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Perspective | TRIO Talent Search alumna shares experience and advice for first-gen students

One of my favorite parts of working with TRIO Talent Search is getting the chance to chat with students who have made it through a year or two of college. TRIO Talent Search is a federal grant program designed to assist middle and high school students who will be first-generation college students from families with limited income during middle and high school.

Recently, one of our TRIO Talent Search alumna, Diana Gabriel, reached out to request information regarding our work with Latinx students, as she was doing work on a project for Latinx Ed at Chapel Hill.

Diana is currently at Western Carolina University studying criminal justice and forensic anthropology. We began an email conversation, and I was able to ask for her perspective on how TRIO impacted her life, lessons she has learned so far from college, and advice for first-generation students. Her responses were so encouraging that I just had to share.


Sarah Thomas: So, Diana, what are you doing now besides studying forensic anthropology at WCU?

Diana Gabriel:

  • Campkesem Chapter, WCU
  • SGA, Senator
  • (LEAP) Language Enhancement Volunteer
  • Project C.A.R.E. (Performance and Retention), Mentor
  • Latinx Ed Chapel Hill, Storyteller Nuestra Voz
  • Mujeres con un Propósito, Vice-President
  • Member of WCU Academic, Diversity and Inclusion, and Community Engagement Committees
  • Asheville Department of Commerce NEXT-AVL, Mentee
  • Department of Annual Giving, Chatty Cat
  • Founder of Latinas Promoviendo Comunidad/Lambda Pi Chi Sorority Inc., WCU Provisional chapter
  • Secretary and Community Service Chair

Thomas: Good grief! How do you have time to breathe?! So, what did you find to be most helpful about being a part of TRIO in high school?

Gabriel: What I found most helpful about TRIO was the positive atmosphere and the strong culture of support. It was a place that helped me feel connected to my peers outside of the classroom. It also helped me grow as an individual, whether I knew it at the time or not.

I believe TRIO played a big role in shaping the outgoing person I am today. Many times, planting the seed is what matters, even if you don’t see the results right away. As teenagers in high school, we goof off a lot or seem nonchalant, yet we soak up everything like a sponge and store it for future use even if it seems like we are not paying attention.

This was the case for me. I was shy and extremely reserved and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life; furthermore, I was questioning if college was even for me. TRIO helped guide me in the right direction by touring a variety of college campuses (which at the time just seemed like a fun way to get away from home, not really thinking of it as an educational experience), but little did I know it would help me make the right choice and choose the perfect university for me. I wake up each day so thankful that I found my home away from home.

TRIO also exposed me to different things I had never been able to experience, be it because of my socioeconomic status as a first- generation and low-income student, or simply because I had never thought of immersing myself in different experiences such as summer sessions hosted by Phoenix counseling that taught us about grounding techniques and self-care, concepts that many times are overlooked in Latinx culture.

Thomas: Why would you recommend other first-generation college students join the program?

Gabriel: I would recommend the program to students because many times, as a first-gen student, you have no idea where to start when it comes to applying to college, navigating FAFSA, or just making meaningful professional connections. TRIO sets you up for success and gives you resources you would not otherwise have access to such as online tutoring, transcript waivers, and information on how to apply for SAT and college application waivers.

TRIO is a once in a lifetime experience. I am a strong believer in just going for it if you think that you will regret not having done it in the future.

TRIO staff works very hard to deliver a variety of different experiences you may never have thought of, even if it doesn’t seem like your cup of tea, try it you will be pleasantly surprised and if you are not at least you learned something new.

Thomas: What has been the most important thing you’ve learned during your first year of college?

Gabriel: Do not be afraid to ask for help! You would be surprised by how many people on and off campus are eager to help guide you, they were once in your shoes.

Explore and set your boundaries. To be able to set professional boundaries, you have to experience different situations (to a reasonable and safe extent). I will not lie — I overdid it just a little bit with campus organizations, volunteering, on and off campus jobs, taking way too many credit hours, founding and rushing Latinas Promoviendo Comunidad/Lambda Pi Chi Sorority Inc. my Freshman year, and social activities so much so that I sought advice from a trusted hermana (sister) in my sorority that was just as involved if not more than I was. Her advice to me was to sit down and assess why I joined each organization in the first place. If it makes me happy, keep contributing to it; if it did not make me happy, let it go and no one will judge — there will always be someone to come along and fill that role. Coming out on the other side, I realized that I needed to set aside time for my wellbeing so that I could truly contribute to the organizations I was passionate about with a full heart and a calm mind.

Thomas: What piece of advice would you give to current TRIO students who hope to attend college?

Gabriel: I know life is daunting, but take a leap of faith. I started my first day of college on my 18th birthday and was truly in shock. I did not speak a word to anyone all day. No one from my high school was here with me, I desperately wanted to run home. I almost called my mom to come pick me up immediately even though I was two hours away! I was so sad no one on campus knew it was my birthday, to them I was just another face in class.

I say this to show that being a bit uncomfortable is OK. In my head, I said to myself a common Spanish phrase: “algun dia hay que volar” (one day you have to fly). After I repeated this over and over, I made up my mind to put myself out there and meet new people.

Needless to say it was a bit awkward at first as I experimented with ways to introduce myself. But in the end, after many awkward encounters, I met so many people that to this day I am proud to say that we have grown together, cried together, faced finals week together, and have become campus leaders in just one short year.

Thomas: What are your plans for the next five years?

Gabriel: I am completely done with my criminal justice major but I have a forensic anthropology major as well, so I am taking an extra year to focus on that. Hopefully I will be the class of 2021. After graduation, I will focus my efforts on landing a state or federal internship to gain experience in the criminal justice field. Then, I’ll start finding my path into crime scene investigation, which is a bit complex because it is not really a set path — it is more of an apprenticeship style job, but I am confident in my abilities and have great mentors who will help me figure it out as I go along.

Thomas: Anything else to add?

Gabriel: When you are struggling, remember that these four years of sacrifice will one day be worth it.

Your loved ones are just a call away. Me and my mom used to fight all the time when I was at home, but now I call her every single day! So you learn to value what you usually take for granted, and you begin to understand where your parents are coming from when they constantly nag you to do better in life.

Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas is the project director for TRIO Talent Search in Cleveland County, North Carolina. Thomas loves helping students with the process of preparing for college, and she encourages all of her students to look for a future career that will allow them to use their individual gifts so they can give back to their respective communities. Thomas enjoys spending time with her husband and three kids, traveling, hiking in the North Carolina woods, listening to the Avett Brothers, eating spicy/sweet chicken wings, reading novels, writing poems, and doing puzzles.