Happy National First-Generation College Student Day! To celebrate and recognize our students on this special day, we set out to interview five different First-Gen students at NHCC, to ask them about their college experiences, so far!
Meet the following students in the Q&A, below!
Cassey Ceron Fernandez
If you could go back, what would you tell yourself about being a First Gen College student?
FD: I think I would tell myself, that it’s ok to change your mind. Because as a First-Generation College student, you’re expected to get everything right because you are the first. It’s like you have to make sure you’re doing everything right and perfectly, so that the ones behind you can see that you’ve been able to do it and then they can follow your path. So, I think, knowing it's ok to change your mind on different things was a big one. It does feel like a lot of pressure, because for me, I recently changed my major from biology to business. Initially, I thought I wanted to go into the medical field, but it wasn't a good fit for me. I knew I wanted to change my major for a long time, but I was so hesitant to do so. I wondered, ‘Oh my gosh, what is it going to be like when I switch over into the business field?’ The medical field has a clear pathway, and I know everyone wants to say that their daughter is a doctor, and it’s like a surefire plan for success. Whereas, with the business field it is different. I’m thinking, ‘What if I switch it to this and it doesn’t pan out the way I want it to? Or I’m not able to do what I want to do?’ There are all these kinds of thoughts going on in my head. It was very hard to make that decision to change my major. I am the oldest of five kids, and I have a single mother, so I'm used to making decisions with input from everyone else. I couldn't just say, “Oh, you know what? I don’t want to do this anymore.” I also have to take into account their opinions and figure out how the decisions are going to affect them. Now that I’ve changed my major, I’m more open with my younger siblings. I told them, “Hey, I thought I wanted to go down this route, because it’s what everybody else was telling me that I needed to do. What I see in the media is different from what I feel I need to do. But you can make your own decisions, you can change your mind.” I’ve spoken to a lot of people and I noticed that success stories do not have to go a certain way. Everyone’s story is different, and you’ve just got to be true to yourself along the way. When I first told my siblings, going into college, ‘Oh I’m going to study this.. I’m going into biology and I’m trying to become a general practitioner. Hopefully, one day I’ll have my own practice.’ They thought, ‘Oh my gosh! My sister is trying to do all of these big things, right?’ Then when I initially told them I was switching my major, and I’m trying to figure out if I want to do hospital management, or work for a corporation in talent acquisition. It has taken them awhile to get their minds wrapped around that. The initial excitement of the medical field is not the same. Those are jobs we prop up as a society. I picked business because, over the summer I worked as a marketing intern at Optum Health, and I realized that this was something I could see myself doing. I spoke to many people within the business about their different fields. I spoke to people who work in HR and people who work in finance. I spoke to a talent acquisition manager, who used to be a teacher and now she's never been happier at work. That opened my eyes to the many pathways of business! Me being a person that likes to do many different things, and I don’t like to be put in a box, I knew this was something I could see myself doing. Whereas, going into the medical field, it would have been very routine, and I’d do this one thing, for this amount of years. But business offers me more flexibility. I should graduate from NHCC in a year and a half and then I’ll transfer out. I’m looking at a couple different colleges to transfer to. Concordia University, the University of Minnesota, Hamline University, and also St. Cloud State University. I’m trying to figure out which school would be best for me.
AB: If I could go back, I would tell myself that everyone’s journey through college looks different and that you’re going to face setbacks and start to compare yourself to your peers. Even though you may take longer to accomplish your goals, and it feels like you are failing in that way, don’t give up! There are benefits to taking your time and they will allow you to build a much clearer vision of the future you want!
CCF: I would tell myself that I am very lucky to be in the position that I am in now. Before, I went to college because I wanted to start my career, but I never stopped and realized how much my parents went through to get me to where I am now. They put their career, family, and life behind them to be here in the states. All for a better life for our family. That is such a big sacrifice. Here I am worried and anxious when I haven't seen my siblings longer than a week, meanwhile, my parents haven't seen their family in over 20 years. I would have told myself that there is so much to do in this world and education is just the beginning of it.
