Reflections of First Gen Students

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month in September, students of Hispanic descent dive into the many aspects of coming to terms with their own identity and sense of pride in the culture they were born into.

By Gabriella Plasencia

This article was featured in the Fall 2023 issue of ACCENT Magazine.

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month in September, students of Hispanic descent dive into the many aspects of coming to terms with their own identity and sense of pride in the culture they were born into. A duty to honor the excellence demonstrated among first generation students in their areas of interest and expertise goes without question. 

Many people spend their entire lives contemplating what they want to be when they grow up; however, for Britney Solis, the path of artistry has never wavered. 

Solis, 18, is a freshman this year at Austin Community College whose goal is to pursue a continued certification in 2D animation to accompany her  history of self taught animation and drawing that she’s had since childhood. She says that animation classes were provided at Dripping Springs High School, where she graduated, but that the curriculum did not live up to the standards she had set for herself and for her career – so Solis pivoted to a more independent study approach towards the end of her high school education. Now, she has decided her career endeavors after high school will be at ACC.

Solis says, “I stuck with it. I guess [animation’s] kind of like my happy place: drawing characters, watching media of characters and putting them in my own work.”

Her decision to further her education came with great weight and pride not only from her family’s support in her doing something that she is passionate about, but also pride in being the first of her family to attend college. As she navigates the complexities of being a first generation student as well as an artist, she reflects on the confidence and pride that she has in her creative Latino family. 

“I remember my cousin, who sadly passed away, was a big artist, to me at least,” Solis says. “One time I had this little princess coloring book where you could design your own dress, so I asked him to draw it, but he told me to do my best and draw it myself.”

Her confidence to draw initially came from her family, but eventually, self-satisfaction became the catalyst for Solis’ appreciation of art that propelled her prospects in the animation industry.

“I was like 10 or 11 when I found out people made a living from drawing animations,” said Solis, “since then I [have been able to] imagine myself doing that.”

As a child of the early 2000’s, 2D animated television shows and movies – as seen on the PBS Kids and Disney’s Pixar – are forever etched in the pillars of peak animation in Solis’ youth. As such, she hopes that, by one day becoming part of the animation industry, she can affect the cultural implications of who or what is portrayed on screen – which is another one of her concerns in the industry.

“Representation through the media is very essential, especially since kids are majorly watching cartoons,” says Solis, “they kind of need that representation early on if they’re feeling that they don’t belong or happen to be a minority.” 

Cultural consciousness plays a huge role in  building interest and an agenda professionally and personally for  Michelle Marquez, a 23 year-old architecture graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture.

From an early age Marquez  has felt a natural enthusiasm toward the construction and design of homes which then piqued her academic curiosity. In an eighth grade math assignment, Marquez’s teacher introduced her to the idea of pursuing architecture as a career and led her to the public Dubiski Career High School, which offers an architecture program for its students. Once admitted, she participated in competitive opportunities to refine her knowledge and skills for SkillsUSA – an organization that provides outlets for students to develop professional skills through a wide variety of trades and career paths via scholastic competitions, conferences, and  community outreach.

As Marquez  became exposed to the different routes of prestige and nonprofit work in the architectural world of higher education, she realized that affordable housing is her calling to apply both her cultural background and formal education.

“My final project by the time I was a senior [in high school]…was a huge homeless shelter that utilized the concept of Japanese capsule hotels in order to give people a space they could rent out for a certain amount of time while it also providing mental health services, a cafeteria, library, job resources, daycare.” Marquez says, “That’s where I started shifting my views and how I wanted to help the homeless and that’s where I am at in 2023.” 

“Besides doing all the architecture stuff in my life, I really like volunteering, so food banks, working in financial resources, so with that, I think I’m in a professional that sometimes strays away from the community and it’s really easy to stray away from what people actually want, so when you’re working in more social work type positions and having that one on one conversation with a human being who is struggling, you want to make that difference because you have the opportunity to,” Marquez says. “So, I want to go into the nonprofit side, it doesn’t have to be elaborate. I understand that I have an education that could make something elaborate, but I want it to be affordable, so that people can actually raise their kids, so they have stability.”

Marquez has a specific personal experience of when being the daughter of a landscape worker, became relevant to a discussion held in a class over the ethics in architecture. A professor who was currently in practice, presented an instance in which she visited a construction site while a worker brought his family with him to visit him during his shift. This instance of bringing one’s children onto site was deemed a dangerous instance rather than a heartwarming one. Marquez holds both sentiments on a professional and personal level.

