First-Gen Undergraduate: Karoli Clever (Crown '21, Physics (Astrophysics) and Biochemistry & Molecular Biology)

photo of karoli clever in her cap, gown and stole

Background: I was born in Bulgaria when it was still behind the iron curtain, my parents fled with me and on foot when I was 5. My mother was a homemaker and finished 8th grade, my father was an entrepreneur all of his life, quite successful, and I only recently found out that he had completed a certificate program in engineering, but never finished a college degree. He passed away weeks before I received my transfer confirmation to UCSC, but my mother who lives in Germany with my siblings is very proud of me getting my degrees and being accepted for a master's degree despite my learning disabilities and not only being a minority in ethnic background, but in age as well. English is my third language and it has been quite the journey, yet the next one is about to begin and I couldn't be more honored and happy about what is next in my life. I am so grateful to the support teams here at UCSC. 

What motivated me to go to college: I had started college right out of high school and gave up, because my parents thought it was more important to get a job. When my child was born I realized that I was her closest role model since the whole family was in Europe and I followed my now estranged husband to the US. I wanted to show her that she can achieve any goal she works for and that there are so many wonderful opportunities out there, and since I was not happy with what I was doing with my life, I decided to go back to school and finish something I started 30+ years ago. It was very challenging at times, many hardships, and definitely moments where I thought "I can't...", but I persevered. She is now at Cabrillo college, has a perfect GPA, and is already a hired tutor for several of their courses. She plans on going into the medical field. The best part though, she and I found out, is the wisdom that comes with continuous education. Once cannot "unsee" knowledge. Conversations are more well-rounded with a plethora of individuals one knows, and subjects that pertain to mankind, conservation, global efforts, and politics tend to become more interesting. Education is not a stepping stone. It is the reward.

What's the biggest challenge you encountered as a first-gen student and how did you overcome it?: The biggest challenge was my family's understanding why this is important to me, and how it enriches my life. They all have some kind of job, and some are happy with theirs, but none followed a specific goal (mine is Astrobiology and the origin and sustenance of life in space), so when I try to passionately communicate to them how exciting a certain class or achievement is, I feel their puzzlement. They are happy for me, but they don't understand why I went back to school and what I will gain from it.

How has your background helped you?: My background has shown me that hard work pays off. It taught me to be resilient and assertive, as well as have faith in me. All of these strong features were learned by countless mistakes, wrong choices, tears, frustration, and new starts. I just hadn't found my purpose, but it feels good to finally be at peace with that. Yet that is when the real work starts, right?

What would you tell my first-year self now?: You are worthy. They will embrace you and your talents, so don't be afraid and just go for it.

What was the best thing about your college experience?: The confidence I have gained, as well as the many friendships with not only peers but also staff and faculty. It is such a pleasure to be on campus and be part of that greater energy vortex that we all create.

How being a first-generation student has influenced me:  I was ashamed for the longest time to mention that my parents weren't PhD recipients or had some form of "Profession", and used to evade that question when I was younger. Now I can say that it is up to oneself to make one's future what it can be. Parents can guide us only so far, and we are not a vicarious product of their past decisions and accomplishments, but rather can compare what we gained in tools for life, and what we won't be needing, therefore should cull. I decided to get my higher education and it was hard, but it is also worth it to me. It made me further respect everyone who doesn't have the perfect "models" but despite that decided to be one. I've also encountered many hard working people who still educate themselves independently, read books, learn new languages, paint, start playing instruments, delve into local politics or conservation efforts. It is important that we don't become stagnant and as long as I see somebody is really endeavoring to be their highest self, I support them. We all should.