Collage of portraits of first generation students, alumni, faculty, and staff.

We are First-Generation: College of Arts & Sciences Students and Alumni

Back to All Stories
10/15/2023

In the College of Arts & Sciences, we are proud to celebrate our first-generation community through a collection of stories! We honor our students, alumni, faculty, and staff, and their many contributions to our university community and beyond. 

Yasmin Garfias

Yasmin Garfias

Alum – B.A. Psychology, 2021
Graduate Student, M.A. Special Education with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis, 2025

What brought you to the University of Washington?

Being a transfer student, I attended multiple community colleges and another university before landing at the University of Washington. A close friend had shared their experience with the application process and was a great source of knowledge throughout my undergraduate journey. While many factors played a role, such as the innovative research and graduate program opportunities, I would attribute the peer connections I've gained throughout the process as what brought me to the UW.

How did your experience as a first-generation transfer college student impact your educational and career journey? 

As a first-generation transfer college student, my experience has been marked by navigating a complex system with limited guidance. This experience has made me resilient, resourceful, and determined. It also pushed me to seek out mentors and support services on campus, and instilled the work ethic that I carry into my career.

What does it mean to you to be a first-generation graduate? 

Being a first-generation graduate means breaking generational barriers and achieving higher education despite historical and socioeconomic challenges. It's a testament to our determination, cultural identity, and the importance of education by creating opportunities for ourselves and our communities.

Kaitlynn Lilly

Kaitlynn Lilly

Student – M.S. Applied Mathematics, 2023
Ph.D. Applied Mathematics, 2027

What does it mean to you to be a current first-generation student?

It means a lot to me to be a first-generation student. While my path to higher education was not paved for me, I could not have trailblazed without the assistance of so many mentors along the way. I didn't realize how much I did not know coming into college. Now having been through it myself, I try my best to help guide other first-generation students through the process and pay it forward.

What brought you to the University of Washington?

I was fortunate enough to receive Ph.D. offers from 12 different programs, but what drew me to the University of Washington was the collaboration and community within the Applied Mathematics Department here. It was truly unmatched. 

Where do you see yourself after graduation?

After graduation, I hope to secure a postdoctoral position at a university or national laboratory. However, no matter what position I end up in, I hope to continue mentoring college students in some sort of capacity.

What insights would you share with current and future first-generation students?

I would advise students to seek out various mentors to assist and guide them through their college experience. Having assistance from people who have been through this process before can prove incredibly valuable. I would also tell students to not count themselves out. You miss 100% of the shots you don't take and there is a reason you got into college in the first place. You are capable of anything you may put your mind to, even if no one before you has done it.

Fani studying abroad

Fani Medel Martinez

Student – B.A. Communication, 2024

What does it mean to you to be a current first-generation student? 

Being a first-generation student means the chance to build a new cycle of opportunities for my family and my first-generation community. Without a doubt, finding mentors at the UW who were from a similar background helped me grow confidence in pursuing my degree. My family's support and encouragement to keep going, despite feeling lost when navigating the higher education system, has made my degree worth it. It's a legacy. I'm proud of becoming a resource to future and current UW first-generation students and being able to help any of my family members interested in pursuing higher education.  

What insights would you share with current and future first-generation students? 

Just because you can't experience everything, doesn't mean you shouldn't experience anything. Having a first-generation background often feels frustrating. We all hold different identities that overlap with our first-generation background. For me, growing up low-income shaped my experiences as a UW student. At times, it felt like I shouldn't allow myself to have fun and only focus on academics. Having to pay for my college education also felt like I should always prioritize saving every penny for future mishaps. However, the UW experience is more than immersing yourself in textbooks; it is about connecting with others on campus and learning more about yourself through attending the institution. Obtaining a degree should be a joyful experience. Know that it's okay to take care of yourself and your health. Yes, you can definitely plan out that trip abroad and go to that concert after clocking out from your part-time job—it's all about balance. Enjoy being a UW student and pursue your wildest dreams. 

Tasha Mosher
Photo by Native Light Photo

Tasha Mosher

Student – M.A. Applied Child & Adolescent Psychology: Prevention & Treatment

What does it mean to you to be a current first-generation student?

I look at being a first-generation student as a great act of Interdependence. That might seem counterintuitive because getting a post-secondary education can require a great deal of independent action. Still, I'm not sure that first-gen students get here alone. A lot of people have listened to me talk through my insecurities around being an older student which has helped me cultivate a greater sense that I could do this.

What brought you to the University of Washington?

I am a graduate student with the Master of Arts in Applied Child and Adolescent Psychology program. I applied a good number of years after completing my undergraduate degree, working a couple different careers, and starting a family. I met a professional who was in this UW program and took the leap to ask him more questions about his educational path. Not only did he tell me about the program, he inspired me to apply. I started at a local college to round out my transcript where I met support staff who walked me through the steps of putting together a graduate school application. I didn't feel like I was alone in the process. I've tried to bring that spirit of supporting others into my program, not only with the clients I serve but also with my fellow colleagues in the program.

