Guillermina Gutierrez Martinez picked at her cuticles and let out a shaky breath. Her left leg bounced nervously as her right foot nudged the accelerator. She balled up her fist and pushed away a tear, clearing her vision of the road ahead.
Will they think I’m a failure? Will they lie to their friends because they’re ashamed?
Crammed into her 2007 Ford Fusion were remnants of her life in the University of Washington dorms: A king-size grey Mexican blanket, storage containers bursting with winter clothes, a suitcase stuffed with textbooks and a camera. This is what she’d packed two years ago when she left her hometown to chase a college education, the dream of so many first-generation Americans and their parents.
It was May 2020. Two months earlier, COVID-19 had exploded just 13 miles from UW, shuttering campus and moving classes online. Guillermina thought the extra free time meant she could take on more; while enrolled in 15 credits she doubled her work hours from 20 per week to 40 at the downtown Seattle Target, desperate to help her family as the economy cratered. But the dueling responsibilities crushed her. She fell behind on homework. When she discovered she could withdraw without financial penalty in the seventh week of a 10-week spring term, Guillermina dropped out.
One week later, she was hurtling backward: back to her house, back to parents she couldn’t look in the eye.
She sniffed and wiped her nose with her sleeve as “Breathe,” from the “In the Heights” soundtrack, filtered through her car speakers:
When Guillermina first heard that song in high school, she made a silent promise to herself that she’d get out too — to get an education, a profession, her own home.
In high school, Guillermina would seethe when she’d hear white kids casually debate whether to take a year off to travel or go to college. For them, higher education was accessible. For her, it would be a constant battle. And now that she’d dropped out, Guillermina worried her detour could become a permanent off-ramp to a life she promised herself she wouldn’t settle for.
First-generation college student balances school and job amid pandemic to fulfill dream
Guillermina Gutierrez Martinez faces the decision of continuing school to become the first in her family to graduate and working to support them.
Brian Munoz, USA TODAY
Her story is the story of first-generation and low-income students across America, from Los Angeles to rural Mississippi and everywhere in between. Often from poor families, these students are at high risk of dropping out: According to The Pell Institute, just 1 in 5 low-income, first-generation students will have earned a bachelor’s degree after six years compared with two-thirds of students who are not in those demographic groups.
The stakes are high for first-generation students, who often carry the responsibility of setting an example for younger siblings while seeking to lift their families out of poverty. Yet the dream of a better future is fettered by a reality unique to their circumstances — if they go away to college, who’s left to help pay bills, translate important documents or manage the family business?
To researchers, it’s no surprise that students who are the first in their family to go to college struggle more than their peers: Their families often can’t make up the cash difference if they don’t receive full scholarships, they often have no one to advocate for them when issues arise on campus and they usually navigate the bewildering language of financial aid on their own. What’s more, with COVID-19 still hammering low-income families and higher education budget cuts looming, experts worry the pandemic could turn this inequity into a gaping chasm.
“If we lost an entire generation of first-gen students, that’s a crisis,” says Sarah Whitley, the assistant vice president at the Center for First-Generation Student Success. “In the 10 last years, we’ve seen so much positive growth within this movement — that would be an undoing.”
Guillermina’s parents left behind family and good jobs in Mexico to pick berries seven days a week. Sometimes those sacrifices felt like a burden shifted onto Guillermina’s shoulders. She recalled something her mom often told her: “I wish you could just stay here. But we know you’re gonna go be somebody. We’re proud of you.”
Would their pride dissolve if they knew the truth? Guillermina swallowed another round of tears and tucked her car into the parking lot of her parents’ apartment complex.
She couldn’t tell them about dropping out.
She would lie.
As a kid, Guillermina tagged along as her parents withdrew cash to pay bills and purchase money orders to send back to Mexico. Sometimes, they’d let her hold the thick wad of green. She’d fan the money out and smell it, mimicking what she’d seen on TV.
“I thought we were rich,” she says now. “But at the end of the day, every time, there was no money left.”
