First generation Latino leader
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Alfredo Garcia always loved the Hawkeyes.
But little did he know growing up in Sioux City that one day he would attend school at the University of Iowa, pursuing a double major in chemistry and biochemistry.
“In Sioux City, you’re either a Hawkeye or a Husker football fan,” says Garcia, now a 22-year-old senior and president for the third year in a row of First Generation Iowa, an organization for those who are the first in their families to attend college.
His parents, Mexican immigrants, spoke little English, and Garcia took ESL classes in elementary school to become proficient in the language. Garcia says his parents intensely labored in fields and factories to give him and his siblings more opportunities then they had to pursue their dreams. This included seeing their children get college degrees.
“When I started out as a first generation student, I really didn’t have much of an idea about how a top-ranked institution would benefit my education,” Garcia says, “and I didn’t really know what major I wanted to pursue. I made my decision based on what was familiar to me, that being the state of Iowa.”
In high school, he says all of his peers were going to UNI, ISU, or the UI. “Actually, very few go to the UI because it’s the farthest away, a five-hour drive.”
Garcia also has three siblings, all of whom are now pursuing higher education or military careers. In fact, his little sister, Maidely Garcia, is also a Hawkeye now—she’s a UI sophomore pursuing a degree in elementary education.
Hospital, Hawkeyes made UI feel like home
Garcia’s mom works at a Tyson Food plant in Dakota City, and his dad worked at John Morrell until he was injured and unable to work. His parents worried about paying the bills, let alone saving for college. Coming to the UI seemed like an unattainable dream.
Yet Iowa beckoned to Garcia. He’s a Hawkeye fan, and he had been to the UI Hospitals and Clinics when his niece was hospitalized and successfully treated for a serious illness.
“I had an emotional attachment to the place,” Garcia says. “I came here for very simple reasons, and one of the biggest is when I did get accepted, they told me right off the bat that I’d received the Advantage Iowa scholarship and so that was a major deciding factor because my parents have a low income.”
Garcia says he is extremely grateful because, thanks to the Advantage Iowa Award and a UI Tuition Scholarship for Upperclass Students, his tuition, room, and board are all covered. He also received a Kind World Foundation Scholarship from the Siouxland Community Foundation. Without these scholarships, he quickly adds, it would have been impossible to pursue his academic dreams.
“Or I would have graduated with a huge debt load,” he says, adding that this allows him to focus on his academics, especially doing undergraduate research, and landing on the Dean’s List multiple times.
It also allows him to pursue extracurricular campus activities. He mentors students in chemistry through the TRiO program in the Center for Diversity and Enrichment in the Chief Diversity Office, and he’s taken on student leadership roles such as the president of First Generation Iowa since 2010. He’s also attended the Celebrating Cultural Diversity Festival, and his student group sells refreshments there as a fundraiser.
admissions.uiowa.edu/parents-family/resources-first-generation-college-students, diversity.uiowa.edu/about/first-generation-community, or uiowa.orgsync.com/org/firstgenerationiowa19503/home
Garcia says that while there are probably only about 10 active members of the group including the officers, the UI has more than 5,000 first generation students on campus, and he’d love to reach out to more of them and have the organization grow. The group meets monthly, and those interested in getting involved can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“When you enter as a first generation student, you don’t really know what to expect at a university and you’re just kind of going with the flow,” Garcia says, “and our goal is to provide a support network for those students and ultimately, turn them into leaders themselves.”
He adds that at meetings members do everything from conduct sessions on how to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, to share studying and research tips and information on how to study abroad or pursue summer internships. He says it also has one social event each fall and spring and members hope to start a volunteer program with Upward Bound high school students.
Garcia also finds time to support his beloved Hawkeyes. Not only does he have season tickets, but he was invited to speak at a First Generation Iowa event hosted by UI President Sally Mason and UI Chief Diversity Officer Georgina Dodge at the Kinnick Stadium Press Box last fall.
Finding his academic niche
When he arrived on campus, he thought about pursuing a degree in pre-optometry because he has astigmatism and thought it would be a career that could help others like him. However, he quickly discovered his interest in chemistry thanks to an organic chemistry class and mentors and role models such as Assistant Professor Hien Nguyen and Associate Professor Gregory Friestad.
“I fell in love with my first semester chemistry course, and I declared my major that same semester. The hook was organic chemistry because I understood it in great detail. The professors did an excellent job of explaining the concepts but most importantly, making me excited about the subject,” he says.
—Alfredo Garcia, president of First Generation Iowa
After he graduates this May with Bachelors of Science degrees in chemistry and biochemistry from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Garcia will pursue a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He hopes to eventually work in the pharmaceutical industry or in academia.
“Just being in that research environment as an undergraduate made me want to go to graduate school,” Garcia says. “What’s better than research and discovery? I thought to myself that would be a more fulfilling life than anything else. I’m big on personal growth and contributing to society in the future.”
And he views graduate school as a critical part of his educational odyssey. “I think that’s one of the great adventures of graduate school is finding out where you fit in and where you want to go ultimately,” Garcia says.
Though his parents’ jobs on meat-packing plant assembly lines make it hard for them to relate to his day-to-day life in academia, Garcia says he knows they are very proud of him and his siblings.
“I know they can’t relate to everything I’m going through from firsthand experience, but they are so happy that I am able to pursue my dreams,” Garcia says. "They raised four ambitious people, and I’m lucky to be a member of this family.”