“It does become a question of where we are putting our workers and what circumstances we are giving them to have that family time while making deadlines on a project. So, at least that’s the perspective I think I’m trying to bring into my profession here at UT, both as a hispanic coming from a low income background, where I was on those construction sites, I know why that happens, but also from a professional and safety standpoint I know that’s not okay,” Marquez says.

Marquez’s parents became aware of her interest in buildings when she was a kid drawing a dream house for her family that had motivated her father to work even harder to purchase a home for their family in 2004 – right before the 2008 economic recession. However, only until the first few months of undergrad did she fully understand and get on board.

“Being first generation, I think its somewhat easier to explain to your parents when you say ‘I’m going to be a lawyer or I’m going to be a doctor’ when really I’m designing the buildings, not building them, [designing] them, and they knew I was good at it.”

While pursuing higher education in an often prestigious profession, Marquez describes how gender constructs alter what professions are perceived as being oriented toward males or females. 

“In the very beginning, I think it was part of having, not necessarily my parents, but a cultural machista mindset since architecture is very male driven,” Marquez said, “I have a cousin that went to school for interior design which tends to be more female driven, so [my] parents were really pushing for me to do interior design.”

Machista along with the term machismo from Spanish-speaking cultures entails maintaining the superior standard of both men and women respectively. In a machista or machismo mindset, women tend to pivot away from ambitious strides in their career, dedicating their sense of identity to roles of servitude to appease patriarchs. Marquez acknowledges how the societal roles can affect the subconcious expectations of her as a woman in a Hispanic household.

“I say I’m Hispanic since it’s more broader than just saying Mexican-American,” says Marquez, “but moving here to Austin, I see a lot more variety and that’s so exciting to me.” A lot of the friends I’ve made here are from Venezuela and some Argentinian people and they’re really cool and I just love experiencing different cultures. Here there’s just a variety of people and I want to be more open to it.”

Marquez’s home is in Dallas however her alma mater for undergraduate school remains at the University of Texas at Arlington. With ties to those two areas, Marquez describes how grateful she is to be from there and the sense of community that she has because of it. She says she always felt safe without feeling “weird” because “more or less every person got it.” Marquez explains the  general consciousness of the cultural vibrancy that inhabited the Dallas and Arlington community that she says wasn’t as easily found when she moved to Austin for graduate school.

“I do feel more in touch with my roots having moved here and know I want to go back to my community and want to do something for unrepresented latinos one way or another,” Marquez says, ”however, in terms of my higher education, what does scare me is student debt because at the end of it is a three year program I have to pursue. I already have been in school for five years, and the cost of living in Austin is high. So, it’s a great opportunity to continue my education here, but I am scared of the aftermath because latinos with higher education carry massive debt.”

According to a study from Mark Kantowitz featured on CNBC, 61 percent of Hispanics that received a bachelor’s graduated with student debt. Luckily for Marquez, she had spent high school with her education and career in practice, so her years in undergraduate school were paid significantly through scholarships. However for graduate school, she says that it became necessary to pull from student loans. She explains that the intention behind her financial sacrifice  is to prioritize her education and the enrichment of her life’s prospects. Alongside her interest in furthering her education, celebrating her heritage became more abundant when she took notice of the slogans and events for Hispanic Heritage Month being promoted directly and openly.

“I don’t think it was ever directly impacting me as a kid because my community was Hispanic heritage month every day. It wasn’t until I moved here that I really felt the need to realize It was my month to appreciate.” says Marquez. “Same thing with Dia de los Muertos, I never celebrated it growing up and I don’t think death is something to be scared of. I think it is a beautiful thing that you’re able to think of your family members and ancestors,” 

Since taking in and embracing her culture to a higher extent after moving to Austin and embracing the present culture, she wants to learn more about the past so she can continue its traditions for her kids. The same application can be said for being a first generation. Although the trials of being a first generation student are difficult and student debt is an obstacle for many, Marquez says that being familiar with the system will aid her as she guides her future children in higher education. Despite everything that she’s been through, Marquez says that gratitude is the word that comes to mind when describing her origins. 

“I love it. There’s so much color to my culture.” Marquez explains, “I don’t know what other cultures have kids making beds out of tables at a quinceanera at 2 a.m. It’s so lively and boisterous, and creative, maybe that creativity will lead me to where I [want to be].”