The Inspiring Stories of Four Pomona First-Generation Students
They come from immigrant homes and soon will be part of the first generation in each of their families to graduate from college. While their stories and starting points vary, the graduating seniors profiled here share the pride that comes as they near Commencement and the awarding of their degrees from Pomona College, one of the world’s top liberal arts institutions.
ERICK DERAS ’14: Early Introduction to Pomona Changed His Life
Born in El Salvador, Erick Alexis Deras came to this country with his parents when he was 7, and in two weeks he will be the first in his family to graduate from college.
The big change for Deras started in high school when he was accepted to the Pomona College Academy for Youth Success (PAYS). That intensive mentoring program has promising high schoolers from underrepresented groups live on Pomona’s campus for part of each summer and receive college preparation help throughout the year.
His English teacher at Montclair High had told him PAYS was for students who had the potential to be great. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and I didn’t know it was going to change my life this way,” he says.
Summer seminar courses at PAYS motivated him “to go as high as possible” with education and gave him a foretaste of what life would be like at a small liberal arts college.
“I found it weird—almost to the point of uncomfortable—coming to a class where there were 10 of us, with one professor, and the prof would talk to me and point me out and ask, ‘Hey what do you think?’ I didn’t know what to expect and I enjoyed it,” Deras says.
A computer science and mathematics major, Deras says PAYS opened his eyes to the scope of possibilities those fields offered—“I went from 30-second math problems to five-hour math problems”—and Pomona delivered.
Tears rolled when he received his acceptance letter and saw the financial aid package. His parents had given him street smarts; Pomona would give him an education his family could not afford otherwise.
“Mom went to the equivalent of ninth grade and got the furthest in the family,” says Deras. “When they brought us to the U.S. it was for their children to surpass them.”
Deras hasn’t let up. At Pomona, he has participated in intramural sports, been a residence hall sponsor, a math and computer science tutor and a volunteer with PAYS. His eyes light up and he pounds the table when he talks about Professor Shahriar Shahriari’s combinatorial mathematics class. (“I’m not religious, but as far as human gods go, Shahriari is a math god.”)
In June, Deras will start working as a software engineer with Rubicon Project, an online advertising technology firm based in Los Angeles.
“I’m proud of the reactions that people give me when I tell them what I’ve been studying,” Deras says. “I think my mom is more excited for my graduation than I am.”
THALIA RODRIGUEZ ’14: A Support System for Success
Thalia Rodriguez experienced culture shock and struggled academically when she started at Pomona. But looking back, the senior says she found that the College offered a support system that made her time here a success.
A math major with a minor in Chicano/a and Latino/a studies, Rodriguez says faculty members such as Math Professor Ami Radunskaya came alongside her, and encouraged Rodriguez to be a calculus tutor and go to conferences.
“Once I connected with [Radunskaya], I felt way better. Regardless of how difficult the math classes were for me, I knew I’d be able to get by because of that support and mentorship,” says Rodriguez.
After attending a predominantly Latino high school in Santa Ana, Calif., Pomona was an adjustment. But through her classes, organizations such as Chicano Latino Student Affairs and her sponsor groups, Rodriguez found a community of faculty, staff and students she will miss.
“Wherever you go, you’re bound to see a familiar face,” she says.
Both of Rodriguez’s parents came from Mexico as teenagers and since they weren’t afforded the opportunity to pursue higher education, her father was adamant about her going to school. But “they didn’t have the knowledge or skill set in terms of doing our homework or what classes to take,” she says. Going forward, Rodriguez’s aim is to be a resource to other young people as she pursues a career in education, starting with a graduate program at USC.
Rodriguez’s advice to first-generation college students is to not be afraid to ask for help if needed.
“I know that Pomona College has so much to offer—and at first you might feel alone and that you are isolated but I think you need to seek out help,” she says. “Whatever you need, Pomona has it and they will give it to you.”
JACKIE CHING ’14: Instilling the Value of College Early On
Jackie Ching’s parents instilled in him the desire to pursue the kind of higher education they could not. And throughout his time at Pomona, he has worked hard to ensure that other middle and high schoolers are imbued with the same drive and commitment to go to college.
Since his freshman year, Ching has been active with the Draper Center for Community Partnerships, which supports educational outreach initiatives, community-based research and learning, and other community engagement activities. Volunteering at Fremont Academy, a public school in the city of Pomona, Ching has coordinated curriculum, activities and field trips to promote a “college-going culture,” which includes coaching young people through the college application process. His own experience as a first-generation college student—and the support he received—motivates him to encourage other young people to get their college degrees.
“From a young age I knew that college was important…something that could build intelligence and character,” says Ching, a politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) major. “Studies have shown that the younger [that students] are exposed to college, the better their chance of going.”
Born in L.A. to Chinese immigrant parents and raised in Honolulu, Ching says his mentoring work has profoundly influenced his post-Pomona plans. He hopes to pursue a career in some form of public service, by way of either government or nonprofits.
Working with the Draper Center “helped me understand that you can be a change agent on and off campus…that’s something I want to carry on after Pomona,” he says. “Put thought into action and basically create the change you want to see.”
DIANA ORTIZ ’14: Embracing Faith, Activism and Opportunity
At the age of 6, Diana Berenice Ortiz migrated to the U.S. from Mexico with her mother, sister and brother. Here in Los Angeles, her mother did low-wage jobs, cleaning houses and working in factories and restaurants as she struggled to make a stable home. Every few years as the rent went up, Ortiz’s family would move, crisscrossing the San Gabriel Valley. When their older sister ran away, 10-year-old Ortiz and her 12-year-old brother learned to look out for each other while their mother was away at work.
“Because my mom was working all the time, my brother and I really saw the need for making her proud in our education because she was already consumed by so many economic worries and emotional burdens,” says Ortiz.
When Ortiz learned English in sixth grade, that education seemed within closer reach as she saw her grades go from C’s, D’s and F’s to eventually straight A’s. That trajectory of success led her high school ceramics teacher, Pomona alumnus Sal Perez ’75, to recommend that Ortiz apply to Pomona.
Ortiz, a history major and Chicana/o Latina/o Studies minor, says she “cannot afford to not succeed or to not value my education.” While at Pomona, she has embraced opportunities, coordinating such programs as Alternabreak, a six-day service project during spring break, and the Draper Center’s ESL tutoring program. She has been an activist for immigrant rights and a leader in the Pomona-Pitzer Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and La Fe, a Latino Christian community.
That constellation of faith, activism, life experience, and classes such as Professor Jerry Irish’s Religion, Ethics and Social Practice course has inspired her to pursue a vocation in the ministry, working with nonprofits on social justice issues, including immigrants’ and workers’ rights. In the fall, she will attend Harvard Divinity School to take her further down the path of faith-based activism. Her time at Pomona has given her the critical thinking, confidence and consciousness to step into spaces and situations that would have scared her in the past.
“Pomona has allowed me to challenge many of the institutional barriers that a lot of historically marginalized students of color have faced,” says Ortiz. “[I’ve learned how] to be comfortable in my own voice and my own body.”