"I don’t want my students to be like me, running around like a chicken with their head cut off"

Meet Cassandra

Cassandra with her parents at her Master’s graduation.

Cassandra with her parents at her Master’s graduation.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.  

I grew up in Pomona with a pretty large family—I have seven siblings. My parents emigrated from El Salvador in the early 1980’s and I’m the first one of my siblings to be born in the United States. Some of my older siblings didn’t go to college, my older brother did, but because we had no idea what that meant, he took a very nontraditional route. I was the first one to start thinking about college in high school. Thankfully, I was part of an amazing program, Upward Bound, which is part of the TRIO programs.

Upward Bound was my go-to resource. I asked them all the questions I couldn’t ask my parents—what classes to take in high school, what would college be like, how the heck I was supposed to fill out FAFSA and why my mom needed to give her tax information.  Upward Bound helped answer all these questions. I ended up going to the University of Laverne as a computer science major, not really knowing what that meant. I ended up struggling a lot in college, especially my first year. I came into college having been at the top of my high school class. I ended up getting a D in my college math class, a subject which used to be my strong suit. I was panicked that I wasn’t going to be able to “do this”.

Thankfully I had a great boss at one of my jobs in college who was really encouraging and urged me to try one more semester and switch up my classes. I actually graduated as a criminology major which I hadn’t heard of it until I had to take a General Education class. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my major once I graduated; people kept telling me to be a cop, but I know that if I hear gunshots I’m going to be running in the opposite direction. I heard a lot of gunshots in my neighborhood growing up and it just didn’t sound like something I was temperamentally suited for.

I think we often don’t talk about what happens after you get your diploma. I had luckily stayed connected with my TRIO program. They had a position opening up and I applied and worked with other first-gen high school students for six years. Recently, I transitioned into new role as first-gen coordinator at a university working with students in the same capacity, but during a different part of their journey. I don’t want them to be like me, running around like a chicken with their head cut off, trying to figure out what’s coming after graduation. 


You mentioned how your boss influenced your decision to stay in school—I’m assuming you worked throughout college?

I thankfully had work study and I worked at the University of Laverne’s student center for two years. It was one of three jobs I had during my undergrad. I was trying to pay for books and other expenses.

Cassandra with her siblings at her college graduation.

Cassandra with her siblings at her college graduation.

How did you balance having three jobs with studying?

I would say my first semester wasn’t the best experience, as I mentioned earlier. I focused a lot on work. In addition to paying for books and parking permits I was also helping out at home so I focused a lot on working as many hours as possible and that ultimately affected my studying. For me, finding a balance was making sure I was giving myself enough time for school and to be a student and making work a secondary responsibility.

I was coming from a family that wasn’t the most financially stable and I was able to help out for a bit which was good. However, my mom reminded me that I was in college primarily to be a student and to better myself. Another way that I was able to prioritize my school work was through working on campus which afforded me a more flexible work environment. One of my jobs was working with an AVID program which works with college-bound students and they also understood that I was primarily a college student. By working jobs that were more flexible with my hours and that had an educational component, I was able to make sure that I remained committed to my schoolwork, while still earning extra money. 


How would you advise students to approach parents who might be apprehensive about the amount of personal and financial information required to complete the college application process?

For me, going through the financial aid process was very difficult—in my house we didn’t talk about finances. My parents didn’t necessarily have that trust with me as a student to share the ins and outs of their taxes and finances. Something that I did to circumvent this was connect with my high school counselor whom I had worked with and developed a relationship with throughout high school.

I asked my counselor to meet with my mom and help me explain to her why I needed all this. I also lucked out because my counselor spoke Spanish. Find somebody on your high school campus—a counselor, a teacher, or any professional—and see if they can help you have that conversation. Also make sure that during that conversation your parents know that FAFSA is not a one-time deal, you have to do it every year. It’s a recurring part of your college career.


What was one of the biggest challenges you encountered during your undergrad?

I think the big one, other than the financial aspect, was finding a community on campus. I was a commuter my first year, I was working, and it was hard to find that niche on campus. A lot of the people I knew at school didn’t understand why I was always rushing off to a job or why all I did was work and study. It was hard to be vulnerable and talk about how stressed I was because I felt that I was the only one who wasn’t clicking.

