Alumni Reflect on Experiences as First-Generation Students

By Melissa Graham  |  November 9, 2021

Unlike a lot of his peers, John Chang BS’15 didn’t feel pressure to go to college. As the son of a single mother who immigrated to the United States from Taiwan and only finished high school, Chang knew it was up to him to determine his next steps.

“I didn’t grow up in an environment where it was expected of me to go to college,” Chang said. “It was a completely foreign concept; I had to do all the research on my own.”

That research led to a stop at the UT Dallas booth at a career fair hosted by L.V. Berkner High School in Richardson, where Chang was able to get to know the University better and submit paperwork for admission.

“It was a one-stop shop for getting all the information I needed to go to college,” Chang said. “They helped me with my essays and provided support.”

John Chang BS’15

The Naveen Jindal School of Management graduate set his goals high in college, securing internships at Ameriprise Financial, Texas Instruments and Crowe before eventually landing a full time job as a manager at Schellman.

“I had no choice but to bet on myself and believe in myself, but I would not have gotten any of those jobs or internships if it weren’t for UT Dallas,” Chang said.

As one of the most diverse campuses in the country, UT Dallas prides itself on attracting talented students with different backgrounds and experiences. That includes first-generation college students, who in 2020 made up about 22% of undergraduates at UT Dallas.

“Investing in and graduating first-generation students provides us an opportunity to be part of generational change within families,” said Courtney Brecheen MPA’09, PhD’17, senior associate dean of undergraduate education at UT Dallas.

In 2019, UT Dallas was recognized as a First Forward institution by the NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and The Suder Foundation. The designation highlighted the University for making improved experiences and engagement a priority for first-generation students.

“The rich diversity of identities and backgrounds represented within our first-generation student population enrich academic and social settings throughout campus,” Brecheen said. “Ultimately, ensuring that our students are exposed to a diversity of thought and understand the value of their unique perspective supports our goal to produce globally aware leaders.”

Those globally aware leaders include graduates like Miguel de la Rocha BS’19, who grew up in Honduras and quickly immersed himself in campus life as a freshman at UT Dallas. De la Rocha joined the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, Undergraduate Success Scholars and served as a peer advisor for almost two years.

“Having that support and being able to connect with folks helped me find a second home,” de la Rocha said.


Miguel de la Rocha BS’19

As a student at UT Dallas, de la Rocha secured an internship with Chase that led to his current role as a software developer for Capital One. 

“UTD gave me a great foundation to start my career,” de la Rocha said. “I felt that I was very prepared for the workforce once I was done.”

And although UT Dallas works to make the transition to college life as seamless as possible for first-time college students, it doesn’t eliminate all the challenges that can come with being a first-generation student.

As the youngest of four siblings and the only one in her family to complete college, Amber Brown BS’15, MPA’17 struggled to adapt to the workload that came with being a student athlete as part of UT Dallas’ women’s basketball team.

“I definitely prioritized sports, because that felt like the only area where I could succeed,” Brown said. “It was a huge learning curve to figure out how to study and remember what you’re learning.” 

Amber Brown BS’15, MPA’17

Born and raised in Dallas, Brown finished in the top 10% of her class at Skyline High School, but the success she found at that level didn’t prepare her for the degree of difficulty she faced as a first-generation college student. Her dream of graduating, however, enabled her to adapt and stay focused.

“UT Dallas wasn’t easy, but that growing pain of being forced to become better did something that was healthy for me,” Brown said. “If I didn’t have a vision of who I wanted to become or a goal, I would have been easily deterred.”

Brown’s vision to work in community outreach and social justice has come to fruition, as her role has progressed from Comet Cupboard coordinator at UT Dallas to director of operations for For Oak Cliff, an organization that aims to liberate Oak Cliff from systemic oppression.

“UT Dallas gave me a lane to serve,” Brown said. “I used to use the food pantry in college, and that turned into a student worker position. I always knew that was the type of work I wanted to do. I’ve always been passionate about serving others who are less fortunate.”

As the keynote speaker for UT Dallas’ First-Generation Celebration Week, Brown was able to relay her life experiences and shared what she’s learned with other first-generation students like her.

“Showing up to UT Dallas was a choice,” Brown said. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I stepped into that and committed to that and I was patient through the ups and the downs.”

Relevance: Alumni, Community