Klarriza Carrillo understands the value of higher education better than most. She shares her story to celebrate National Day of Higher Education.
Klarriza Carrillo grew up hearing she would do great things.
As the granddaughter of first-generation Mexican Americans, her family had big dreams for her. While her grandmother prayed for open doors, her mother did nothing but shut them.
“I was emancipated from my biological parents at the age of 17,” Carrillo said. “My mother was very abusive, so I lived with my grandparents until I started college.”
While Carrillo only lived with her grandparents during her senior year of high school, she attributes most of her upbringing to them.
“My grandmother would have loved to attend college,” Carrillo said. “But in her culture and generation, that was just not something women did. If she had gotten the opportunity, she would have been a teacher.”
Carrillo's grandmother did, in fact, work at a school for 35 years. As the cafeteria manager at Carrillo's elementary school, she built relationships with students and inspired them to work hard, pushing her granddaughter to do the same.
Carrillo's mother had similar aspirations for Klarriza, but for different reasons.
“My grandmother wanted me to become all I could be,” Carrillo said. “My mother seemed to want me to become all she was not.
“My mother had very high expectations of a child. I needed space to be human and make mistakes and that was not possible around her. She was obsessive about my appearance and performance. That's a lot of pressure to grow up under. According to her, I had to be everything. And if I wasn't everything, I was nothing.”
While it was always Carrillo's dream to be a first-generation college student, the pressure from her mother drained the joy out of the idea.
“I wanted to be a great student, but I struggled with my grades due to everything going on at home,” Carrillo said. “If my mother had not been abusive, I know my high school experience would have been different. I loved school, but the pressure of being perfect was too much.”
Carrillo was already well into her senior year of high school when she became emancipated from her parents. She had a lot of catching up to do.
“My friends had their college applications in, and I was still going on college visits,” Carrillo said. “The application process was very overwhelming because my grandparents couldn't guide me through the logistics.”
And then came financial aid.
“I had to register as ‘homeless' on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application” Carrillo said.
According to the government, Carrillo had not been emancipated long enough to declare that on her FAFSA, and since she wasn't in the foster system, that left her with one option.
“It was really weird,” Carrillo said. “I mean, I wasn't homeless, so it felt like an added obstacle to say I was.”
Luckily for Carrillo, the college prep counselor at her high school was her saving grace.
“Mrs. Para helped me with everything,” Carrillo said. “From applications to scholarships and financial aid, she was there to help in every way. Naturally, I spent a lot of time in her office that year.”
Carrillo had her sights set on the University of New Mexico (UNM), but finances were a considerable burden. That's when her school district awarded her with a well-deserved surprise.
“I received a scholarship from our school district my senior year,” Carrillo said. “It was the largest scholarship they gave away. I was in shock. I knew I didn't necessarily have the grades to get a merit scholarship, so when applying, I decided to share my story instead.”
Her story certainly touched the school board.
“I just needed the chance to become a great student,” Carrillo said. “The drive was there, but I needed someone else to believe in me. The school board did just that. They saw something in me I didn't see in myself, and it gave me a lot of confidence.”
Less than an hour later, a classmate of Castillo's tried to take that confidence away.
“This guy in my class told me there were kids who worked harder and that I didn't deserve it,” Carrillo said. “It made me so upset. This guy didn't know that I was working as hard as I could. I hid a lot of my home life in high school. I was working through a lot of trauma and mental health issues, but in this kid's eyes, I wasn't enough.”
Determined to disprove those who doubted her, Carrillo started college at UNM in the fall of 2019. She declared a major in business with a concentration in marketing but found herself overwhelmed at times with the heavy workload.
“I didn't have the best advisor my first semester and took too many courses for a first-year student,” Carrillo said.
Due to the rocky transition, Carrillo failed two of her courses and was left feeling discouraged.
“Discouraged, but not defeated,” she clarified. “I knew I was on the right track, I was just having a hard time getting started. I didn't let those early failures define me. I retook the courses and got on with life.”
Recalibrated and ready to approach things differently her second semester, she was abruptly interrupted.
The COVID-19 pandemic cut Carrillo's spring semester short, and she had to return to El Paso. She thought she'd be returning to school in the fall, but like most students, Carrillo was looking at a year-and-a-half of online classes.
Robbed of her first year of college, she was then robbed of something much dearer.
“My grandmother passed away in 2020 due to kidney failure,” Carrillo said. “She had been sick for a long time but fought through it to raise me.”
Six months later, her grandfather followed.
“I think he just died of a broken heart,” Carrillo said. “They were together for so long; he didn't know what to do without her.”
While glad that her grandparents were together again, Carrillo grieved being left behind.
“It was already a very difficult year,” she said. “I could have given in to despair, but I know that is the last thing my grandparents would have wanted. My grandmother had given everything to see me earn a college degree, so I knew the best way to honor her was to finish what I'd started,” Carrillo said.
But she wasn't sure UNM was the right place to do that anymore.
“I was examining transfer options at that time,” Carrillo said. “The one semester I spent at UNM left me with doubts. The school was great, but the city was not a good fit for me.”
Carrillo had visited Texas Tech University once before, cheering for a playoff game in high school.