JG: I would tell myself that this is a good thing and what you’re doing is a good idea. If you grow up around people who never went to college, there can be animosity towards people who go to college and there’s a stigma about them. People in your life could try to tell you that going to college is a bad thing. It might not even be your family. Some people I met and worked with also had those thoughts. But over time, I developed a defense where I stopped listening to other people so much. That allowed me to empower myself to do whatever I wanted, instead of being influenced by other people.
AM: It will be hard, but so rewarding! There will be many challenges that you overcome.
How have you liked being a student at NHCC?
FD: I’ve really liked it! I feel like when I came here, I was really shy, and in my shell. Now I’m more open and outgoing. I was timid, I didn’t know if college was for me back then. But after coming here, and being able to explore different opportunities, and see different aspects of myself, I’ve really enjoyed it here.
AB: I have enjoyed my time at NHCC thoroughly! I love how small and tight-knit the community and campus feel. When I see so many of the same faces each time I’m on campus, it’s easier for me to stay motivated and driven to keep showing up and working towards finishing my programs because of that familiarity. The staff and faculty also do an excellent job of supporting their students and helping them to deal with any challenges or obstacles that they may face during their time at NHCC. This college is wonderful!
CCF: I really like being a student here at NHCC. There is a ton of diversity and I have gotten so many unique opportunities while being here. I feel like this college has anything for everyone, I have never felt excluded, or targeted while being on campus.
JG: This is my first semester and I like it so far! I feel like I’m already learning stuff, and that’s pretty cool. My courses are challenging me. I’m looking to join PTK, the honors club here at some point. I can prove to myself that I can do this, and do really well at it. NHCC has been really great, TRIO has been helpful. I have a TRIO Advisor that works with me, and I’ve met with TRIO’s writing tutor multiple times, as well. That built-in support system feels good, especially if you’re like me and don’t really have a support system, or family members who are cheering on your success. I also like that NHCC is way more affordable than other schools. It’s in my neighborhood, (I only have two teachers so far) but they’re really fair and nice. I also had a good experience talking to the people at NHCC’s Financial Aid department. I feel like I’ve interacted with every department at this point. The CARE Center staff are nice, my TRIO Advisor, Adam is great. He got a degree later in life, in his thirties as well.
AM: I started at Anoka Ramsey and transferred to NHCC in 2019, and I still consider that one of the best decisions I've ever made. The professors are incredible and willing to help you. The TRIO program is one of my top favorite parts of NHCC, for the exclusive tutors and benefits that comes with the program (special events, registering for classes early, personal advisor who checks in regularly).
What are you studying in college?
FD: I mentioned I’m studying business now, but I’m not sure what my focus will end up being. I’m interested in learning about HR work, hospital administration, and management. Or maybe I should work for a corporation like Optum. There I could work in talent acquisition and develop programs for the company. Also, I’m a person with many hobbies and different things that I see myself doing in life. Like, right now, I’m working on a short story that I’m hoping to publish. That’s one of the things I like to do. In the future, whichever career that I settle into, I still want to keep my interest in houses. I want to have a career, but also do something in real estate on the side, whether that be designing houses, or flipping houses. Those are things that I’m really interested in, and they can go along with any career that I end up in.
AB: I am studying Data Science currently. I was here as a Computer Science student for a semester in 2018 and took a bit of time off. When I came back last spring, I wanted to do Statistics, but they didn’t have a program for it so Data Science was the next best option for me as it’s basically the cross-section between Comp. Sci. & Stats. Recently, I have been considering making the switch back to Computer Science as I have been enjoying my time in those classes more than the pure mathematics courses required for my eventual transfer to the U of M – Twin Cities.
CCF: I am currently in the nursing program for my associates and plan to go back to school for more education once I graduate. I love helping others and I love all things medical. The nursing program here at NHCC is tough but you learn so much and it is very rewarding when you understand concepts in class and in clinicals at North Memorial Hospital.
JG: I’m studying biology because I want to get into medicine. I think right out of the gate, that will provide me with a decent pay. I’ll need to go to another school after getting my four-year degree, and this is definitely a different path for me. I’m at the very beginning, but I know I can do a lot with a biology degree if I change my mind. This is my first semester at NHCC and I’m doing this all while I work full-time.
