In fall 2020, Yareli Navarro Chavez was a freshman beginning the special and exciting adventure of going to college. Already a memorable – and sometimes challenging — time of adjustment, the experience was made even more unique due to her being a first-generation student attending college during a global pandemic.
“It was like having two great challenges at the same time,” Navarro Chavez said. “I was [already] really confused and scared when it came to applying for college. You have no way of knowing what to expect, especially because you're doing this as the first person in your family.”
Facing a struggle many recent incoming freshman college students could relate to, Navarro Chavez found it more difficult to make meaningful connections with others attending school online in 2020. This encouraged her to look for ways to get involved on campus this fall 2021 semester.
After exploring University of Nevada, Reno’s numerous resources, Navarro Chavez discovered the Pack Research Experience Program (PREP). This research award from Undergraduate Research, part of Research & Innovation, is designed specifically for freshman and sophomore students and prioritizes students from historically underrepresented communities or first-generation students. In the program, recipients are paid to work with a faculty mentor and gain professional experience through the completion of research projects.
This opportunity stood out to Navarro Chavez. As a sophomore pre-med student with a major in biology and minor in analytical chemistry, as well as an aspiring cardiologist, she felt research aligned well with her goals. She was hesitant because of her lack of experience, but she still decided to apply.
“I come from a background where none of my family has done research before or studied in the STEM field. So I didn't know if I was the right person for this position,” she said. “However, I want to be the first person in my family to be able to do something [like this] and feel good about it, so it's a huge accomplishment for not only me, but for my family as well, to be able to be a part of research.”
Now, Navarro Chavez conducts chemistry-based research under the guidance of her faculty mentor Laina Geary, associate professor of chemistry in the College of Science. She said this mentorship has helped her gain confidence—not only in her own abilities, but in asking for help when she needs it. When she doesn’t feel comfortable with her research work or needs advice in other aspects of her academic life, she knows Geary is available as a resource.
“The mentors available are supportive and there to guide you through the whole process. You’re not going to be doing it alone. You’re going to have someone you can confide in, and you get paid to learn,” she said.
Navarro Chavez is also a part of the TRIO STEM Scholars program, a resource providing academic assistance to qualifying undergraduate first-generation students. With this program, she again received valuable mentorship and had the opportunity to connect with other first-generation students. She said that being a part of this community was beneficial because it was a reminder there are others like her at the University, and they're also going through similar experiences.
These experiences, in addition to her already providing guidance to her younger sister starting college this fall, have inspired her to pursue opportunities to mentor others. Recently, she enjoyed her role as a ScienceFIT Pack Mentor, where she said she liked “being able to open doors for many new incoming students, especially those that are in the same field.” In the future, she hopes to become a peer mentor for the TRIO STEM program.
Navarro Chavez said her identity serves as inspiration to strive for more. She encouraged others like herself to not be afraid to take advantage of the resources available.
“Being first-generation motivates me to accomplish more, to look at possibilities I never thought of pursuing,” she said. “So I would say [to another first-generation student] to go for more opportunities out there, because it does create networking opportunities in your field of interest.”