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My first-generation college experience: Claudia Martinez

This week, EducationNC is spotlighting perspectives from those we are thankful for: our students and our educators. Follow along as we share the stories of first-generation college students and five educators at Catawba Valley Community College.

Coming to a prestigious university was a huge milestone in my life, one I never thought possible until high school. My dad always emphasized higher education and told me that it would be the way out of many of the problems we faced as immigrants.

My family and I migrated to the United States from Mexico when I was only 9 years old. It was a tremendous change for us, but it was one that had to be done to make something of ourselves. Upon arrival, the biggest obstacle I faced was the language barrier. I came to this country not knowing one word of English. I entered the Gaston County Schools system and was placed in first grade at Pinewood Elementary. This was one of the hardest times of my life. Not knowing English made it extremely hard to connect with students and even educators. I was bullied and I was not at the age to discuss my problems with my parents.

I was quickly placed in the English as a Second Language (ESL) class. I soon became close with the teacher and as time passed by, I retained the language. Reading short stories, playing games, and even watching TV all really helped me. I was held back in second grade due to low proficiency of the English language and low scores in reading and writing. This was a very embarrassing time, but I knew that the only way to move forward was to continue practicing and learning.

I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina and started third grade at Briarwood Academy in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system. I connected a lot more with the students as it was a primarily Hispanic and African-American population. The teachers seemed to be more involved in the students’ lives. Late elementary school and middle school were all periods of trying to pass classes and complete homework while looking for new friendships — nothing more.

Garinger High school was a complete change for me. I met some of my lifelong friends, most of them being teachers, and learned many things about myself. My teachers introduced me to college at a very early time. Flyers about college tours and SAT/ACT prep posters were seen all over the hallways. I concluded that if I did not try my hardest now, college would not happen. I made sure to get involved in after school activities and clubs, joined the JROTC program, and achieved high scores in my classes.

It was hard to get ahead when many resources were not available at the school. There weren’t enough AP classes or student organizations to turn heads in a college admissions office. Although this was true for our Title 1 school, I made sure to do everything I could. JROTC became a huge part of my life. It taught me leadership skills and it allowed me to participate in a lot of events. I tutored students at an elementary school and volunteered in different areas of the community. My instructors made sure we had something to look back on and they emphasized higher education as well.

I decided to apply to college because I knew that was my only choice — my only choice for succeeding and making more out of myself.

I was always fearful of not having enough money to afford college. I knew my parents already had a lot on their plate, so I wanted to make sure that my college education was not something they had to worry about. Junior year was the time when I put most of my energy into applying for scholarships and making sure that my grades were as high as they could be so that I could be considered for admissions. The fear of not being accepted was also present. I thought that I could not have the same criteria as someone from a more affluent school, so that self-doubt was always in the back of my head.

My college advisor Brandi Kennedy, alumnus of the Carolina College Advising Corps, helped me each step of the way. She advised me on what I should do to get all my information submitted; at the same time, she informed me of the scholarships offered. Teachers blessed me with recommendation letters and advice on how to get noticed. It was more than I could ask for. All the colleges that I applied to were in-state. The tuition and fees were more affordable, and I was not planning on leaving or staying too far away from my family during my undergraduate experience. I didn’t want to live at home but also wanted to visit my family over breaks.

Now as a sophomore, I could not be prouder of where I am. I love UNC-Charlotte and everything that I have accomplished. Before starting the fall semester, I enrolled in a summer program called University Transitions Opportunities Program (UTOP) that taught me everything I needed to know; I even took six credit hours prior to the fall semester. I got a chance to explore the campus and get informed of all the resources. When I began classes in the fall, I could sense that many of my peers had prior knowledge about the information being taught. A lot of students could also speak publicly with no problem. I did not have that platform in high school, simply because it was not provided. Not enough clubs or organizations focused on that.

I am also part of the Bonner Leaders Program, a four-year internship program that allows students to partner with different community organizations in the Charlotte area. We had the opportunity to go to New York for a conference to learn more about the program. While I was there, I met other students who were also Bonners who would talk to me about the trips they had been on and how many colleges accepted them into the institution because of the amount of experience they had abroad. I could not relate whatsoever with them because a lot of my application process involved me trying to find resources and organizations that would stand out. I always wondered why my high school never had field trips outside of the state or anything that would allow us to get a better understanding of the world and the places that surround us. That setback put me a few steps behind others.

All things considered, every time I come home I am filled with an amazing feeling. I know my parents are proud of me for finding my way to college without having to pay any money. I now see what I have made of myself, and I could not be more content. Although I was presented with many setbacks throughout my education, I made sure to overcome them.

Claudia Martinez

Claudia Martinez (Garinger High School 2017) is a sophomore studying international business and Spanish at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She minors in Urban Youth and Communities, allowing her to analyze civic engagement and service learning. She hopes to receive a Business Spanish and Translation certificate while pursuing a human resources field in banking.