On a drizzly, mid-March day in Mount Vernon, Washington, Guillermina toured her childhood haunts, starting with the former HeadStart building, converted into a laundromat and then abandoned during COVID. Gone is the shed that held the red tricycles, the ones Guillermina and her friends couldn’t believe they’d been given. “Only white people have these!” she’d howled, racing around the parking lot.
The building itself is surrounded by low-income apartments, and their common backyard is piled with broken relics: a faded play kitchen, rusted patio swing, a discarded satellite dish. The hole in the fence, which Guillermina and her brother used as a shortcut when they walked to school — “I thought everyone walked everywhere like us, we didn’t have a car,” she says — has been boarded up.
Until she was 7, the family lived in a one-bedroom apartment, sharing a bed. At 9, Guillermina was confused about why their family — her parents Felipe and Carmen and her older brother Jose — had to shower at her aunt’s house. Why were the neighbors turning on their stove and making hot food if Guillermina’s family couldn’t? At their apartment, she rifled through a stack of mail and found the answer: multiple unopened electricity bills stamped FINAL NOTICE. After that, she served as a constant interpreter, helping her parents navigate a country that remained alien to them. If a bill arrived that confused her, she’d call customer service, using a high-pitched voice to imitate Carmen and a low, gravelly voice to pose as Felipe, her 70-year-old father.
Even now, Guillermina regularly ferries around Carmen — who doesn’t speak English and never learned how to drive — to run errands.
Guillermina’s first college acceptance letter came from Boston University, along with a $35,000 scholarship, renewable annually. Before she could accept, Carmen, a diabetic, was rushed to the hospital with low blood sugar. Guillermina knew then she could not move 3,000 miles away. UW was a compromise.
Carmen and Felipe always stressed the importance of school, even if they found the American education system impossible to comprehend. They assumed their children would figure it out.
And they did. Guillermina and her friends first heard about “going away to college” via “Modern Family,” the popular ABC sitcom. They didn’t understand any of the details, including what “majoring in” something meant.
They decided they’d learn together.
At their townhouse in downtown Seattle — where they usually keep the heat off to save money — Guillermina cradles her dog, a poodle-Chihuahua mix named Bambi.
Rosario Ocampo, Guillermina’s high school best friend and college roommate, is reminiscing with her about their childhood, a youth littered with reminders of how different they were. As Rosario explains that she lives on the side of town with freestanding houses, whereas Guillermina lives in low-income apartments, Guillermina’s eyes widen.
“Did you just call me poor?” she whines.
Rosario covers her eyes in mock shame. “I didn’t mean it,” she stutters. “English is not my first language!” Then they both burst into giggles.
While other families cruised the grocery store handpicking the best brands, Guillermina, Rosario and their other roommate, Eric Lopez, led their parents to the cheapest option. As their parents peppered them with questions in Spanish, they cast their eyes at the floor, desperately hoping their classmates weren’t whispering about them. Guillermina translated report cards, parent-teacher conferences, letters from school. Why couldn’t her parents learn English? Why couldn’t they adapt?
Rosario understands. She remembers vividly the relief she felt the day she tested out of her elementary school’s English-speaking program, usually reserved for the children of immigrants.
“All I wanted,” Rosario says, “was to fit in.”
They find it bizarre that they’re now envied for what used to isolate them.
Yammering away in Spanish on campus one day, another student doubled back: “Whoa, you speak two languages?” he asked, impressed. “That’s so cool!”
Eric shakes his head at the memory. “Like, what? Now this is cool?”
The three have woven a safety net for each other. They offer support and validation when they ace a class or nail a paper, daily victories that their parents can’t comprehend. They inherently understand small moments that don’t register with outsiders. When Rosario’s boyfriend told her he spent spring break in Hawaii, she gave him a puzzled look. “Time off is for block scheduling for work, not vacation,” she explained. When she shared the conversation later with her roommates, she didn’t get to the punch line before they rolled their eyes.
