First-Gen Undergrad: Arley Aguilar-Luna (Rachel Carson '21, Psychology and Latin American Latino Studies)

arley luna in red floral blouse sitting in front of green bushBackground: My name is Arley Aguilar Luna and I come from Santa Rosa, California. I am the oldest daughter of my immigrant parents who came to the United States as teenagers from Mexico. I am the first child to go to a 4-year university, here at UCSC. I will also be the first to earn my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and LALS ( Latin American Latino Studies) and I plan to be the first to earn my Ph.D. in Social Psychology with a focus on the Latinx community in the future. My mom is from a very small pueblo in Guanajuato, Mexico where she stayed up until the age of 15. My dad is from a pueblo in Cuernavaca, Mexico where he stayed until the age of 18. From my parents, I have come to learn how to make the most out of my struggles and to keep pushing forward no matter what obstacles I might face. They have both been amazing examples of work ethic and resiliency and I strive to be as hardworking as they are. I can’t wait until they can see me graduate and cross the stage.

What motivated you to go to college?: My parents are definitely my biggest motivators to go to college. They both understand the importance of higher education despite not receiving it themselves and they have been instilling that idea into my sister and me to keep going until we reach our goals. We have watched them work so hard all of our lives and have seen the sacrifices they have had to make all while still supporting us in their own way. They built a life and a home for us from nothing and they ask for nothing in return other than seeing me reach my goals and to watch me graduate. Another motivator I have is the Latinx community. Growing up I have witnessed how much negative stigma there is in the Latinx community when it comes to mental health and psychology. I want to bring awareness to my community so that those that need healing can begin to heal and help others heal.

What's the biggest challenge you encountered as a first-gen student and how did you overcome it?: The biggest challenge that I’ve faced in terms of being a first-gen student was finding out the passion that I’ve had since I was a child was not my real passion. After coming to terms with that reality, I ended up changing my major around four times while I was at my junior college. It felt like I would never move on and accomplish my goals and earn my BA and hopefully my MA or Ph.D. After changing my major so many times, I decided to go to career counseling and take different classes to figure out what my true passion was. I also had a great support system that consisted of my family, my best friend, and my husband who helped me keep my head up and to stay focused on my own path. The downside was that I was at community college for two more years than I expected but the upside is that I graduated with four Associates degrees and had my mindset on my real passion in Latinx psychology research, as well as attending my dream school who’s community is overall amazing within the social activist realm.

How has your background helped you?: My background has helped me to understand the uncertainties that many people face, including myself, when they enter a world that is brand new. It was incredibly difficult to navigate the higher education system, and still is at times, without the support of a mentor who had gone through the same process, I slowly learned how to reach out to people as I had never done this before coming to UCSC because my junior college did not require that from students nor was it expected. Being Latinx has also taught me to never give up on my goals and to keep fighting after I’ve lost. If an opportunity falls through then I quickly find that initiative to get back up. Whenever I need motivation, I look to my parents who have been working since they were kids to make a better life for themselves and later on for my sister and I. Due to my Latinx background, I am not only on this educational journey for myself, I am also doing it for my family.

What would you tell my first-year self now?: I had transferred to UCSC after 4 years at the Santa Rosa Junior college and what I would tell myself as a first-year student would be to not worry so much about finishing school quickly. I am now grateful for the long experience I had since I was able to figure out my niche in Latinx research within the psychology field. This wouldn’t have been possible if I had decided to go to another school that was not as research-oriented as UCSC and did not have as many opportunities and amazing people that I have met here. I would also tell myself to reach out to the faculty at my community college and network with the different amazing people in my hometown. At UCSC, the grad students and the faculty have been so kind and welcoming and have been very helpful in my educational journey. I wish I had started to communicate with others much sooner.

What was the best thing about your college experience?: The best thing about my college experience at UCSC is being able to help out the community and especially the Latinx and immigrant community through research and the EPC job through UCSC. UCSC helped me realize how important it is to have BIPOC researchers and community helpers in order to help these communities in whatever they may lack such as resources because I understand, now more than ever, how hard it can be and how scary it can be for these communities to find outside help.

How has being a first-gen student influenced you (and/or your work) now?: I’ve learned to be independent straight out of high school since I didn’t have the mentor support and the knowledge that many students who are not first-gen have. I’ve slowly learned how to take initiative and to put myself out in the world which includes reaching out to different people. Coming towards my last year at UCSC, I’ve come to realize how important it is to have programs such as EPC and EAOP/EOP established within Middle Schools and High Schools so that students can have a support system when their parents may not know how to help them. I am incredibly grateful to be a part of EPC and to be able to bring clarification to many parents and students in regard to higher education. In the future, I hope to be a mentor to more first-gen students and be a part of their educational journey.