AM: I am currently in my 4th semester of nursing school, and I’m set to graduate in May of 2024.
What do you hope to do in the future, and who helped you get to where you are today?
FD: Multiple people helped me get to where I am today. I feel like I have a little community! My mom helped me realize the opportunities I have available to me. I have friends along the way, who are doing different things and inspiring me. Also, I met LaShawnda Ford, (who used to work at NHCC in the DEI department) she was my supervisor when I was a student worker there. She really opened my mind to the choices I could make. I told her about me wanting to go on the medical route and how I felt that it wasn’t a set-in stone thing for me. She helped me realize the different routes I could go. Maybe joining the military was an option, (that’s when I also met Janet, who used to work at NHCC in the Veterans Resource Center). I’m grateful for the people who opened my eyes and showed me the many ways that success can be possible. Success looks different for everybody. There’s not just one singular route for everyone to take and it doesn’t matter how many times you need to reroute yourself. That does not indicate whether or not you are going to fail in life, or succeed. Being in the TRIO program helped me here too. Having Tiffany as my TRIO Advisor to help me pick the classes that I need for my program and being able to go to Tiffany and tell her, “I don’t know if I want to stay in this program anymore.” She helped me figure out what to do, to drop certain classes and make sure it doesn’t affect me financially and we figured out the next steps together.
AB: In the future, I hope to do analytical work in some capacity. The specific job title is up for debate, but applying statistical and logical models to data after manipulating and cleaning it is the goal. Companies and organizations in every sector need individuals and teams who can store, maintain and analyze data. That way they can generate insights into problems they are facing and help them grow to become more efficient and sustainable. One of the people who has helped me get to where I am today, and continues to help me in pursuit of my goals, is my best friend Aaron. He works as an analyst doing the same things that I am going to school for so it’s incredibly helpful to have someone with so much knowledge and real world experience to deepen my understanding of concepts and to help me avoid common pitfalls and mistakes that others without that guidance might be susceptible to. He has a ton of confidence in me and I am very grateful to call him my friend.
CCF: In the future, I hope to continue my education even further and expand my knowledge, to help those who don't quite understand how our bodies work. The person who helped me to get where I am here today is my sister. My sister encouraged me to come to NHCC, because this is where she graduated and felt comfortable. Also, my fiancé Brandon has supported me financially and has stuck by me when times are tough.
JG: I want to be a doctor, but not in the traditional sense, I want to be a naturopathic physician. Naturopathic doctors also go to school for 4-6 years post-secondary degree, (that’s after the biology degree). But that’s what I want to do! I know college programs for naturopathic medicine are few and far between. Minnesota has one of the best medical schools in the country, but naturopathic medicine programs are harder to find. They exist in places like, Chicago, the west coast and Canada. It's worth it to me, though! I’ve heard that naturopathic physicians have a much better quality of life overall. They see six patients a day, for an hour apiece, instead of being on call for the ER and they aren't needed around the clock as much.
AM: I plan to finish my 4-year BSN degree. My boyfriend has been my biggest supporter! He has supported all of my tears and shared all of my happiness with me during this nursing school journey. Also, shout-out to my nursing school cohort girlies! No one understands what you're going through like your classmates. Those girls have become the biggest support group and I guarantee we will keep in touch even after graduation!
Follow-up questions that were asked individually to John Grimes:
Knowing you’d be a First Gen student, what inspired you to go back to school?
I worked all kinds of entry level jobs, and the working conditions weren’t great. I went through an OAC program to do construction (a six-month quick learning course from Summit Academy that helps get people into entry-level construction work). After doing that, I learned how hard and difficult that type of work is. Nothing against those jobs, it was just rough for me. I tried working in construction, while I kept the other job I had as a dishwasher at a co-op, but then I ultimately went back to dishwashing later. I liked the co-op vibe more, even though I was just a dishwasher, and that was also kind of hard to do as well. Retail, customer service, call center, I’ve worked in all of those fields. But what stuck with me was the fact that the pay gap is crazy. I think later in life when I found out how much more money educated people make, or when I learned what a partner at a law firm makes, I was like, ‘Man, that’s a lot of money!’ When I saw my family struggle alongside me, I’d think, ‘Hmm, if they had an education, if they had a career, or a profession they’d be doing a lot better, and they’d be happier.’ It was all of those factors. That’s when I started thinking, ‘Ok, maybe I should pursue something in a better industry and I can really try to help other people.’ I had a hard time with entry level jobs, and all of these things inspired me to try something else.