What insights would you share with current and future first-generation students?

I would encourage first-gen students to never stop asking questions. I was often far too shy to do this during my undergraduate years. It took a long time to figure out how things worked and even longer to figure out how to succeed in academic spaces. There are UW employees whose sole role is to support you in this journey so find out who they are!

It is normal to feel vulnerable. I still get shaky legs when I go into a new space, but that is mainly because I keep challenging myself to try new things.

Where do you see yourself after graduation?

I have never forgotten the words of a tribal elder I met at the Duwamish Longhouse. She said, "It takes a long time to learn how to be a human." In that spirit, I would like to be a compassionate presence for children and adolescents as they navigate the perplexities of their world. I see these youth as first-generation students to the new frontiers of our future.

Elizabeth Nova

Elizabeth Nova

Student – Ph.D. Sociology, 2026

What does it mean to you to be a first-generation student?

To me, being a current first-generation student navigating a Ph.D. means owning my space in academia. It's a reminder that the path to this point wasn't easy, but now that I'm here, my educational journey holds immense significance for me, my family, and my community. This isn't just about getting a degree—it's about breaking barriers and creating opportunities for those who will come after me. It also means staying grounded and being profoundly grateful for all the doors that opened through my hard work and determination.

What brought you to the University of Washington?

I came to the UW to pursue my Ph.D. in Sociology. I am grateful for the learning opportunities presented by the UW. In particular, the Social, Spatial, and Dynamic Analysis (SSDA) lab's work on Homelessness has exposed me to a wide range of research roles available like: project manager, front line data collector, and data analyst. I am proud of the strong mentorship, cross-departmental collaboration, and service to King County presented by the lab.

Where do you see yourself after graduation?

After graduation, I hope to continue my journey in academia, dedicating my time to research and teaching. However, I'm also open to exploring other exciting research opportunities beyond the academic sphere that match my passions. The education and research experiences I've gained at the UW equipped me with the skills and knowledge necessary to excel in various research environments, ensuring I can make a meaningful contribution wherever my path may lead.

What insights would you share with current and future first-generation students?

Many times as first-generation students, we can become so focused on navigating our coursework that we might overlook valuable professional opportunities, or feel hesitant to apply for them. I've been there. Now, I find myself working to catch up. So, my advice is this: Don't hesitate – apply for that internship, take a chance on that job opening, sign up for that workshop, and reach out to professors or TAs about research opportunities. Trust that inner voice guiding you. It's a crucial step in making the most of your educational journey.

fabian romero

fabian romero

Alum – Ph.D Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies

What brought you to the University of Washington? What does it mean to you to be a first-generation graduate?

Being a first-generation graduate means living a life impossible for my matriarchal line and ancestors. I came from a pueblo in Michoacan, Mexico, with the equivalent of an elementary school education where potential students must leave the pueblo to continue learning. This made it difficult for my relatives to continue a formal education. One of the reasons my parents decided to raise their kids in the United States was to give us more opportunities than they had. My mother encouraged me to continue my education after high school, knowing I had to pursue these opportunities on my own since they hadn't gone to school beyond elementary and had no knowledge of scholarships or methods to pay for college in the US. I did not have much support from my high school teachers to understand these nuances, so I did not pursue college immediately after high school.

I was 24 years old when I found support to apply for college. This support came from other first-generation college students who noticed my curiosity and inquisitiveness and sat with me while I applied. That support led me to graduate with a four-year degree and then be accepted to the University of Washington as a graduate student. Now that I am a professor, I want to continue to pass forward this support to first-generation students, to pursue paths deemed impossible or unlikely because of where we come from and who we are.

Reyna Smith

Reyna Smith

Student – B.S. Speech & Hearing Sciences, 2024

What insights would you share with current and future first-generation transfer students?

Get in contact with your advisor and your teachers! Making connections with faculty is just as important as making connections with other students. Transferring does not have to be a difficult or scary time. Make sure you are using every resource given. If you don't know where to look, that is what your advisor is for. Success for you is success for all those who made the resources available to use.

Where do you see yourself after graduation?

After graduation I see myself, hopefully, at the University of Washington for graduate school. I plan on graduating with my Masters of Science (M.S.) in Speech Language Pathology to become a certified Speech Language Pathologist, working with children who speak English and/or Spanish.

Sara Smith

Sara Smith

Student – B.S. Speech & Hearing Sciences, 2024

What does it mean to you to be a current first-generation transfer student?

To me, being a first-generation student means the ability to bring awareness to the only 3% of aged-out foster youth that go on to obtain a college degree. I aged out of foster care at 17 and college was something that felt unobtainable to me. By being a first-generation student, I can be a beacon of hope for foster youth, spread awareness about educational difficulties foster youth face, and break the cycle of trauma.

What brought you to the University of Washington?

When researching prospective universities, a sense of community was something very important to me. I wanted to find a place that felt like home because most of my foster care experience was spent feeling like I didn't belong. For me, the University of Washington was able to provide that. The relationships that I have built during my time at the UW make me truly feel like part of a family. I am so thankful for the support and encouragement I have received during my time here.

