by John Byrne,
Denice Gonzalez-Kimremembers exactly when she wanted to attend college. As a 5-year-old, she would visit her mother at the factory, where she worked “hunched over a sewing machine for hours on end.” One night, Gonzelez-Kim remembers her exhausted mother turning to her and offering advice that she has never forgotten.
“Daughter, you need to work hard and get a good education so you can have a better future.”
That’s exactly what she did. Although her parents’ education ended in the 9th grade, Gonzalez-Kim made her way to UCLA, where she earned her degree in Global Studies and Public Affairs. After a stint at Ernst & Young, she is back on campus, earning her MBA at the Anderson School of Management. It is a track, she says, that stems from the example set by her hard-working parents – who never let her forget that she would have to “earn [her] stripes” in life.
“My mother always taught me to reach for the stars and that I could be anything I want in life. She instilled in me never-ending hope for my future and made sure I never had a victim mentality. My father also taught me that I could be anything I want, but that I would have to work harder than anyone else to do it.”
A look at students from top business schools
Grinding. Stamina. Hope. That is the formula that enabled many first generation students to beat the odds to pursue their own version of the American dream. That’s why Poets&Quants has just published a special report on first-gen MBAs, including the profiles of more than 20 students, who describe their obstacle-ridden journeys to business school. Hailing from such top programs as Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB, Wharton, Northwestern, and Notre Dame, they are the future leaders whose humble upbringings give them a humility, ingenuity, and tenacity sometimes missing in the c-suite.
For students like Gonzalez-Kim, there are no guarantees or safety nets. They fought their way out of poverty through education – and became leaders among their peers. In the process, they made heart-wrenching choices that haunt them even today. Some wrestled with identity, balancing new social mores in school while remaining anchored to their parents’ values. Others wondered if they should pursue a high-paying job or a career they’ll love. Many were riddled with guilt, wondering if they made the right choice by leaving their families behind to study.
“I was fighting the challenges of financial instability and not knowing what I didn’t know, while always feeling out of place, like I didn’t belong,” says Gonzalez-Kim. “Since undergrad, I’ve realized that these fears of not belonging are usually self-imposed, but it’s hard to overcome impostor syndrome in the moment.”
She wouldn’t hire him….but she’d marry him
Take the Wharton’s School’s Yasmin Serrato-Muñoz. At 12, she was homeless as her parents scraped together a living in the restaurant business. Norma Torres Mendoza, a Rice MBA candidate and daughter of an undocumented house cleaner, fretted about being deported – despite stellar grades and a full-ride scholarship to Rice University. Before being among the 10% applicants who are accepted into Harvard Business School, Ashley Terrell faced an even bigger hurdle. She had to make it out of Compton, a California community notorious for, in her words, “drugs, gangs, and racial violence.”
Alas, every great story has comic relief. These first generation students know how to set the scene. Terrell, for one, won a trip to Barbados on “Let’s Make a Deal.” The University of Minnesota’s Izaak Mendoza performed at the Super Bowl 52 Halftime Show with Justin Timberlake. Think that’s scary? Try being Jared Garnica. This Indiana University business student has repelled off a 40-story building. And how is this for a ‘how I met my spouse’ story from UCLA’s Denice Gonzalez-Kim.
“People always laugh when they find out that we met when I interviewed him for a nonprofit volunteer role – and voted not to hire him! Fortunately, my Executive Director loved his good nature and overruled me. I definitely owe her one.”
Leaving a bank in pursuit of a passion
Not surprisingly, parents are often the biggest inspirations for these first generation students. Most toiled in dead jobs as cooks, drivers, and construction workers to give their children the lives they could only imagine. More than that, they served as role models for selfless grit and unwavering hope. In cases like Jeannette Paulino’s father, they supplied a philosophy for how business should be conducted.
“In an era when traditional ways of doing business is transitioning to online services, my dad has managed to maintain and scale his travel agency as a result of his unyielding attention to providing high quality customer service,” she explains. I have also observed my dad’s implementation of innovative revenue-generating strategies. While some have failed, his optimism and perseverance kept him going. Having this exemplar businessman, as a father, keeps me going.”
What led these gifted and gritty first generation students back to campus? For MIT Sloan’s Xavier Vargas, it stemmed for regretting not pursuing diplomacy as a career. “The road was laid out to become an executive in the long-long term,” he says. Still, 3-4 years in, I had no passion for the product or where it was going. Taking a job at a bank, with its high pay and respectability, was my way of signaling to my extended family that my parents had “made it” and raised us well. Having crossed that security threshold, I wondered if that was it. I wanted a do-over to “chase my passion” as many of my 18-19-year-old college classmates had done.”
Epiphany comes when mentoring high school students
In contrast, Justin Long, a marketer at Nike, joined the University of Michigan’s MBA program to build his network. However, he views the business school experience to be just as critical to his long-term success. “Classroom discussions with business professionals from every industry imaginable, projects with real-world companies tackling different business challenges, exposure to global markets and social impact ventures: these are just a few examples of what I will have access to as an MBA student, as opposed to attempting to jump into a new career where these sorts of resources are not always available.”
Ironically, Denice Gonzalez-Kim was motivated to pursue an MBA while mentoring high school students who were just like her a decade earlier. “I was teaching them about the importance of financial literacy and college preparation. They asked a lot of questions about my own goals, and that challenged me to think more about my future and what I was doing for myself. Really, they were my inspiration to pursue an MBA.”
In fact, ‘find a mentor’ was often cited as the best advice for first generation students who plan to follow their footsteps into business school. “Often times, people with parents and family members who went to college have the social connections, resources, and advocates to help them reach their goals, observes the University of California-Berkeley’s Josue Chavarin-Rivas. “You likely do not have this luxury. You have to seek out individuals often outside of your immediate family who are invested in your development and advocate for them to play these roles.”