'A radical hope that everything you want to see, accomplish and become is possible'
McNair Scholar Diana K. Meza shares advice for other first-generation college students and looks back at everything leading up to her walking across the stage
I don’t remember anything about my experience walking across the stage as I graduated on December 4th. I was nervous and the only thoughts I remember having were reminders to smile underneath my mask for my picture with the president and a desperate plea to the universe that I did not trip in my heels while I walked because I knew my parents were recording. Funnily enough, at one point during college I recall that I’d considered not walking during graduation; it felt like a tedious and unnecessary ceremony that I thought would just be a waste of time. But that day, when I made it back to my seat and shifted my tassel from the right side of my cap to the left, my eyes filled up with tears. In that moment, it felt like every memorable experience that I had had throughout college was flashing before my eyes - my first day of class, my first counseling session, the day I fearfully boarded the international flight to Spain to study abroad, the email I got when I received my first research grant, and even the first time I cried in the library because I couldn’t remember how to print my report using the university computers. Every single one of those moments was locked into those few seconds my name was projected onto the stage, and I can’t even remember hearing my name being said!
It seems a bit laughable in retrospect, but those few seconds marked the greatest accomplishment of my life so far. And as I sit here and reflect on that short moment, it makes me emotional to consider how many little moments, perhaps not as celebrated but certainly as significant as those, have inspired hopes and dreams that have led me to where I am today. Over 20 years ago my parents decided to move to the United States with the hope of giving their first daughter (and two other children to come) a chance to receive an education that they would never see. Over 10 years ago they instilled the radical expectation in me that I would attend college despite the fact that we could not afford it. 5 years ago I decided to sit down and apply to UNR without any clue of what obtaining a college degree even meant. 3 years ago I decided I would be the first of my family to willingly leave the United States to experience international education, and just 4 months ago I sat down and actually applied for graduation. Every single one of those moments has been filled with the hope that despite the seeming impossibility or difficulty of the decision being made, life has wonderful things to offer to those who seek more than they’ve been told they deserve.
I loved my time at UNR, and I have met the most amazing people, but quite frankly sometimes I wonder why I was able to walk across that stage when so many people that I grew up with didn't. In high school I saw many of my childhood friends become teen moms, I saw former classmates drop out to work, and even in college I’ve heard stories of someone I knew being hurt or killed because of gang violence in the neighborhood I once grew up in. Looking back now, I think part of the reason why my parents instilled the dream of college in me was in part because they had a radical hope that a degree would bring me a good life, but also in part because they knew that a degree would provide me with the ability to choose what I wanted to do with my future instead of being subjected to the few options that might have been given to me if I’d walked a different path. This isn’t to say that many of my former friends and classmates who didn’t go to college are not living successful and fulfilling lives today, and I can honestly say that college isn’t the best option for everyone, but for my family and I college signified a type of freedom and security that I’m now grateful for.
Being a first-generation college student was a difficult experience and I was filled with many doubts and dealt with various waves of imposter syndrome, but the people I met on this campus have been some of the most encouraging people I’ve ever met, and every single one of them has helped shape who I’ve become. From my dozens of professors to my research mentors, there have been so many people that have made the effort to not only try to make me feel like I belong here, but also to show me that I am a capable student with a lot to offer the world through my perspective. As I prepare to leave this campus, I do so knowing that the wisdom of all my experiences and the support of those who have helped guide me will accompany me for the rest of my life. I am leaving the institution that has become my home with great sadness, but I am happy to know that those professors and mentors who have helped me throughout my journey will continue to help other students that are filled with doubts and need the support they once gave me.
To all the first-generation students on campus now, I would say this: surround yourself with people that fill you with a radical hope that everything you want to see, accomplish, and become is possible. The friends that I’ve made and the mentors that I’ve chosen, and who have chosen me back, have all had the same light that I saw in my parents those 10 years ago; a light that comes from a hope that we can grow, learn, and become more than we think we can. And though I will never be able to fully express the impact that my mentors and friends have had in my life these past four years, I know that wherever the future takes me I will have examples of their kind and encouraging words to pass on to those around me who will need them.
I leave this campus with some sadness and some fears, but also with more love, hope, and confidence than I came in with. Thank you is never enough, but I want to offer my most sincere and heartfelt thank you to everyone who has helped me in any way throughout my college experience - you will never fully know how much you impacted my life.