Indy Q&A: From Carson to Dartmouth: First-generation student reflects on the opportunity to make generational change
Cristian Garcia Perez, 18, has been soaking up as much of his hometown Carson City and the West Coast as he can this summer, making trips to In ‘N Out Burger with his friends and a first-time trip to Disneyland, before he moves across the country in early September to attend Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
The Carson High School graduate beamed about his accomplishment during a recent interview with The Nevada Independent. Garcia Perez, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Oaxaca, Mexico decades ago, will be the first in his family to pursue higher education. Growing up, Garcia Perez’s family struggled financially and he was challenged to speak for his family, registering himself and his two younger brothers for school every year and translating during parent-teacher conferences.
He said he sees those struggles as part of the hero’s journey that he’ll look back on someday and feel grateful for.
Despite the success in his college applications, Garcia Perez hadn’t planned to apply to schools outside of Nevada until a counselor encouraged him to.
“My full idea was like, ‘I feel like I'm a pretty good student, I can get the [Nevada] Promise Scholarship, I can go to [Western Nevada College] for free,’” Garcia Perez said. “[My counselor]’s like, ‘You're way better than just an average student, you should definitely try it out, apply, you have nothing to lose.’”
In addition to Dartmouth, Garcia Perez, who finished high school with a 5.3 GPA, also threw his hat in the ring for Stanford, Cornell, Duke and Vanderbilt universities and the University of Pennsylvania through QuestBridge, a nonprofit based in California that aims to connect students from low-income backgrounds to 45 top colleges and universities partnered with the organization. QuestBridge uses a ranking system to match students to institutions.
Garcia Perez was accepted into all of the schools he solicited except Stanford. Despite not matching directly to Dartmouth, Garcia Perez chose the school after a recruiter reached out and expressed interest in his application. Now, he’s on his way to an Ivy League college with a 7.9 percent acceptance rate, with all tuition expenses covered by a scholarship.
Garcia Perez spoke to The Nevada Independent about what he’s looking forward to in his upcoming journey, why it’s important for him to be the first in his family to attend college and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Nevada Independent: What are you excited for?
Cristian Garcia Perez: The whole new environment. When I found out that Dartmouth, it's small, the biggest store [in Hanover] is a CVS pharmacy, and I'm like, “No more In ‘N Out Burger.” So that's a little interesting to get excited to feel a whole new different environment but I'm also a bit nervous because competition is going to be pretty strong there. But that's also the good thing about it because these people will push [me].
Is there any part of you that feels unprepared because you are the first in your family to go to college?
I wouldn't say unprepared. I feel like I'm going to have to figure this all out on my own, rather than having someone to be like, “Here’s what you should do,” but I'm just going in with a good mindset.
How did your parents react when they found out that you got accepted into Dartmouth, and all these other schools?
At first they didn't react at all because they didn't know what Dartmouth was, so to them they were like, “OK, so you're just leaving us … Why don't you just go to WNC? Are you trying to leave our family?”
But then I explained to them, we had a meeting with my counselor … then from there, my mom, she got emotional. She's like, “I didn't know my son did this, I [thought] he was just trying to leave the family, trying to get out of chores.” But they were super happy once they found out how big of an accomplishment this was, especially once I told him that Dr. Seuss went to that school.
Is there any part of you that feels sad about leaving your family?
A part of me does because I've always been this person who's done all the speaking for my family. When it comes to school registration, it's always me who does it. So, me being this person who fills out paperwork for my family, all of that, leaving … it’s like, “Is my brother ready to carry this on?”
The hardest part is leaving because of how close we've been growing up, especially with my mom, like having to walk to stores, all the problems we've had growing up. We've just built a close connection.
Even my friends, I call my friends my family, because they've all grown up in the same apartments as me. Since we were super young we've all been together. And now that I'm leaving, it's completely different.
What are [your friends] doing? Are they going to WNC?
None of them are going to college. I think one of them is going to WNC, but they're all like, “School isn't for me. I didn't do that good in high school, so why should I go straight into college? I want to try some things out first, see what I can do for myself, and then if college comes up later on, then I'll go to it.”
What does it mean to your brothers to see you go to college?
My middle brother, he's definitely happy for me, he's excited, but he knows that school or academia isn't his pathway, but he tries to find his own route. My youngest brother, on the other hand, he's still in elementary school, so he's always flexing to his friends. He's like, “My brother is going to Dartmouth!”
