us. Last year alone I made 14 house visits assisting students with their FAFSA and college application (following COVID guidelines). I know it sounds like it is a lot of extra work; however, the relief students and families have when you do this  makes it worth it and reminds you why we do what we do.

Is there a difference in outreach to first-gen students/groups in metro areas vs. non-metro areas? 

Not sure to be honest. I typically find myself doing the same effort for metro areas vs non-metro areas. Since our state demographics are changing, I tend to see more first-generation students in metro areas engaged with outreach. However, from a recruitment side I try to always do the same amount of effort with outreach for all of Georgia since the barriers vary depending on where students live and the type of support they are receiving at home.

How do you build or use your own personal experience as a first-gen Latino male into your recruitment and programming practices?

I use my personal experience as a first-generation student to connect and relate to students and their families. While we might want to be quick and say “Why are they not doing what we are telling them to do?” I check myself a lot of times and ask myself “What was I thinking at this point of my high school career?” I also use my experience to reassure families and students that I know that the whole college application process is overwhelming. No one in my family helped me because my parents were not from the United States and never attended any form of schooling in their home country. It is a process that we have to explain and make sure we inform first-generation students and their families about since this will be their commitment for the next few years. We need to assist them with making sure they are prepared for it.

What has been your biggest win since offering first-gen programming at Georgia high schools?

One of my biggest wins was having a student come up to me after a first-generation college presentation at a high school (Pre-COVID) and hug me saying “Thank you for showing me that we can do it too.” I nearly cried because I talked about college admission, how to pick a college right for you, and my personal story at the end. I think my story resonated with her. I’m happy to report that she completed her first semester of college (at a different college) and is thriving!

What is your best piece of advice for high school counselors working with first-gen students?

Make things relatable, personable, and simple. While we may want our students to be able to figure things out quickly, first-generation students are not all at that same level. They have other external factors that may cause them to have road bumps along the way. Also, we need to be consistent with our outreach to make sure students know that we are here for them. Sending one email a month is not enough. We need to go the extra mile for our first-generation students.

Can you share any special opportunities for first-gen students at UNG or other University System of Georgia schools that high school counselors and students can look into?  

Yes! UNG offers a great mentoring program for first-generation students called Gen1 in which students get paired with faculty and staff who were also first-generation, and they receive personal mentorship! We also offer scholarships for first-generation students. Please contact me for more information regarding our programs.

What’s your favorite quote and how do you use it in your work?

My favorite quote is hands down from the Marianne Williamson poem “Our Deepest Fear.”

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness

That most frightens us.”

I constantly remind myself as a first-generation professional and my first-generation students that we are capable of so many things if we believe in ourselves. I came along from that one-bedroom apartment that my mom, dad, brother, and I shared when I was a kid. Fear is not always negative; it is sometimes a call to awaken the lion you really are. What we are really capable of: that, to me, is what really frightens us.

When you finally get down time away from work, how do you like to spend your time?

When I am not working, I love to read and spend time with my family. I have a three-year-old daughter who is my world. I am striving to be the best father I can be for her since I come from a dysfunctional family.