Melina Garcia began making college visits as a high school freshman. Her parents were OK with their 15-year-old daughter missing classes to tour a campus because it was a fact – not a question – that she would attend college.
Garcia grew up in a predominately Hispanic, middle- to lower-income neighborhood in Chicago. "I was lucky and fortunate enough to have two parents who were willing to work really, really hard to put me through Catholic school my entire life," she said.
"My parents were immigrants and didn't have the financial ability or support system that they needed for college. They wished that they could have gone to college and they used to talk about it all the time. And so, for me, it was always, ‘Have you started thinking about college? Do you have your college applications done?'
"I remember applying for college and thinking to myself, 'I can't afford it. There is no way.' Then, when I got my letter from St. Ambrose that said I was being awarded academic scholarships, I cried. It was a great feeling to know the university really did try and make it as affordable as possible for me."
Being a First-Gen student meant everything about college was new to the Garcia family. "It was nice that my dad and I were able to sit down with a SAU financial aid advisor who walked us through and explained everything," she said.
"Many first-generation students are from immigrant communities, and having a language barrier makes things more difficult. I attended the same orientation session as a friend from high school, and her parents were not fluent in English; they struggled a bit. The financial aid advisor who sat down with them spoke Spanish and went through every single thing on the list," she said.
Melina Garcia '22
"We have the faculty, staff and students who take the time to really help you and explain everything. Don't be afraid to put yourself out there. You'll find a community here, and that is really important."
Garcia said she found a welcoming and diverse community on campus, and she connected with her peers and other first-generation students. "It really helps because they can relate to a lot of the same struggles that I had," she said.
A senior Biology major, she knows education can spark generational change and that her St. Ambrose experience is not only an opportunity, but a responsibility.
"I have a little brother who is now also in college and sometimes he gets really discouraged because college is hard. He questions whether he can do it. For me, being a first-generation student means I am setting that example for my brother, telling him that yes, college is do-able and that we can get through this. We can have a degree and have the education it takes to find a job," she said.
In addition to dedicating herself to academics and making the Dean's List, Garcia also has discovered there is so much more to college than classes and homework. She is president of the Campus Activities Board and co-president of the campus-led service dog training and education program. She is involved, busy, growing, and knows there are so many friends, faculty, and staff she can turn to.
"Don't be afraid," she said is her advice to future first-generation students. "College can be really scary, especially if you use a different language, but St. Ambrose is a real good place. We have the faculty, staff and students who take the time to really help you and explain everything. Don't be afraid to put yourself out there. You'll find a community here, and that is really important."