To increase visibility, share advice and highlight successes of the First-generation, Lower-income, and Immigrant UChicago community members
Can you describe your background?
My name is Margot Bolaños-Gamez. I am currently a 2nd year studying Environmental Science and potential Global Studies double major. I am from Houston, Texas, and a Mexican-American from my family background.
What challenges do you face as an FLI student and what have you learned to overcome some of them?
As an FLI student, some of my major challenges consisted of adapting to a higher academia rigor, the city of Chicago, and whom to reach out to with various kinds of needs that came up as a 1st year. How I came to overcome many of these was through the community I fostered in the CAAP program by reaching out to students that I knew from my same courses to study and encourage each other together. Similarly, many of them are from Chicago and they helped me adapt and see the beauty and choices that this city has to offer! Additionally, reaching out to CCSS’s staff for any concern or resources was crucial in many instances because I learned of multiple resources available for FLI that I had not known about before.
What advice would you give to your first-year you?
A piece of advice I would’ve personally wanted to tell myself as a first-year would be regarding the pressure of finding that first internship and wanting a specific GPA. Understanding and hearing from myself that while hard to accept it is okay to struggle with certain courses because not every student comes from the same academic background. That instead of feeling failure it is precisely the fact that I am not giving up in those courses that demonstrates how strong and capable I am to grow and exceed new expectations.
What is your proudest moment so far?
My proudest moment by far is being part of the family, the “home away from home” that I have here in the UChicago community. Despite the distance, the pandemic brought in our lives we are still in contact and stronger than ever United in both the struggles and the successes in each of our lives.
Interviewed by: Eseme Segbefia
Can you introduce yourself and your background?
Hi! My name is Esela Segbefia and I am a third-year majoring in Public Policy. I am pursuing a career in Private Equity. I am originally from the Bronx, New York, though my family immigrated from Ghana, Africa. At the university, I am a student coordinator at the Center for College Student Success where I help other FLI students. I am also involved with Women in Business and the Trott Business Program.
What are the greatest challenges you’ve faced and what advice do you have to overcome them?
The greatest challenge that I have faced at the university is balancing my work with my mental health. Sometimes, I want to excel so greatly in both my classes and career goals that I often sacrificed sleep or downtime to do so. This led to me being very stressed and my mental health suffered as well. My advice for you is to manage your time properly. When you time manage, it is important not only to include the work that you have to get done related to your academics and career goals but also to include time for your social and personal life. This has helped me significantly during my time at the university.
What are your goals now and after college?
My goals for college this year is to finish my specialization for my major. Right now, I am specializing in impact investing. I want to research ways to improve public and private sector relationships to build entrepreneurial ecosystems in disadvantaged communities. I am currently looking for internships and jobs in this field as well. Thank you for interviewing me!
Interview by: Eseme Segbefia
Bio: Rev. Dr. Maurice Charles is the dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago. He grew up in East Cleveland and earned his Bachelor’s degree from Case Western Reserve. Rev. Dr. Charles earned his MDiv’90 and PhD’13 from the Divinity School, and prior to his return to the University, he was the dean of spiritual engagement and chaplain at Hobart and William Smith College in New York.
As a first-college graduate, he understands the struggles of navigating College, handling family pressures, and finding the funding to support an academic career. Since his return, he is committed to working with students who are facing the greatest challenges. He believes that these students often hold the most promise, and he wants to make sure they know that about themselves.
Q: Are there any specific resources on campus that you would like current students to know about?
I would like students to know about my office, The Rockefeller Chapel. I know students often hesitate to come in and talk to the Dean of the chapel because they might not be religious, but I want them to know that I speak with people about many different topics, not only religion and spirituality. I often talk to students about hard topics like intersectionality and sexual orientation and aid them in finding a vocation that aligns with their own personal values.
Our offices are available to everyone during times of crisis. I especially enjoy talking to the FLI students on campus. We have a spiritual office where students are able to use the space for study sessions, mediation, and yoga. Currently, our services are being offered online. You can find more information and resources at: (spirit.uchicago.edu).
Q: What advice can you offer current FLI students?
“If you knock on people’s doors you will find an openness that you might not have expected.”
I would encourage students to be proactive about knocking on faculty and staff doors when they need assistance and guidance. Take advantage of your professors’ office hours. I found that attending office hours helped me throughout my college career. The relationships I built with my professors allowed me to gain exposure to opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise know. Many FLI students would be surprised at how many FLI faculty and staff members exist on campus.
Q: What is one change you wish to see during your time at the University of Chicago?
One of my biggest concerns arose after the 2016 campus climate survey. The level of dissatisfaction among the campus’ Trans and Black communities was very surprising. I hope the university continues to communicate and work with these communities in order to truly address their concerns. I would like to see this university take very seriously what the people who are the most marginalized have to say about the campus’ environment.
I would love our mindsets to switch from “how can we make this group happy” to “what wisdom do they have to offer us about who we are”. I believe there needs to be a shift in the University’s language on how it talks about inclusion. It should not be “I’m for transformation” rather “how can we transform”. Overall, I want openness. I believe the phrase we should retire from campus is “Oh, that will never happen.” This is a university where we create knowledge. The future is open.
