According to the Department of Education, half of the 21 million college students enrolled in the fall of 2010 were first-generation students like Loera.
Loera calls Matamoros home, a Mexican town that shares the border with the United States. Loera was born in California, which gives her U.S. citizenship, and she is the only one in her family to possess U.S. citizenship. She and her sister, 21, are the first in their family to enroll in college, with Loera being the first to attend in the United States. Loera is currently working to finish her second year as a public relations major at Milligan College in Johnson City, Tenn.
“I wanted to get away from the nest, I wanted to do something else,” Loera said. “I just wanted a challenge. “
Milligan is a private Christian college with approximately 1,000 students. Forty-two of these students are Latino, which means Latino students make up less than five percent of the student body.
In 2010, a report by the Education Trust found that only 13 percent of Latino students earn an undergraduate degree, while non-Hispanic students stood at 39 percent and African Americans at 21 percent. The census data for 2010 reports that the Hispanic population had risen by 43 percent, meaning that Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the United States, but the smallest group getting a college education and earning degrees.
Some Latino students, like Loera, attend college through the aid of diversity scholarships. These scholarships are available to minority students and may cover a percentage or the full amount of the student’s tuition and housing. Milligan offers several diversity scholarships for non-white students.
Loera holds the Goah diversity scholarship from Milligan that fully covers the cost of her tuition and housing. Milligan’s tuition and boarding racks up to almost $34,000 a year.
“If I wouldn’t have gotten the scholarship, I wouldn’t be here,” Loera said.
A disadvantage many first-generation college students have, she thinks, is that students mostly have to figure out the application processes by themselves or get help from other sources.
“My parents wanted me to get a good education because they didn’t have one, and that puts a lot of weight in my bag. I want them to feel proud of me because they didn’t get that."
Loera’s sister is attending college in Mexico, but the systems are so different, she says, that her sister couldn’t really help her. Loera’s teachers at her high school in Brownsville aided her through the college application process.
Loera’s family’s financial support comes from the restaurant they own in Matamoros. Rather than take up the family restaurant business, Loera chose to further her education.
“It was hard because I hardly ever got to see my mom,” Loera said. “She was always at the restaurant.”
Loera said that hardly ever seeing her parents made her mature faster. Since her parents spent most of the time at the restaurant, she spent most of her timetaking care of herself and her two younger siblings, ages 12 and 18.
“My little sister is like my baby because I practically raised her,” Loera said.
Ruth Aramburú, 19, is Loera’s friend and roommate. She is also attending Milligan on a diversity scholarship. Although her mother attended college back in her hometown in Peru, Aramburú and her two older siblings, ages 26 and 24, are the first to attend college in the United States. Aramburú’s parents left a comfortable life in Peru to give their children better opportunities. Aramburú said that higher education is more of a challenge than it is in the U.S.
“You can take a college degree from here back to Peru and anyone will hire you,” Aramburú said. “It’s also a lot harder and expensive to go to college there.”
The story is the same in Mexico, where Loera says scholarships are few and loans don’t exist.
“If you want to go to school in Mexico, you have to be really smart or good at sports to get a good scholarship,” Loera said.
Loera went to elementary school in Mexico, and she started attending school in the United States when she started ninth grade. Her hometown of Matamoros is right across the border from Brownsville, Texas.
“We weren’t really supposed to, but I would cross a bridge to go to school for years,” Loera said.
Because it is on the border, Lorea said that Matamoros is a very dangerous city to live in, even though the part where she lived didn’t have as much crime.
“I would hear shots almost every week,” Loera said.
Loera's application process was much easier than it is for some. She realizes that, for many, going to college is a vigorous process that can’t be readily achieved.
“I met a girl last week and I felt so bad for her because she can’t go to college because she doesn’t have [legal residence] papers,” Loera said. “I have the opportunity to do this because I have the papers and someone else doesn’t.”
Despite the stresses of being a first-generation college student and her separation from her family, Loera keeps her priorities straight. She understands this opportunity doesn’t present itself to everyone and strives to do the for the sake of her loved ones.
“The first generation students, I think, we have to be really strong about college,” Loera said. “My parents wanted me to get a good education because they didn’t have one, and that puts a lot of weight in my bag. I want them to feel proud of me because they didn’t get that. I’m taking this opportunity, I’m giving the best of myself, and I want my parents to be proud of me, but I also want to help my family, and I think that’s my motive.”
Above: Loera studies in the Milligan Library; Loera takes a break with Joven Bass, Nina McComas and Ruth Aramburú. Photos: Jessica Fuller