At Mount Vernon High School, all three participated in AVID, Advancement Via Individual Determination, a nationwide nonprofit that guides more than 2 million students and their parents through the college application process each year. But even with AVID’s help, they were puzzled by the specifics. The first time Guillermina looked at a federal financial form, 10 pages of small-print instructions and questions about AGI and interest income and net worth, she was beside herself.
“I can barely do my mom’s taxes,” she thought, “and now I have to fill out this?”
The friends traded texts and suggestions, every day: what amount to put on what line, and what would happen if they told the truth vs. fibbing a little. Most of it was guesswork. When the form asked for her mom’s email, Guillermina created an account without asking Carmen. Her mom didn’t even know how to turn on the computer.
Many of the programs designed to help first-generation students only apply to those on the lowest rung of the economic ladder. Take CAMP, the College Assistance Migrant Program, as an example: A U.S. Department of Education-funded organization, CAMP helps fund college for children of seasonal farmworkers, connecting students with on-campus resources. But nationally, it has room for only 2,000 students a year.
Guillermina’s parents picked blueberries until their hands were stained purple. But she was devastated to learn she did not qualify because in 2013, Carmen took a job at a chicken processing plant.
“If she’d stayed in the fields, which had worse pay and was harder on her body, I’d have someone to hold my hand,” Guillermina says now. “I know there are others who need it more than I do, but this whole entire time, I’ve had to do it by myself.
“Where’s my help?”
Guillermina is part of UW’s Educational Opportunity Program, a division of the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity. She arrived for her first meeting with her EOP adviser in summer 2018, awash in pride over the scholarships she’d earned. But she quickly came down to earth.
“You’re not going to be able to make it four years, no no no,” the adviser tsked, shaking her head. “This financial aid is only for your freshman year. You might want to think about going to community college instead.”
Panicked, Guillermina texted her friends: “Maybe I need to go somewhere else.”
“I didn’t realize until I got here that I’d have to take out loans,” Guillermina says now. “Everyone told me and my parents that because they worked in the fields, I’d get help.”
Thus far, despite working at least 20 hours a week since she stepped on campus, she owes about $10,000.
Experts agree it’s an imperfect system. At the Center for First-Generation Student Success, Whitley has heard about an alarming number of four-year students who moved to community college when COVID hit, lured by the significantly lower price tag. “Their thinking is, ‘It’s a good decision to cut my tuition in half,’” Whitley says. “But if you’re a second-semester junior, a community college is not going to have the classes you need.”
Given how the COVID recession has pummeled colleges, there’s concern that the few first-generation programs in place could be cut and enrollment for that group will dip; the completion rate for federal student aid among high school seniors is already down almost 10% at America’s poorest schools.
Rosario was a 2018 CAMP participant — one of just 50 at UW — and still relies on connections she made. Often, when one of the roommates has a question they can’t figure out, Rosario, the den mother of the group, will email UW CAMP director Andres Huante and pretend it’s her question. Huante, himself a first-generation graduate, sees through it.
He knows firsthand that students like him often get stuck trying to understand a situation as they simultaneously explain it to their parents. They battle constant negative stigma, too.
Comprehensive investment in first-generation students will come, Huante and others say, if higher education can change the narrative: resilience, not risk, should be the defining theme.
“Nobody wants to feel pitied,” Huante says. “These students, they’re fighters.”
Carmen doesn’t like to talk about the day Guillermina was born. It’s not that she didn’t feel joy cradling the 8-pound, 9-ounce baby, or didn’t swell with pride at the thought of all her little girl could someday accomplish.
It’s that thinking of Guillermina’s birth makes Carmen remember everything she’d survived before it: leaving her family behind in Mexico, years of domestic violence at the hands of an ex, the gutting realization that the American Dream wasn’t anything like she’d imagined.
Carmen, 58, arrived in the United States on Jan. 20, 1990. She remembers the panic she felt being so far from home. Carmen thought her cousin, who helped her cross the border illegally, would take her to Carmen’s father in Michigan. But instead, they’d landed in Washington state. With no money, no English and no papers, Carmen had no say in the matter.