Where do you see yourself after graduation?

I am currently completing a post-baccalaureate degree in Speech & Hearing Sciences. I hope to continue my education with the University of Washington's graduate program so I could eventually open my own speech clinic for those living with communication disorders. I am passionate about giving others a voice to be heard.

What insights would you share with current and future first-generation transfer students?

College can feel daunting to anyone, regardless of your life experience. It's okay to feel lost, it's okay to not have everything figured out, and it's okay to not be okay. Imposter syndrome is something many first-generation students experience throughout college. As you navigate through this, remember you have taken the first step towards a better future by being here and everything will naturally unfold as you move through your academics. In the meantime, utilize every opportunity presented to you, and do not be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help. Like the great Maya Angelou said, "Just like moons and like suns, with the certainty of tides, just like hopes springing high, still I'll rise." You got this!

Audrey Mikal

Audrey Mikal

Student – B.A. Sociology, 2025 
Treasurer, First-Generation Leaders in Law (FGLL) 

What does it mean to you to be a current first-generation transfer student? 

My first-generation, non-traditional, transfer student background is something I am incredibly proud of. It means I am bold and courageous—that I have the tenacity to do what's never been done before. I'm proof that it's never too late to begin chasing after your dreams.

Where do you see yourself after graduation?  

I'll be attending grad school to further my research on healing from complex trauma, at both the individual and societal level. I also plan on attending law school to eventually offer free legal advice to young adults without access to traditional support or other resources.

What insights would you share with current and future first-generation transfer students? 

First-generation students are pioneers. No one before us had the opportunity to do what we’re doing right now. It requires immense determination and resilience to continue moving forward into this wild unknown. Cultivate your support system, establish routines that nourish your mental, physical, and emotional health, and ask for help every time you need it. Remember: You are legitimate proof that anything is possible and you are worthy of success right now, as you are. Don't let anyone or anything keep you from achieving your dreams. You got this!

Annie Chan at graduation

Annie Chan

Alumni – B.A. Communication, 2019 
Digital Communications Specialist, College of Arts & Sciences 

First-Generation Storytelling Celebration Collaborator 

How did the experience as a first-generation college student impact your career journey experience? 

Being a first-generation alum from the University of Washington will always be one of my most prideful experiences. I still remember the feeling of walking onto campus for the first time and not knowing what was ahead of me, but I was grateful to be able to be at an incredible university where I can lead the path in my family. I am proud to say that my Husky experience pleasantly exceeded all that I had imagined. The UW community allowed me to embrace my first-gen identity and empowered me to seek opportunities and networks. From the welcoming staff and faculty to inspirational peers, this community really provides spaces for you to find your passion and build meaningful connections. 
 
The Department of Communication was a supportive space for me to connect with incredible advisors and internship opportunities. My drive to make an impact in my community and help others led me to seek out opportunities and I found myself involved with UW First Year Programs as a Transfer Ambassador and Dawg Daze Leader. These opportunities made me feel more connected to the UW and allowed me to have a voice. My favorite part about being involved at the UW was being able to help first-year students by connecting them to resources and ensuring that they felt a sense of belonging at the UW. These experiences truly made me feel a sense of community and offered safe spaces for me away from home. 
 
Today, I continue to tell people that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for these opportunities and if I didn’t take a leap and go for them. Being able to feel the impact I made in the UW community as a student has made me feel more connected to the UW. Navigating my early career, I wanted to continue making an impact and it made sense to me to return to the UW to continue connecting with the UW community. It has been a pleasure connecting with fellow alumni as a UW Alumni Association GOLD (Grads of the Last Decade) Councilmember. It has also been a full circle moment as I joined the Marketing & Communications team at the College of Arts & Sciences, a special place that has really shaped my journey here at the UW. 

What would you say about working on the College of Arts & Sciences First-Generation Storytelling Celebration?

This First-Generation College Celebration project is extremely meaningful and special to me. It has been so touching to read all the different first-generation experiences within the UW community. If I had to describe this community with just a few words, I would say that we are courageous, driven, resilient, and inspirational. This project strengthens our entire UW community because it really empowers the voices of first-generation students and shows that while all our journeys are different, we have similar passion and pride, and willingness to make an impact in our community and beyond. I am confident that these stories will inspire so many in our community and I look forward to seeing many more stories to come. 

What insights would you share with current and future first-gen students? 

When opportunities arise and you’re unsure, I highly recommend giving them a try. I knew my time at the UW was going to go by quickly, so I didn’t want to miss out on great opportunities that could positively change my life. Most of the experiences that allowed me to grow the most as a student were the ones that were outside of my comfort zone. Looking back, I am so grateful that I went for them.

The highlights of my Husky experience extend beyond classrooms as I developed meaningful connections with incredible mentors and peers across campus, and participated in groups that I will always be grateful to have been a part of. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t take leaps, get out of my comfort zone, and try new things while being surrounded by new faces. Tap into your passions and curiosity, and you may find yourself learning new things and meeting new people that you did not expect coming into this journey.

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