Vice president of UI Student Government plans first-generation student summit
Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Lilián Sánchez’s grandfather dropped out of elementary school to support his family. Her grandmother did the same. Her mother was able to finish high school but had to support her family after that. This spring, Sánchez, a University of Iowa senior, will be the first in her family to graduate from college.

The University of Iowa hosted its inaugural summit for first-generation students, I’m the First, on April 7.

Sánchez didn’t just attend college. She excelled.

“When I say that I’m going to graduate in May, it’s about my family,” says Sánchez, “and it’s about all of the sacrifices that my mother has made to make it possible for me to even come to college. When I graduate in May and am walking across that stage, it’s not me walking across that stage, it’s every single person that has been connected to me.”

In May, she will complete a double major in ethics and public policy and political science, with minors in philosophy, French, and Latino studies.

Sánchez is the first Latina vice president of UI Student Government. She served as a UISG senator on numerous committees, including the President’s Financial Aid Advisory Charter Committee. She was president of the Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity, worked for the Iowa Policy Research Organization, and was a peer leader for Iowa Edge. This summer, she will be a fellow at Amnesty International.

Still, during her sophomore year, Sánchez almost withdrew from the UI. Like many first-generation students, she says she suffered from imposter syndrome, a disabling feeling that she didn’t belong or couldn’t succeed. The feeling can stifle a person’s abilities and overwhelm them, as it almost did to Sánchez.

“You could be in a room and have the highest GPA but internally you might feel you’re not worthy enough to be in that room,” says Sánchez. “I know that there were times during my second and third year that I thought about leaving the university because I didn’t think that I could persevere. If it was hard for me, I can’t imagine what it would have been like for someone who didn’t have the same experiences as I did.”

For this reason, Sánchez helped organize the UI’s inaugural First-Generation Summit, which took place on April 7. In fall 2017, about 23 percent of incoming first-year students identified as first-generation students.

Sánchez says she hopes the summit will build community among first-generation students and transmit their stories to a wide audience. She believes empathy between campus groups enables success for everyone.

Finding a mentor and support at the UI

Sánchez attributes much of her success to the support of family, the university, and friends, not least of which is the friendship of Gabriela Rivera, assistant director of diversity, inclusion, and student success at the Tippie College of Business. Rivera also is Sánchez’s mentor.

“I’ve been very lucky, and I think part of that has to do with Gabriela taking the time out of her busy schedule—even now—to care more about me and about my success. My graduation is also a testament to the great personality and character she brings to the university,” says Sánchez.

Rivera and Sánchez met when Sánchez, her mother, and her sister first came to the UI for a campus tour. As an Advantage Iowa Scholar, Sánchez went on a tour that included a visit to the Center for Diversity and Enrichment, where Rivera was a multicultural coordinator.

“We just started talking about what it meant to be an Advantage Iowa Scholar, what it meant to be a student at the University of Iowa,” says Sánchez, “and I saw my mom’s face, her fears and nerves just go away and calm down and diminish because there was someone that looked like us, that understood us, that talked in the same language.”

three women standing before iowa edge backdrop
Lilián Sánchez (left) and her sister Alexia (right) pose for a picture with Gabriela Rivera, assistant director of diversity, inclusion, and student success at the Tippie College of Business. Sánchez attributes much of her success to the support of Rivera, her mentor at the University of Iowa. Photo courtesy of Lilián Sánchez. 

Rivera, too, recalls that meeting.

“When there is someone else there that can reassure a mother, I think it’s good, because for a first-generation student, especially a female student from a Mexican background, it can be overwhelming to come to a university like this,” Rivera says.

The two continued to meet regularly through Iowa Edge, an orientation program for incoming first-generation students and those from underrepresented backgrounds. After participating in Iowa Edge herself, Sánchez became a peer leader for subsequent incoming students, and Rivera trained her for the position.

When Rivera took her current position at the Tippie College of Business, she reached out to some students she’d come to know and offered to continue meeting informally. Sánchez accepted. In the year that followed, the two grew closer.

“It fulfills me to be able to work with students like Lilián,” says Rivera. “I also have mentors, and keeping in touch with those mentors has always been very important to me. I want to share my own experience with her, and I want to hear her experience, particularly with imposter syndrome, because I still deal with some of that myself, even as a professional. It’s something that takes a long time to overcome. Sometimes I feel like we hear these voices in the back of our head, saying, ‘Are you good enough for this?’”

Imposter syndrome and other challenges

English is not Rivera’s first language, and when she struggles to express herself, she says she begins to feel like an imposter. For Sánchez, language also has been a source of imposter syndrome. She remembers being teased as a child because she didn’t speak English, and was held back a year in school for the same reason. Now, when she gets nervous, her accent is thicker and she feels self-conscious, wondering if people will hear it and assume she doesn’t belong.

Another challenge for Sánchez has been isolation from her mother and sister, with whom she is very close. Being the first person in her family to attend college, she says she went home to Des Moines over breaks and struggled to explain to them what it was like to be away from everything familiar, to take classes with strangers.

Sánchez is particularly close to her family in part because of the struggles they’ve shared. Sánchez’ family moved to Iowa at a young age in pursuit of opportunities that would not have otherwise been available.

Now that her younger sister is a second-year student at the UI, Sánchez says she feels more understood, but is nervous that their experiences are further dividing them from their mother.

“Now it’s twice as hard for us to go home and communicate to our mom about what our experiences are like here,” says Sánchez. “But it’s comforting for my mom—and I know this because she’s told me—that at least now there’s two of us, and we can help each other and support one another through whatever it is that she doesn’t understand.”

Rivera says she’s proud of Sánchez.

“She’s this great role model now for lots of other women on campus who probably also suffer from imposter syndrome,” Rivera says. “They look at her and think, ‘If Lilián is doing it, I can do it too.’”

Sánchez says she wanted to be involved in the first-generation summit to help other students overcome the barriers she faced, and to spread that understanding throughout the UI community.

“I want this summit to be an opportunity for those who identify as first-generation—but also those who don’t—to understand what it means to be the first member in your family to complete your bachelor’s degree,” says Sánchez.

“I want us to see how we can support one another. It’s difficult to empathize when we don’t share similar experiences. But when we can identify obstacles someone faces, that’s when we can connect and share community. At the end of the day, building community is not only going to benefit the people involved in that transaction, but everyone around it.”