In Oaxaca, she’d been a nurse, taking advantage of the local library’s expansive textbook collection to study biology. She didn’t have to go in debt to get an education. She worked in a lab and still displays her clinic ID tags in her living room, next to Guillermina and Jose’s high school diplomas.
Though Carmen wanted to advance to the next level of nursing, where she could work directly with patients, she couldn’t shake the reality of her situation: her family didn’t have its own house and her siblings didn’t have beds. She needed to help, so she headed to America. What she found dismayed her.
“I wanted to do a lot of things, but I didn’t know English,” Carmen says. “I didn’t know how to even pronounce my name. With time I started realizing that this place wasn’t for me.”
But maybe it could be for her children.
Carmen enrolled Jose and Guillermina in HeadStart, ignoring their tired cries in the morning.
“¡A levantarse!” Carmen would yell. “Get up! Get up so you can go learn, so tomorrow you can be someone in life — not like me, who works in the fields.”
That her parents struggled so hard for so little infuriates Guillermina.
“When I was trying to go to college I was so mad,” she recalls. “I said to them, ‘You work 100 hours a week, I never see you. Why don’t we have money?’”
“Yeah, it’s the ‘Land of Opportunity,’” she says now, “but for who?”
During her off-hours, Carmen volunteered weekly at The Blue House, a community center in Mount Vernon where immigrants came for services. Carmen, who speaks Mixtec, an Oaxacan dialect, worked with local police to translate the stories of domestic violence victims. When single moms with young children showed up at The Blue House with nothing, Carmen went digging into her purse.
When she arrived in America, Carmen often found herself confused and embarrassed at her lack of English skills. She’d see other Mexicans, usually teenagers, hear them transition easily between Spanish with their friends to English with store employees. But they’d never offer to help her. She vowed her children would be different.
When Guillermina was 7, Carmen noticed a young Hispanic mother struggling to understand a grocery store worker. She pushed Guillermina in her direction. “¡Ayúdala!” “Help her!”
Sometimes, if Carmen couldn’t find a babysitter, she would wake the kids at 4 a.m. and bring them with her to the fields. When she was 3, Guillermina would grab fistfuls of blueberries and gobble them up. When she got old enough to help, she’d whine.
“This isn’t what my hands are made for! My hands are too delicate!” she would plead with her mother in Spanish.
“Do your hands hurt more doing this or doing your math?” Carmen asked in Spanish. “Do your homework, and your hands won’t hurt.”
Rosario narrowed her eyes and turned her attention to Guillermina.
“Why aren’t you doing homework?”
It was late May 2020, and the roommates were sitting at their kitchen counter, laptops open, textbooks strewn about. Rosario noticed that instead of studying, Guillermina was playing her Nintendo Switch. Rosario peppered her with questions. Guillermina wilted.
“I dropped out.”
Immediately, Rosario and Eric started pressing Guillermina to decrease her work hours and sign up for the summer term. They understood how everything had snowballed, how she needed to help her family. But giving up wasn’t an option.
The unspoken undercurrent: the fourth member of their friend group, Guillermina’s roommate in the dorms, was ordered home by her mom when COVID-19 hit and campus closed. For a year, that friend has been in Mount Vernon, working with her mom at Olive Garden.
“Us three are growing up together, and she’s missing out,” Rosario says. She takes off her glasses, rubs her eyes and sighs. “It’s scary to think — but what if that’s it for her?”
Last summer, Guillermina hid the truth from her parents for as long as she could.
In Mount Vernon, Guillermina’s family lives in subsidized housing. To keep their rent low, they must prove she is enrolled in classes full-time — at least 12 credits. When the apartment manager asked for Guillermina’s transcript that June, a month after she’d bailed on spring term, she handed it over and explained what happened. She worried that if she was working full-time instead of going to school, her income would count toward the family’s, and their rent would increase.
