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Overcoming first-generation college student obstacles

For the first nine years of his life, Luis Juarez lived in Nueva Chontalpa, Campeche, Mexico. “My family decided to immigrate to the United States for several reasons, the main one being opportunities to prosper – the American dream,” he explained. “We knew that the United States would provide better opportunities to succeed, and Oklahoma was already home to other family members.”

Juarez attended Memorial High School in Tulsa, which is known for its engineering specialty. He completed general course requirements at Tulsa Community College, and then transferred to TU.

I chose The University of Tulsa for several reasons: the amazing engineering programs, small class sizes and the beautiful campus,” said Juarez, who is starting his senior year in chemical engineering.

Overcoming obstacles

Mandy Moore, executive director of TU’s new Center for Student Success, is excited to help all students navigate college and prepare them for their imagined future. “Our team will intentionally collaborate with other offices on campus to help students utilize resources to overcome obstacles that might deter first-generation students from pursuing their dream to get a college degree,” she said.

According to a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Education, low-income first-generation college students are far less likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in six years than their continuing generation peers. To prevent students from feeling overwhelmed, film studies student Meagan Henningsen recently started a first-generation student organization, Gen1TU.

Despite the challenges he encountered, Juarez was determined to go to college. “There is a label that if you are Hispanic, you aren’t supposed to go to college,” he said. He has been discouraged by comments like “You can’t do it” or “You don’t have the resources to do it,” but Juarez is determined to graduate from TU.

The Center for Student Success ensures students like Juarez never give up. “We will offer student success coaches, financial wellness coaches, career coaches and peer mentorship and will collaborate closely with others on campus to provide a student success centered college experience,” Moore said.

Research & spare time

Juarez participates in a TU research group that focuses on a new method to obtain silicon from sand. He works closely with Wellspring Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Gabriel LeBlanc. “Luis took on a challenging project: exploring a new strategy for making silicon (the main component of solar cells) using electrochemistry,” LeBlanc said.

He described Juarez as a hard-working and dedicated student who’s genuinely excited about the research process. On top of a full load of courses and the research his degree demands, Juarez works part-time as a clerk at QuikTrip.

Alyssa Hernandez (BS ‘18) was a member of the TU’s Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and has been Juarez’s girlfriend since high school. Hernandez has watched Juarez flourish at TU. “For as long as I have known Luis, his studies have always been a priority. His education means the world to not only him but also to his family,” she said. “He strives to continue developing himself as a leader and has taken on several leadership positions within the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.” Juarez recently finished his term as SHPE president.

The future

The courses required for a TU chemical engineering degree are challenging but will give Juarez many career options after graduation. “My dream job would be in the chemical engineering industry here in Tulsa, so I can be close to my family,” he said.

As the younger of two children and the first in his family to attend college, Juarez explained, “In the Hispanic community, one of the greatest achievements is making your family proud.”

He hopes that no matter where his future takes him, he can set an example for other first-generation Hispanic students and encourage them to always do their best, no matter their situation. This is Juarez’s American dream.