Texas Tech University

First-Generation College Student Has Faced Obstacles, Detours on Road to Degree

Glenys Young

October 9, 2015

Laura Gonzalez changed universities, turned down her dream job and more to set a good example for her younger sisters.

Laura Gonzalez
Laura Gonzalez

For Texas Tech University student Laura Gonzalez, the road to a degree has been filled with twists, turns and bumps. Throughout the journey, she's been guided by her dedication to her family.

For Hispanic Heritage Month, Gonzalez shared how her background has affected her educational and career choices and how she hopes her path will influence others.

“I come from a culture where you're kind of honed in on that pride element, where it's very hard to ask people for help, and that can be a bit conflicting in higher education, especially for a first-generation college student,” Gonzalez said. “You don't know the loops and the puzzle pieces to a lot of things other students already know. You fail that first test and it's a shock, whereas others have had parents go through that who can mentor and coach them and say, ‘it happens, you'll get over it.' I didn't have that support because my parents knew nothing about higher education.”

Her father first came to the United States in 1987 at age 19, and when he was found to be here illegally, he was deported. He came back legally in 1988.

“He had a total of 10 siblings and obviously my grandparents, and he was helping support them,” she said. “He traveled here to find a better job that would pay better, and the money he was making would go to Mexico to support his family. You can see why he knew he had to come back here.”

Laura Gonzalez

Gonzalez's mother came to the U.S. in the 1980s after her own father died.

“She was only 18 years old and she had to come with her mother and her siblings to find a better life because my grandpa was the sole provider of their family; they had a restaurant business,” Gonzalez said. “So when he passed away, everything kind of dissolved at that point.”

Gonzalez's father has worked in maintenance for Tyson Foods for 25 years and is the sole provider for his family after a series of nine back surgeries in the past three years rendered his wife disabled. Gonzalez also has five younger sisters, ranging in age from 9 to 22.

“There's a guilt factor” in attending college, she admitted. “Seeing my parents struggle and not have high-paying jobs, it was difficult for me to not just jump into the workforce and bring a bit of income to help out with the bills. Instead, I chose to do college, so that's weighed on me a lot. I feel the way I've been able to overcome that is seeing how my experiences are now influencing and inspiring my sisters to pursue that alternative rather than going into the workforce and seeing there's a brighter future in choosing option B.”

The senior public relations major from Amarillo was on a much different path just two years ago. She was a mechanical engineering major at the University of Texas, progressing more than 60 percent toward her degree plan, with only three semesters left until her anticipated graduation. But she was also unhappy.

“I decided engineering was not the path for me,” she said. “I wasn't passionate about it, I didn't feel like it was bringing out the best in me, and I could not thrive in it.”

She started looking into other programs at other universities. She found the Department of Public Relations at Texas Tech's College of Media & Communication different because chairman Trent Seltzer offered to speak to the prospective student by phone instead of just email. But even the hope that she'd found a better place didn't ease the choice of changing her current path.

“That was hard to walk away from, seeing how far I had come,” she said. “I mean, passing all those higher-level calculus courses and the science part was hard to walk away from because that in itself was full of all-nighters I was leaving behind me. But I'm glad I went through that experience because going through that built the work ethic I have today. And it also ties back into my Hispanic heritage. You're raised in a household where you're taught that you need to work hard, so it's really impacted my success today, knowing that I need to be a risk taker and trying to not be afraid to ask for help.”

After arriving at Texas Tech in Fall 2014, Gonzalez felt she had a lot to prove.

“A lot of people viewed my transition from mechanical engineering into public relations as a failure because they saw it from the perspective of, ‘oh, the going got tough and she didn't want to finish it out,'” she said. “Around November, I came across the Multicultural Advertising Intern Program (MAIP) opportunity, the most promising intern program. Seeing the competitiveness in that application was a bit scary because more than 1,000 students apply from all over the country and only a small fraction are selected, 155 to be exact.

“Seeing that kind of fueled me, and I knew I had many to prove wrong after my transition from engineering into this field, so I knew this would be the eye-opener for many of my mentors and myself to say, ‘I made the right choice jumping into this field.' Even though I was competing against students who had two years of experience, I ignored that fact and really applied myself, devoting my heart into that application. From studying how to create a resume to how to create a LinkedIn profile, I really went that extra mile to make myself distinctive among the applicants. In February, I was named a MAIP fellow.”

The 22-week fellowship program started in the spring, so while taking classes at Tech, Gonzalez enrolled in digital webinars to learn skills from industry professionals that would prepare her for the next step. In early June, she flew to St. Louis for a media planning internship at marketing and advertising firm Osborn Barr.

“When starting at Osborn Barr, one of their media planners had just left their team, so I had the opportunity to do a lot of the duties typical media interns don't get to do,” Gonzalez said. “I was helping the media director draft a presentation for a client and I was drafting competitive analyses, things I didn't even know the terminology to before. If I didn't know the answer, you'd best believe Google was my best friend.”

As part of the internship, Gonzalez and her group developed a marketing plan for the company, competing against other intern groups in the St. Louis and Kansas City offices.

“Toward the end of the summer, we had the opportunity to present that plan to our client, which consisted of the CEO, the human resources director, the vice president and all the senior executive personnel. That in itself was a bit intimidating; you're presenting to the CEO, that's enough right there,” she laughed. “I think what really made our presentation distinctive was the passion that just bounced off from one to another in that group and toward the end of the day, our group was announced the winner. Even to this day, those recommendations we made for that campaign are being utilized by Osborn Barr.”

As part of the MAIP program, Gonzalez completed a separate project with other MAIP fellows across the country in teams of 12. Gonzalez, who volunteered as the group's leader, headed a point-of-view campaign for Nike, a project facilitated by Portland, Oregon-based advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy. It would lead to her dream job offer.

“At the end of my internship, a Wieden+Kennedy rep reached out to me through LinkedIn, asking if I was interested in an assistant media planner position in their Portland office,” she said. “Getting that kind of offer can be dazing. It's kind of the foundational truth: you come to college to get a better education to get a better life. I knew I would be skipping a step ahead if I took this opportunity, but it would invalidate all that sacrifice I know my family has gone through, not having that extra income from me just pursuing the workforce instead of going to college. Knowing that it would invalidate that and set the wrong example for my sisters, it was not worth taking the dream job.”

After she explained her reasons to the Wieden+Kennedy representative, she was told she'd be contacted again in a year to see if she was interested in another internship opportunity or perhaps another position, if one became available.

Back at Texas Tech, Gonzalez is now the president of Tech PR, the university's chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), a role she uses to teach other students what she's learned along the way – in public relations and out.

“I've learned the best leader is compassionate to people's circumstances,” she said. “I've let that really influence how I lead others. I'm also very analytical, which comes from those engineering classes. I really analyze people's strengths and weaknesses and use those assessments to bring out the best in people.”

Gonzalez, who expects to graduate in May, said Texas Tech has given her chances she wouldn't have imagined two years ago.

“I think a lot of the opportunities I have today are because of the faculty here at Tech,” she said. “Just seeing that underlying support and passion that transmits in those individuals has pushed me to be a better person and a better student. Texas Tech is a magical place and I couldn't be more thrilled to be here. I hope my sisters will also follow my alma mater, but obviously that's up to them.

“Seeing that I do come from a low-income Hispanic background has really pushed me to take opportunities where I can because I know pursuing the workforce wouldn't have as large of an impact as higher education would for my family,” she added. “I will be the first in my family to get a college degree. I hope that sacrifice will bring more generations, with my sisters and their families. Seeing the long view picture of that is what pushes me to not be fearful of circumstances and making my own opportunities.”