The manager told her it wouldn’t be a problem. Then she slipped Guillermina’s transcript into an envelope addressed to Carmen, along with other paperwork. When Carmen opened it in front of Guillermina weeks later, she pointed to the giant “W” stamped on the paper.
“¿Que?” She asked her daughter, pointing to it. “What’s that?”
“Es nada,” Guillermina said. “It’s nothing.”
She leaned on a familiar refrain, one she admits she uses whenever she doesn’t want to tell her parents something: No sé cómo decirlo en español. “I don’t know how to say it in Spanish.” Then she changed the subject.
Sitting with Carmen and Felipe in the living room one September weekend watching Caso Cerrado, affectionately known as the Spanish Judge Judy, Guillermina couldn’t keep lying to her parents. So she struck a playful tone.
“Hey, guess what I did? You won’t believe it,” she said, eyes glinting mischievously.
Carmen and Felipe looked at her warily. “¿Que?”
“I dropped out!”
What does that mean? they asked, confused.
She explained that she’d taken a break, but she’d already re-enrolled, and everything would be fine. (At least, she now admits, she hoped it would be fine. She wasn’t sure for months afterward that she’d graduate on time.)
“Échale ganas,” they said. Put in the effort.
“They don’t understand how it all works,” Guillermina admits, “so they don’t press for answers or details.”
Guillermina and her friends understand their parents’ expectations inherently. They’re reminded of them every time they go home.
“Our parents left everything, left their homes and lives, for us,” Eric says. “We are why they came to America. If we fail, it was all for nothing. We have to succeed.”
“Honestly, if we thought about that pressure all the time, we’d lose it.”
Sometimes, like when Carmen doesn’t understand why Guillermina needs to go back to campus to study or stays up late finishing a paper, Guillermina explodes in frustration.
“I’m doing this for you!” she yells. “Don’t you understand that? I’m doing this to help you and dad, so you don’t have to work your whole life!”
In the weeks she wasn’t in school, though, Guillermina understood something more clearly. Yes, she is driven by the image of her mom walking to work at the chicken plant, her frail body taking a beating to help her children succeed in a country that never helped her.
But also, she wants more than what she could get in Mount Vernon. Over the past year, Guillermina has realized it’s not just about living up to her family’s expectations, but her own. Her school, her degree, it’s not just for her parents.
“I want it for me, too,” she says.
A few months after she went away to college, Guillermina was visiting home when she heard a soft knock. She opened her parents’ front door to find a young, shy brown face peering up at her. The girl looked about 11. I live in B, she said, pointing across the courtyard. Your mom said you go to college. Could you help me with my math homework?
It’s happened so many times since, Guillermina has lost count. Young children in her parents’ complex, some she knows and others she doesn’t, will show up outside the apartment, enticed by Carmen’s bragging. My daughter is in college, she tells other people. My daughter is going to be somebody.
Guillermina remembers what it’s like to be home alone poring over perplexing math and science and reading instructions, worrying she’d get it wrong. She helps every time she can. Later, she’ll often chide Carmen, “Stop talking about me so much! I have my own homework to do.”
Guillermina knows that someday soon, she won’t be able to go home every weekend. Her parents know she might need to leave for good at some point. They’re OK with it, even if it’s hard; every time she leaves again for school, Felipe retreats to his room and cries.
Guillermina, a history major, wants to do a lot of things after college. She wants to take her mom to Paris. She wants to give her parents money to buy a house. She wants to buy her own house. She wants them to see that their sacrifice mattered.
Sometimes, mother and daughter imagine graduation day at the University of Washington in spring 2022: Cherry blossoms bursting in every shade of pink, Carmen in her Sunday best, no matter the day of the week. Her voice catches when considering the moment. “At that point, she would have accomplished what I didn’t,” Carmen says.
On that glorious day, there will be shouts of joy and laughter, pictures with roommates and tears, too. Guillermina can imagine her walk across the stage, toward her future, one not defined by her risk, but her promise and maybe something else, too.
This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association’s Reporting Fellowship.