Q: In what ways can the University build stronger connections with the surrounding communities?
For starters, we must continue to look around the room and ask ourselves who is missing. One of the things I’ve started to see since my return is that departments across the university are beginning to take the neighborhoods seriously. I’ve seen a shift from a “how can we help the community” mentality to “how can we partner up with the community.” We must look and treat surrounding communities as places of their own, with their own individual values, beliefs, and resources. We must realize that they are teaching us about Chicago, about their community and its needs. Since my arrival at the university, I continue to ask myself how the Rockefeller Chapel and its resources can be more accessible to the community.
Q. Can you explain your background?
A. My name is Vallary Muhalia and I am a third year in the College majoring in Computer science and Statistics. I was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya and moved to the USA for college in 2018. As an international student, I am the first person in my family to attend college in the USA hence my close connection with the first -generation low income community on campus.
Q. What are you most passionate about and why?
A. I am most passionate about giving back to society through mentorship. This is because, growing up and even in college, I have drawn most of my influence from my mentors and supervisors. Thus, CCSS Maroon Mentors program has been a great resource in my transition to and well-being here at UChicago. As a mentee in my first year and a mentor the last two years, I have been able to find a strong support system through the CCSS family.
Q.What has been your proudest moment at the university so far?
A. My proudest moment so far was when I got an internship offer from my dream company- Facebook. This internship gave me an opportunity to use my technical skills while working on real Facebook projects that impact not only my community but also society as a whole. My project involved monetization of Facebook Videos and this has greatly and positively affected the lives of many content creators during this pandemic season.
Q.What do you plan to do after college and what are the biggest obstacles FLI students may face getting into that field?
A. After college, I plan to explore careers in the technical field as a software engineer/data scientist. As an FLI student, and a woman of color, finding mentors in this field has so far been my biggest challenge. However, in recent years, most tech companies have established programs that focus on FLI students and this has been helpful in bridging the gap. The most useful nugget of wisdom that has worked for me is “Don’t hold back, you will be the first of many!”
Interview by: Eseme Segbefia
Alex Galván, (she/her/hers), originally from the Scottsdale neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago, is a first-generation graduate student at the School of Social Service Administration. Alex is in her first year of the extended evening program and works full time at Chicago HOPES for Kids as the Outreach and Family Engagement Administrator. Alex is interested in building community spaces for BIPOC that promote healing through relationships, art, and storytelling.
Q. What challenges do you face as an FLI student?
A. As a first-generation student, it can be very difficult to navigate the systems of higher education, especially graduate school, without familial support. While my family is emotionally supportive, they simply don’t have the institutional knowledge to help guide me through this process. As a low-income student, frankly, it is difficult to accept that despite having a degree from the University of Chicago, society simply doesn’t value social workers enough to pay us a fair wage that will allow me to pay off my student loans, both undergraduate and graduate, in a reasonable time frame. It is difficult to know that because my passion lies within social justice work, I will remain the same, or potentially lower, socioeconomic status as my parents. Universities have a responsibility to look beyond simply admitting FLI students, but to ensure that students are leaving institutions with an equal chance to build wealth. In addition, non-profits and government agencies have a responsibility to ensure that FLI and BIPOC employees are paid equitably, considering the student loan debt a low-income student may have had to take on.
Q. What is one change you wish to see during your time at the university?
A. One thing I would love to see for SSA is a curriculum for social workers in Spanish. I don’t think it’s enough to expect native speakers to ethnically provide services in a second language. For instance, if I’m working with an immigrant from Mexico it’s important for me to understand the systems within that country to contextualize their experience. I think the university has a responsibility to ethically train bilingual speakers in Social Work. I would love to see UChicago partner up with UNAM, especially now that everything is virtual.
Q. What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
A. I would’ve told my 18-year-old self as I was going to UW-Madison to take time to reflect on my own positionality and culture, and how that has impacted my life thus far. I would have told myself to actively seek spaces and opportunities that reflect my identity and passions.
Q. What is your proudest moment so far?
A. Graduating college was a proud moment for me not only because I’m a first-gen student but because I really struggled with my last semester of college. I had lost a big scholarship and I was really struggling with my mental health. I really thought I was going to have to drop out, so I’m very proud of myself.
Interview by: Marisol Menchaca-Escalante
Q. Can you describe your background?
My name is Victoria Bonilla (she/they) but I go by Vicki. I’m a low-income/daughter of immigrants third year in the College double majoring in Anthropology and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies. I grew up in Houston (Coahuiltecan and Sana land) but my family is from Ecuador (Kichwa land). On campus I organize with UChicago United (join #ethnicstudiesnow!), kind of on campus I work for the Community Programs Accelerator, and off campus I’m an intern at the National Immigrant Justice Center with their Asylum unit.
