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Breaking Barriers: a First-Generation College Student in CS

“I believe that the quality of education one receives should not be dependent on socioeconomic factors; it should be a right for all.”

As a digital media writer, my goal is very simple: I want to tell unique stories that impact our society and tech culture in a meaningful way.

According to Pell Institute research, only 11% of low-income, first-generation college students will have a college degree within six years of enrolling in school, compared to about 55% of their more advantaged peers who were not low-income or first-generation students. The data shows that opportunity and achievement gaps increase education inequality, decrease access to critical information, and often reduce a student’s chance of realizing successful outcomes during college and into their professional lives.

Being a first generation college student myself made me insecure about lots of things, from my intellectual abilities to the friendships I make. I found it very overwhelming to navigate my first semester of college, constantly facing educational obstacles without strong familial support.

But, this post is not about me. It’s about a close friend of mine in Blueprint, a 4th-year Computer Science major at UC Berkeley, and a first generation college student — Kevin Deguzman.

Q. Would you like to share a little bit about your background?

Growing up, my parents would always tell us stories of how they lived in poverty in the Philippines. Obviously, as a kid, I never understood the point of these stories or why they emphasized being humble and grateful for everything we had. I never understood why my mom insisted on giving away so much of our food and things; she was cutting tons of coupons every day, buying only what was absolutely necessary and never anything my sisters or I wanted.

I learned from my parents that giving even when you have nothing is true selflessness. I learned to always think of and help others regardless of the cost.

For my dad, bananas and rice was a good meal back in the Philippines. He is now 69 years old, working a low-paying government job, and has worked overtime the past 4 years to help put my 3 sisters and me through college as much as he can. He still eats that meal once in while.

Q. What is the hardest thing for you as a first-generation college student?

First-generation college students are those whose parents didn’t have a chance to attend college. These students tend to be underrepresented in STEM fields compared to the average student body.

The hardest thing for me was probably lack of guidance and support, since my parents hadn’t gone through the college system in the US. I had no idea what to expect, transitioning from a poor public high school to Berkeley. I was not prepared academically, mentally nor emotionally. I used to be really introverted and had trouble making friends. I didn’t expect to meet people that came from such different backgrounds. I didn’t expect the classes to require me to pull all-nighters. I didn’t know the importance of having a mentor or support group and struggled so much trying to manage this crazy college life on my own.

Q. The lack of family support, self-esteem, and college adjustment are some of the main reasons for academic challenges faced by FGCS. What are some things you’ve realized during this journey?

I had many academic struggles at Cal, and there was a time I blamed my high school for not preparing me well enough. There were so many times I couldn’t understand things and I was so frustrated at how well my peers seemed to be doing. But thinking of my parents, I always reminded myself to be grateful to be here, and that there are so many people in the world that don’t even have any access to education. I know that my life would be so different if my parents didn’t come to the US. They believed that a good education would provide my 3 sisters and me a better future.

I believe the quality of education one receives should not be dependent on socioeconomic factors; it should be a right for all.

A lot of those academic struggles led to some mental health issues, which I had no idea about and how to talk about them. I learned what social anxiety is, what a panic attack feels like, what work/life balance means, and what self-love is all about. Since overcoming them, I’ve been more vocal about mental health. I hope to contribute to destigmatizing it and help others with their mental struggles.

Q. Financial insecurity is something that no one talks about, but many of us struggle with it. What do you wish people knew about it?

I once came across a tweet from my friend: “College students always joke about being broke, but when I say I’m broke, I mean that my parents don’t even have money to support me. It’s a completely different feeling.”

Saving money just to save is a lot different than saving money because you have to. With that added pressure, it’s a lot more stressful buying that small coffee, taking a lyft across Berkeley, having to budget every week, living in an overcrowded apartment for cheaper rent, etc. And I hate to complain about these things, knowing others can be in worse situations.

Q. How did you get into tech for social good and what kept you pursuing Computer Science?

I came to Berkeley as a Math major. The only previous experience I had with CS was this Khan Academy challenge during my senior year in high school. The more classes I took at Berkeley, the more intrigued I was by CS, even when the classes became increasingly difficult. It was different from any other subject I’d done before and it felt like my work “came to life.”

I always knew that in whatever career path I followed, I had to help people. I knew little to nothing about software engineering before college. Eventually, I came to the realization that I wanted to work at a place like Khan Academy, a high-tech and high-impact nonprofit. For now though, my first priority is supporting my family financially.

My family was the biggest thing that kept me pursuing CS. Remembering my parents’ struggles in the Philippines and everything they’ve done for my sisters and me is what motivates me. I just want my dad to retire, my mom to be less stressed, my grandma to see all her grandchildren graduating from colleges. I want my parents to visit home in the Philippines, I want my sisters to not worry about money, and I want all of them to just be happy.

Q. Two months ago, we went to Texas to help asylum seekers and I know it has greatly affected your vision. What would you like to share about this experience?

I’ve been thinking a lot more about how I wish it were easier to care about things that we don’t really know about. I knew nothing about asylum seekers before our Texas trip. Now, having seen the struggles they face and heard their stories, they are another cause that I am passionate about helping. I hope to be more aware of the world issues like this and learn to care about the causes that I might not have a personal connection to.

We hear many stories on the news, read articles here and there, but being able to go in person and hear all those voices was something special, and more real. My favorite memory was saying goodbye to a 6-year old girl, Jacqueline. I told her my name, “Kevin”, which she wrote on her doll. Before she left, she showed me her doll (which she named Angelica-Veronica), and I saw that it was spelled “Quevin” (with the Spanish “que”, which means “what”). I never expected to laugh so hard on a trip like this.

Q. What have you worked the hardest for?

Declaring the CS major.

After not making the GPA cap, I appealed 3 times over 3 semesters. During the first weeks of my senior year, after finally being admitted they emailed me again, saying they had messed up and I actually didn’t get in. I was crushed. On top of all this, financial and mental health issues added to my struggle. At this point, I felt I had put my 100% in and was ready to let it go, but my parents were there to support me. They sent a long letter to the CS department and after one final reconsideration, I was finally admitted to the major.

I once was asked, “Hey, why is the CS title so important to you?” I thought a lot about that. Yeah, I bought into the belief that I needed the validation of “CS major” to feel confident, instead of just believing in myself. But, I think it wasn’t the title that was important to me. It was overcoming the feeling that I couldn’t accomplish something that I felt I should’ve been able to.

This experience made me believe that anything is possible if you set your mind to it and I will carry that with me for the rest of my life. Don’t be scared to fail, believe in yourself, and have some grit.

Q. Do you have final advice for first-generation college students?

  • Don’t be scared to ask for help or fail.
  • Remember your story.
  • Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or can’t do.
  • Grit, hustle, and resilience will get you far!

Thanks for reading! For more updates, you can follow Blueprint on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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Karina Nguyen

Karina Nguyen

applied artist & researcher | prev. @nytimes, @dropbox, @square