How did you learn about the pay gap between people who do and don’t have college degrees?
Along the way, I learned how much lawyers were making, and how much doctors billed out at with their own practices, and I compared that to what some contractors were making who owned their own businesses, (even though they have very different working conditions). To me, it seemed like the doctors and lawyers had a better quality of life. Working so many odd jobs over the years, I met a lot of people. I met engineers, I met people who had four-year degrees in computer science and liberal arts. When I found people who were doing a job I was interested in, I asked them how they did it and I learned what steps were required to make it happen.
Were you nervous to go back to school?
Yes, I was really nervous, because I knew I’d be in classes with younger students. Even still in class, I have some social awkwardness because I’m there with 18-year-old kids, from Brooklyn Park. Going back to school at this age, I wasn’t sure how I’d do. When I brought it up at work that I was going back to school, the replies weren't all that great. I heard people make negative comments about it. They said critical things about getting an education, like, ‘Some people who have college degrees can’t even tie their shoelaces.’ I told them how messed up that comment was. It was a hard interaction to shake though. That comment made me nervous in the meantime, because I didn’t want certain groups of people at work to not like me. But, I don't have time for that, I’m in these classes and I’ve got to navigate college for the first time. It is intimidating, because a lot of people just go straight from high school, to college, to career. That’s a typical, healthy path, but it makes me nervous, because supposedly, it gets harder to learn new stuff as you get older.
How did you decide you wanted to study biology?
I noticed people in my life were getting illnesses that were chronic and supposedly untreatable.That’s when I started looking up health information and learned about alternative medicine. With traditional medicine, you can kind of hit a dead end, but with alternative or Chinese medicine, you can do more. When I worked as a dishwasher at the co-op, I met a really knowledgeable person who worked in the wellness department and talked to her about these things. A mutual friend connected me to the office of the naturopathic physician; and once I learned more about naturopathic medicine, I thought it was really cool! I couldn’t believe that someone did this for a job. I didn’t even know that alternative doctors existed. They go to medical school, just like regular doctors. They can do everything! They can do all kinds of home baby delivering, they can do physicals, they can do it all, just like a medical doctor. Naturopathic doctors go about medicine in a different way though. It’s a more holistic way and has to do with your gut health and treating you with food. They might encourage you to change your diet, as a way to treat your medical conditions, because it alters your body. It's very cool! They have found imbalances and provided me with certain supplements to help my brain. As doctors, they really go in depth with what they look at and treat, because of how well they understand everything. I have gone to many traditional doctors and gone down that rabbit hole. But I have seen real results and am living proof that progress can occur with the help of a naturopathic doctor. They can really treat me, they know their stuff, they’re super smart and they have all the tools!
Do you think you’ll go to the naturopathic medical school in Chicago?
Yes, I think I will, because it is the closest school to me. That’s where one of my physicians went a few years ago and he’s doing really well. He has a great, beautiful office, he has people working in there with him, and a certified nurse practitioner works under him. He has a lab technician who works there and a front desk person. I was happy to hear he went to the medical school in Chicago and I looked at the curriculum and that’s how I got hooked on it.
Are you planning on doing the four-year Bemidji State biology partnership program here?
Yeah, I think so! It seems really convenient, and I think it is a low-cost option. I also don’t think it matters where you get your biology degree from, in terms of applying for their medical school. I heard that Luke, one of the TRIO Advisors here did the NHCC and Bemidji biology partnership program, so maybe when I get farther into it I’ll interact with him more and ask him how he liked his classes.
Thank you to Shelly from TRIO for helping to connect students to share their First-Gen student stories, and make this opportunity possible!