When I got the opportunity to go speak at his school, go talk to fifth graders, fourth graders, and he was there, he was like, “That's my brother! That's my brother!” So that's pretty cool.
Can you tell us more about speaking to those students?
In Empire Elementary, it's known as a failing school, [with a] huge minority student population and a lot of those students don't actually make it this far, they don't [take] honors classes.
I first found out about this when I was in my honors English class, and eventually my (Advanced Placement] class because it was the same teacher. He did a poll, “How many of you guys went to Empire Elementary?” I was the only one.
There's only like three [students in honors or AP classes] out of the hundreds of students [from] Empire Elementary. That's really sad, to see that these minority students aren’t making it this far and I wonder why. Is it because they immediately tell themselves, “I can't do it, I'm a Hispanic student?”
So that's why I said, once I accomplished all of this, I [felt] like now that I have the credentials I can go speak to [the younger students]. I asked them questions… “How many of your parents are also immigrants?” Almost everyone. “How many of you guys are the first people to go to school?” Almost all of them would raise their hand, so I'm like, “That's probably why they don't know what they're doing.”
So I talked to them about my story, what I did, the challenges I faced, how I was also confused. It was so interesting to see them. It felt like I was at a concert, the way they're all jumping, getting excited.
I know you're thinking about a lot of different options at the moment but what are some of those things that you're feeling interested in, in terms of studying?
I plan on going on the pre-med route, it's just more of a debate whether I want to major in economics or computer science, simply because I do see a lot of the future going into those. The future will completely keep revolving around technology, and computer science will help me be part of that future.
Also, there's that part of me that really loves film or the entertainment side of the world so I want to see if there's something I can do with that, whether it be getting a double minor in it, or maybe just joining a club. Actually, one of my college essays is about film.
What did you write about?
I talked about how I progressed as a film, I pushed it to how I view life … My situations, the way I've grown up, instead of being like, “This is like such a hard life,” I think of it as, “This is going to be so cool in the future when I get to look back at this and be like, this is how I started off.”
Reflecting on some of the harder parts of life, and feeling like you'll feel grateful one day for those, what [have] some of those struggles looked like for you?
Growing up with a family of immigrants, having to be the spokesperson for my family because their English wasn't that good. During parent-teacher conferences, instead of it being a parent-teacher conference, it was me having a conversation with the teacher and then translating it to my mom. Or even the aspects of us not having that much money at times.
At one point my father had to move away for a couple months to go find work, or me and my mom having to walk everywhere, use the bus for everything, so just stuff like that. Or growing up with no medical insurance.
In one part of my essay, I talked about how during Christmas, you see kids talk about these presents, but I didn't really experience that during elementary school because I didn't have that opportunity. But I now think of it as rather than having a present, I had the gift of perspective.
With your aspirations of going into pre-med, but also really liking public speaking or film, do you have a sense of those fields, of how little professionals there are who look like you and who have the same background as you? And how does that make you feel?
I've never really looked at it that way. Growing up, those were the things that were interesting to me. I like to eliminate the idea of, “You can't do this because you're this,” so I'm just going to keep doing it, just keep working and see where it takes me.
Once you actually find out, like whoa, so [few] minorities are actually doctors, and it's like, why is that something that's happening? Is it because they self-eliminate themselves? Or is it because they’re generations behind when it comes to education? I'm just going to break that stereotype and just keep working, doing what I have to do.
Being the first one in your family to go to college and get a college degree in the future and enter these industries or workforces, do you have a sense that you're bringing your family with you?
Definitely. I'm bringing the name, the bloodline with me. The way I feel it right now is, I'm the one in my family who has the ability, from here on out, to break this, to get us all out of poverty, completely change it so that the future generations will live in a completely different lifestyle than we did. I feel like I'm that centerpiece that will decide the fate of my future, of my family's future, it's just crazy to feel that. I always just feel like I have my ancestors with me, like some Aztec warrior.
You say that with a smile on your face, like it's not a burdensome responsibility.
At times when things do get hard, [I] do feel sad because I'm the one that they're looking up to and if I can't make it, what was the point of all these sacrifices? But like I said, a lot of it is mindset, you just gotta stay positive with everything.
I was trying to be like, “No. I am the one who's going to change it.” So I'm excited to get to it. When I do experience those moments of like, “Oh my goodness, what am I doing?” Then I'm like, “OK, this is just movie style — this happens to everyone. It’s the hero cycle.”
Nevada Independent photojournalist David Calvert contributed to this report.