It wasn’t until my second year, when I decided to dorm on campus, that I slowly began to integrate, but even then it was hard. I would hear people talking about all these trips they were taking for spring break or making plans for day trips and I would be constantly making up excuses as to why I couldn’t join. Now, there were other first-gen students on campus, but none of us were talking about our experiences or aware that other people were going through the same thing and that made it difficult to connect. We weren’t having that conversation. 


What’s something you wish people had told you about college? 

That it’s okay to tell somebody you’re not doing ok. I was so scared of showing weakness or showing that I wasn’t prepared, that at the end of the day I ended up hurting myself. I didn’t pass classes, I didn’t feel part of the campus community, I was doing all these things to hide who I was, all because I didn’t want to show that more vulnerable side. Today, that’s something I drill into my students. I let them know that if something isn’t okay, my door is open. Now my campus has a first-gen program and I’m glad that I can go back and be a mentor, but back in the day it was very different.

Cassandra with her TRIO coworkers.

Cassandra with her TRIO coworkers.

Does what you studied in college relate to what you’re doing now?

I took some courses on at-risk youth or “juvenile delinquents” for my criminology major. For me, learning about what it meant for a student to be in the juvenile system gave me that push to make sure our community was given the support they needed. Looking at the reality of what students face in the juvenile system, I refuse to let more students go down that road. I utilized what I learned to talk to students about the potential consequences of going down the wrong paths and being sure that I was there as a support system and mentor. 


Did you complete any internships in high school or college that guided your academic pursuits?

My first internship showed me that I absolutely didn’t want to go through with my declared major of computer science.  Once I’d moved into the criminology field, I decided to intern at a coroner’s office. Two days into it I realized I wasn’t built to be dealing with the sensitive cases that were coming into the office. I also able to intern with a group called For Children and that’s where I started making the connection to students and working with programs that help students forge a path forward. That was my first aha! moment when I realized that working with students was a real possibility for me.


For a lot of students, not even just first-gen students, but anyone really, interning can be incredibly difficult. Many internships are unpaid, take time away from hours students can spend working, and often require a summer relocation to a city with an astronomical cost of living (looking at you, D.C.) . How would you advice students to work around this?

Thankfully, my campus required an internship for my major and I was able to go to my campus’s career center and get a list of local and paid internships. Really utilize your career center—they have all this wonderful information and a lot of times we forget that they’re there and don’t use the resource until senior year when we’re trying to find a job. Also, talking to your professors is useful. See what kind of network they can connect you to. As first-gen students something we don’t have is that social capital that gives access to greater opportunities—look towards the people around you to help you bridge that gap.


What does first-gen mean to you?

First-gen means being the person who opened the door for the rest of my family. I have younger siblings and after I went to college they chose to continue as well. In my family now it’s not, “Maybe you’ll go to college.” It’s: “You’re expected to go to college because someone has already done it.” 


What is the best piece of advice you’ve received? 

It’s ok to fail. Going from that 4.0 student to academic probation was a hard lesson, but now as a professional if something doesn’t go as planned I remind myself of this—it’s okay. 


What keeps you motivated?

When it comes to my professional life it’s knowing that whatever happened we’re trying it out. No matter what went wrong, there is always something new to try and a new day ahead.  

What has been the greatest advantage of a college education for you?

I have loans that will last me a lifetime, but the greatest thing is that I was able to pick my career. I absolutely love what I do. I don’t care if I have to be up at 2 in the morning to travel across the country for a conference, I love it and I know that it’s something that I got because I got that college degree. I chose this. I’m able to travel, to take care of my family, to take my parents on trips. I have something that is stable and something that I can continue to grow in and continue to step up because of the degree that I received. 


What do you hope to do in the future?

In the short term, I want to continue to grow first-gen programs and make sure my students have the support they need. I eventually want to move up to a leadership role at a university or work at the national level to make policy impact. I’d love to work with NAFSA or the Department of Education. It’s so important to have someone in these roles who understands this journey that our students go through and not just someone who’s read it in a textbook.

Cassandra with her TRIO students.

Cassandra with her TRIO students.

Rapid fire round:

Favorite thing to do in your spare time? Hanging out with friends or family.

Your best habit? I am always laughing. 

Favorite mood booster? Driving to the beach.

Famous person you’d like to have dinner with? Michelle Obama, hands down.

Book recommendation? A Hundred Years of Solitude—but in Spanish if you can do it!