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August 8, 2011
By John Trent
Kety Luna knows the obstacles. She has felt the frustration of being a first-generation college student firsthand.
She knows what it is like to take a chance, quit a full-time job and become a full-time college student.
Luna, a native of Peru who moved to rural Nevada when she was 15 -– with only a few words in English at her disposal -– knows all of this.
She knows, too, that with unwavering personal belief and with some strategically placed support from others, great things are always possible.
Her life experience has been a lesson she plans on passing along to others.
“I enjoy helping other students,” says Luna, a graduate of Smith Valley High School who will graduate from the University of Nevada, Reno in May 2012 with a degree in secondary education. “I just hope that with my experience, and what I’ve been through, I can inspire others.”
Thanks to her recent completion of the University’s McNair Scholars Summer Research Colloquium, the odds are good that the reach of Luna’s example will go well beyond her own friends and family. The 11 students involved with this summer’s McNair Research Colloquium underwent seven weeks of intensive preparation for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), and conducted research along with faculty mentors.
The Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement Program was created by Congress to increase the number of underrepresented persons pursuing teaching, research and administrative careers in higher education. Since the University of Nevada, Reno’s program received its grant in 2003 (and selected its first students in spring 2004), it has prepared first-generation, low-income and underrepresented Nevada undergraduates for doctoral study and is federally funded at $231,000 per year.
On July 22, Luna and the other members of her cohort celebrated graduation with a luncheon in the Clark Room at Morrill Hall. The young men and women shared what they learned, as well as how they felt the experience prepared them for the further post-graduate work.
“I was thinking what a blessing this program is,” said Beau Hixon, an economics student. “This program is an awesome experience.”
Added Benjamin Del Rosario, a mechanical engineering major, “I learned from this experience that getting your Ph.D. isn’t about having a genius-level IQ. It’s about how willing you are able to be trained … and your willingness to stick with it. … Thanks to this experience, at least we now know 10 other people who have been through the same thing.”
According to Marsha Dupree, assistant director of the program, McNair has been the springboard for dozens of students from underrepresented groups to pursue and achieve undergraduate and post-graduate degrees.
Since the program first group of students was selected at the University in 2004, 84 students have participated (about 67 percent of that number have been students of color, and about 81 percent have been low-income or first-generation students).
Sixty-five of those students have gone on to graduate from the University, and nearly 70 percent of those students have entered graduate programs at the University or at other institutions. So far, 18 students have received their master’s degrees. Eighteen students are also currently pursuing their doctoral degrees.
Of the students in this summer’s program, Dupree said, “We know each one of them has the potential to achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves.”
Luna is a prime example of Dupree’s assessment.
At 15, along with her mother, her older brother and younger brother and sister, Luna arrived in the United States to join her father, a maintenance repair worker/mechanic who had achieved residency in the United States several years prior. With the move, Luna was not certain what the future held.
The experience was difficult at first. There was nothing familiar, nothing was easy or intuitive, from schoolwork to learning the rudiments of a new language.
“I remember I was sad, because I felt I had left everything behind,” Luna said. “My parents and brothers and sisters were here, but the rest of my family, my friends, my school, my education, everything seemed like it had been left behind.”
Luna tried everything to fit in. She attempted to read lips. She wrestled daily with the strange words written on the board in her classrooms. She had always loved books, but the books she had been given seemed to be written in hieroglyphics.
“I remember thinking, ‘Now I cannot read the lips of the people who are speaking, because I can’t speak English,’” she said. “The sounds they make don’t make any sense to me.”
She then made a fortuitous connection. She found a giving spirit in the form of one of her teachers, Patricia Mikulich.
“Miss Patricia Mikulich believed in me,” Luna said, the memory of Mikulich’s warm personality and compassionate understanding of young people, still strong. “She believed in me and told me, ‘You’re going to make it. I know you’re going to graduate and have a high school diploma.’ I remember thinking, ‘How can you say you know I’m going to graduate when I can’t even speak or understand English?’”