“I remember stepping foot on campus for the first time and absolutely adoring it,” Carrillo said. “Cheering in the Jones AT&T Stadium was such a serotonin rush.”
Now pondering where to finish her college career, Texas Tech came to her mind.
“I worked really hard my last semester at UNM to get my grade point average (GPA) high enough to have good transfer options,” Carrillo said. “My hard work paid off, because I was granted a presidential transfer scholarship to Texas Tech.”
In the fall of 2021, Carrillo became a Red Raider. Moving her studies to the Jerry S. Rawls College of Business, Carrillo had new aspirations.
“I had studied business for two years, but something was missing,” Carrillo said. “I wasn't passionate enough about business alone to pursue it as a career.”
Reflecting on what she did feel passionately about, she thought back to her earlier college experiences.
“During my first year of college I got involved with Trio Student Support Services,” Carrillo said. “It's a federally funded program that promotes educational success of people who are either first-generation, low income or have a documented disability.”
Carrillo had benefited from the program's supplemental advising and support so much so that she decided to pay it forward her sophomore year by joining the Trio staff.
“I was extremely excited for the opportunity to work with students who came from a background like mine,” Carrillo said. “Who knows if I had much wisdom to share with them, but I made myself available and helped students find answers to their questions.
According to Carrillo, first-generation students don't often realize all the resources they have. They tend to think certain options are off-limits because they once heard someone say so. Realizing how passionate she was about advocating for others, Carrillo decided to add a law component to her business degree.
“I think these are things I might've considered earlier had I have known more about choosing a college and comparing programs,” Carrillo said. “But it ended up okay in the end.”
Carrillo was recently accepted into Rawls College's Energy Commerce & Business Economics program for the upcoming year where she will specialize in oil and gas law.
“The program has a focus on business, but you also look at the law when it comes to mineral mining rights,” Carrillo said. “You act as the middleman between large corporations and Texas residents.”
Being a part of the cohort will allow Carrillo to decide whether she wants to invest in law school down the road.
“It's important to represent the little man,” Carrillo said. “I needed someone to advocate for me. Even to this day, I'm not the big man on campus. I'm a Mexican American woman in a world that's not really designed for me. But, if I ever do become the big man, I'll use that power to help people like me.”
Whether Carrillo pursues law or another avenue for graduate school, she's well on her way to getting there.
This past semester, Carrillo started working as a student assistant for Mentor Tech, a program within the Division of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion that utilizes mentoring and peer group networking to improve the retention of students from underrepresented groups.
A mission right up Carrillo's alley.
“Working with Mentor Tech has given me the opportunity to advocate for minority students on campus,” Carrillo said.
But her excitement doesn't stop there.
“Every group I've been part of at Texas Tech has provided me with a valuable connection,” Carrillo said. “I want to make the very most of my experience at Texas Tech so I've tried to seize as many opportunities as I can.”
From Dean Margaret L. Williams in the Rawls College of Business to Curt Langford, president of the Texas Tech Alumni Association, Carrillo says the people at Texas Tech have taken her under their wing and made her feel at home.
“My greatest piece of advice to other first-generation students would be to get a mentor,” Carrillo said. “I've had many people invest in me since coming to Texas Tech. Having great mentors is the only reason I am where I am.”
And while Carrillo's story is a powerful one, she recognizes there will always be those who don't think she belongs.
“Unfortunately, that's just life,” Carrillo said. “You can't let those people get to you.”
According to Carrillo, the biggest misunderstanding people have about first-generation students, is that they take scholarships away from others.
“There's this scarcity mentality where other students think because I got a scholarship, they won't,” Carrillo said. “There are so many scholarships, and many are merit-based while others are based on financial need.”
Carrillo makes it clear that none of them are handouts.
“Even if you qualify for a scholarship based on financial need, you still need to be a good student and put a great application together,” she said. “You must have vision for your life and have a plan. Committees don't hand out money just because you ask for it.”
This is a misconception Carrillo wishes others understood.
“I usually hear this point of view from students who aren't minorities or first-generation students,” Carrillo said. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but if you have parents who went to college, please just recognize what a gift that is and know that others don't always have that.”
Above all, though, Carrillo encourages first-generation students to blaze their own path.
“Focus on what you want to do,” Carrillo said. “Not what your parents or your family want. Being a first-gen student is an honor, but there can also be a lot of pressure. You're carrying a dream for yourself, but also for your whole family. It's okay for them to be excited, but you're the one who must live your life. Make sure you enjoy it.”
As Carrillo enters her final year of college, her own dream is closer than ever.
“I'm honored I've been able to receive higher education” Carrillo said. “I know my grandparents would be so proud if they were alive today. I hope the way I live my life does nothing but honor their memory.
“I think the person I've honored most, though, is myself. I used to only have confidence if someone else believed in me. When I received that scholarship in high school, it was the first moment I felt confident, because this group of highly esteemed people believed in me. And I'm glad they did, but now, I'm able to believe in myself.”
Carrillo finally earned her first 4.0 GPA this past semester.
“I'm finally the student I always knew I could be,” Carrillo said. “It sounds corny, but from here, it really is possible. I really believe that, and that's the gift higher education has given me.”