Q. What are you most passionate about and why?
- “Education for Liberation” is something that lately has been able to describe what I’m most passionate about. By putting power in the hands of students and community members, we would be able to realize an abolitionist university— one where no “price to attend” or campus police would stop anyone from receiving UC resources. Relatedly, “Education for Liberation” means recognizing lived experience/embodied knowledge as the histories we should grow from.
Q. What has been your proudest moment at the university so far?
- Something I’m most proud of experiencing UCU occupy KYL’s house for a week— a testament to UCU’s resilience and (actual) commitment to QTPOC/FLI students and community.
Q. What are the biggest obstacles FLI students face? What is the best piece of advice you’ve received to help overcome them?
- As a queer womxn of color one of the biggest obstacles I’ve faced is self-doubt. Not necessarily the kind of “do I belong here?” but “am I doing enough to make my people proud?” To that I would share advice that my friends have told me and have embodied for me: relationships aren’t transactional, you don’t have to prove your worth through success. And with that I’ve been able to journey forward doing what I love with who I love for what I love.
Interview by Eseme Segbefia
Ireri Rivas, Director of Student Support Services, nurtures a supportive environment to enhance personal, professional and social experiences of the UChicago FLI community members. She highlights the diversity of FLI students and encourages them to find spaces that support their endeavors.
Below are the highlights of our conversation:
Q. How did your affiliation with the First-generation, Lower-Income and Immigrant (FLI) community influence your choice of profession?
A. As a college student, I was acutely aware of my identity as an immigrant mostly because a lot of conversations around immigrant rights and legislation were taking place at the same time. I became an immigrant rights activist and helped organize one of the biggest pro-immigrant rallies in my city. Thousands of people came together to show their support, which was surprising in a rather conservative city.
During the next few years, new legislation continued to show signs of allyship from different communities. I saw the DREAM Act come up along with the idea of framing education as a path to citizenship. Life as an activist and a critical thinker led me to this space where I work very closely with FLI graduate students. In a way, my experience is coming full circle.
Q. What advice do you have for someone trying to navigate the social structures at the University of Chicago as a FLI student?
A. I think about this on a regular basis because our social lives are constantly evolving. Right now, I would tell students to advocate for themselves while remembering that there are tons of us cheering them on. You have to find a balance between putting yourself out there to make connections and recognizing that many people within your network will also network for you. It can be very challenging, especially if you are shy or afraid, like I was in college. Try to find overtly welcoming spaces like the FLI Network, where people have already signaled their shared experiences or allyship.
The more relationships you build throughout your career, the more you learn about different resources available to you. No single person is going to have all the answers. It is a continuous journey that you have to go on.
Q. What would you like UChicago affiliates to know about the FLI community?
A. The UChicago FLI community is extremely diverse and brings in many amazing experiences and skills. All of us do not necessarily fit a category or identify with all parts of “FLI”. I encourage everyone to take time and get to know the diversity of FLI members on campus. We should try to stay away from stereotypes or categories that reduce the diversity of backgrounds.
Q. What are you thankful or grateful for today?
A. On many days, the quarantine feels bizarre. I miss little things like having lunch with my colleagues or planning vacations with family. I am grateful for all my friends and family who have kept in touch during the pandemic. I feel connected with them because I know that they are only a call or Facetime away. I feel grateful for that.
Q. What has been your proudest moment so far?
A. Organizing the immigrant rights rally in college was definitely one of my proudest moments. I did not expect the magnitude of turnout or support that we got. One of the main intersections of the city was blocked and it was covered in the news for many days. It was also the first time in Nevada’s modern history when immigrants, their contributions and experiences were celebrated.
Jessica Donada’s Letter to the FLI Community
Thank YOU for being here. As first-generation, lower-income, immigrant students, we face unique challenges that other university students don’t. From filling out the FAFSA ourselves – because our parents can’t read English or have never filled one out – to visiting college alone – because our parents couldn’t take off work, we had to learn to exist as a FLI student at UChicago. I want you to know that you are seen, and your hard work is noticed.
As an Advanced Standing School of Social Service Administration Master’s student, I was only a part of the University for one year, less than that in person as COVID-19 hit. Juggling my coursework, social work field placement, and part time job—all in different parts of the city, commuting 1.5 hours each way to campus didn’t allow me to take part in any of the Center for Identity and Inclusion’s resources or events for FLI students. However knowing that they existed, simply through their newsletters, I believed that they were there for me if I needed. It was reassuring. My story may resonate with you, but if I could go back and attend an event for FLI students, I would. I hope you will get a chance to attend at least one too. Even if I wasn’t able to attend those events, having a good group of friends who shared the same background and struggles as me was essential; knowing that I was not the only one struggling with situations unique to FLI students was incredibly helpful in the times that I felt like I didn’t belong, that I wanted to quit, that I was going to fail.
If you could take away one thing from my letter is that you DO belong at the University of Chicago. I had to continually remind myself of that every time I stepped off the #2 bus in front of SSA’s building. When I was applying for a Master’s programs, I couldn’t even fathom being at this University. My mother sat with me as I completed the application and wrote and rewrote my statements. When I was accepted, she told me, “You see, you do belong, mija.”