Today, Kety Luna’s English is excellent. As she remembers those first few days in her new country, and what ultimately helped pull her through, it’s clear that the attention and encouragement from a special human being made all the difference.
“Just the fact that somebody believes in another person makes so much difference,” Luna said, her soft voice still notably persistent, like a drumbeat you can’t deny. “So much difference. I want to be somebody who inspires others to be successful.”
Her career path became obvious once she enrolled at Western Nevada College, and then Truckee Meadows Community College. She was working full-time with the Nevada Division of Industry in Carson City, and although the job was helpful (she learned computers and learned that she loved working with the public), it wasn’t until she began to take college courses that she realized she was capable of more.
Working full-time, she was taking courses in the evening. Each day and evening was a constant struggle to maintain some sort of personal balance. She decided that it was time to make a change. She was told that she couldn’t work part-time and pursue her studies, so “I quit my full-time job. I decided to attend TMCC.”
She told the academic advising staff at TMCC that she had just quit her full-time job and that she was hoping to find a job that would permit her to focus on her studies.
“Three days later they called me and I was hired as a student worker at Truckee Meadows Community College in the academic advising office,” Luna said, still amazed at how quickly things happened. “I enjoyed working there so much. It was so amazing to be able help first-generation students, or new students, who were coming to school.”
She said she could thoroughly relate to their experience.
“So many of them were so confused,” she said. “They didn’t know where to go, or what to do in order to enroll in college. Just to be able to guide, help, and motivate them was such an amazing experience for me.”
Luna’s McNair research project this summer focused on the experience of Latino/Latina students as they transfer from a community college to a four-year university. In addition to an exhaustive literature review, Luna’s project included interviews with more than a dozen Latina/Latino college students.
In her faculty mentor, Patricia Miltenberger, an emeritus professor of higher education administration, Luna found a kindred spirit. Miltenberger, like Luna, came from humble beginnings to the Nevada campus. Miltenberger grew up in rural Nevada in Fallon and was the first person in her family to graduate from college.
“Dr. Patricia Miltenberger is an amazing woman,” Luna said. “She was a first-generation college student, just like I am. She’s been very helpful. She’s always there for the students. She has an open door policy for all of her students.”
Miltenberger, like all good professors, helped open the door for more inquiry into her student’s research areas.
“I was finding patterns in my research and I told Dr. Miltenberger that Latinos who transfer here smoothly or who have an easier transition are the ones who are involved in extracurricular activities, work on campus, and attend college full-time,” Luna said. “It’s easier for them because they not only know about how the college system works, but they also have friends and co-workers who are also transferring to the university. And Dr. Miltenberger told me, “Now you need to read Vincent Tingo (an expert on social/academic interaction) and Alexander Astin (an expert on involvement). You will find the theories behind why you are finding these patterns.’
“Dr. Miltenberger not only answers my questions, she gives me the resources to find out more in my research.”
From Patricia Mikulich to Patricia Miltenberger, Luna’s experience with education has proven to be a positive one, one filled with memorable role models who have fueled Luna’s aspirations far beyond what she could have ever imagined.
One day, when she completes her master’s and doctoral studies -– a path made more clear thanks to Luna’s experience with the McNair program -– Luna plans on giving back to students, hoping to fortify what might seem like fragile hopes into a transcendent future.
“I would love to work in academic advising,” Luna said. “I admire all the wonderful people who are advisors and who are there to help students succeed.”
The emotion built in Luna’s voice. It was a warm July day, and Luna stood near the Honor Court, only a stone’s throw from the University Quadrangle, where in a few short months she will graduate from the University.
She was asked what would be on her mind as she graduates and prepares for the next chapter in what has already been a notable life.
Without hesitation, her voice grew firm and sure as the elms trees lining the Quad.
“I will be thankful to all the people who believe in me,” she replied. “I will be thankful for my family’s support, the support I get from my parents and siblings. Sometimes I feel I don’t spend enough time with them, but I know they understand.”
John Trent is senior editor for news and features.