Fresh Tracks

A panel discussion from some of Cal Poly's first-generation students

Now when things are tough, I like to talk about it. It’s a way for me to remind others that they are not alone.

— Vanessa Cervantes

Vanessa Cervantes didn’t think she would go to college. As a first-generation Mexican American high school student working fulltime, attending college seemed daunting and unattainable.

“Going to college was a last-minute decision. It was extremely scary. My family lived paycheck-to-paycheck,” said Cervantes, a second-year animal science major. “I didn’t think college was an option.”

Cervantes is not alone regarding her fear of being the first person in her family to attend college. Many first-generation students face unique barriers and limitations compared to other students including coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and speaking English as a second or third language. As a result, many first-generation students may feel like they don’t belong in the college setting.

The College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences’ (CAFES) Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee is dedicated to finding ways to support and welcome a diverse student community. In February, four first-generation CAFES students from a spectrum of majors participated in the third annual Fresh Tracks: First Generation Student Panel, one of several such events held by the college each year. During the hourlong panel, moderated by Agricultural Communication Assistant Professor Moses Mike, students shared their personal stories about navigating college and the hardships and unique experiences they’ve had at Cal Poly. One of the four students on the panel was Cervantes, who shared her feelings about being a firstgeneration student and how she’s glad she didn’t let her fears stop her from pursuing her dreams. “I felt like I had more to offer the world, and if I pushed myself, I knew I could get there,” Cervantes said.

In fall of 2021, Cervantes started Cal Poly as an animal science major. Soon after, she started working on the research team at the Beef Unit for Assistant Professor Zach McFarlane, studying how behavior and the microbiome impact the fertility of bulls. Working on that committee motivated Cervantes to pursue a career dedicated to protecting vulnerable species from going extinct. She shares that she is fascinated by assisted reproductive technologies and the work that scientists, like those at the San Diego Zoo, have done for critically endangered species like the Northern White Rhino. Cervantes wants to do the same, saying, “The least I could do is fight for these animals and offer them a home.”

These days, she is staying busy with a full course load and being a member of the Zoo and Exotic Animals Careers, Cal Poly Barbell and Sustainable Fashion clubs on campus. She plans to travel to Australia and South Africa with Loop Abroad this summer, where she will assist with animal rehabilitation for wildlife populations that have experienced poaching.

Cervantes said that she is proud of her achievements and urges other first-generation students who are entering college to believe in themselves and share their stories. “Focus on yourself and what you want,” she said. “Growing up, I felt so lost. Now when things are tough, I like to talk about it. It’s a way for me to remind others that they are not alone.”


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