First-generation student finds opportunity and connection at WSU Tri-Cities

By Lacey Desserault

The road to a college degree is not always easy, especially for those who are the first in their family to pursue higher education. Tania Castellano, a senior at Washington State University Tri-Cities studying biology with a health science emphasis, is a Mexican American, first-generation student who is overcoming systemic barriers.

“I think what inspired me to pursue academia was the fact I wanted more for my life,” Castellano said. “I always dreamed of becoming a doctor as a little girl but as I grew older, I didn’t see physicians that looked like me. I knew that if I wanted more for my life and my family, I had to become educated. I also like to think that I’m inspiring the women in my family to break the generational mold.”

Tania Castellano and her daughter at the WSU Tri-Cities Dia de Muertos event.

Being a first-generation full-time college student has its own unique challenges. For Castellano, who is also navigating being a mother, the challenges are even more unique. “First-generation students have a lot to prove because we aren’t just carrying our own academic success on our plate. We carry the weight and responsibility of being the first in our families to have the opportunity to follow our dreams. So many of us come from homes where sacrificing dreams in order to put food on the table and a roof over our heads is an expectation and cultural norm.”

She goes on to explain that there are significant pressures and duties in attending college as a first-generation student, which can sometimes extend into the classrooms. “We have the dreams and hopes of not only ourselves, but those of generations of our families poured into us, hoping that one day we would overcome, adapt, and bloom in spaces that weren’t originally ours to begin with,” she said.

Castellano knew that WSU Tri-Cities would be a great fit to continue her education, as nearly 46% of all students on campus are first-generation. “I like to think WSU Tri-Cities chose me. I was at CBC finishing some classes for my pre-med requirements and found out I was pregnant. I had to think, ‘should I try to push myself to move away from my support and family during such a sensitive period of my health in order to pursue the university experience?’ WSU Tri-Cities gave me the opportunity to have it all. I could still go to a university with rich academic excellence and not sacrifice having my support so close to home,” she said.

WSU Tri-Cities gave me the opportunity to have it all. I could still go to a university with rich academic excellence and not sacrifice having my support so close to home.

National First-Generation Celebration Day on Nov. 8 recognizes and celebrates students who are the first in their families to attend college and raises awareness surrounding their experiences. WSU Tri-Cities has many resources and support services that help students navigate the college environment and connect them to fellow first-generation students. TRIO is a federal outreach and student services program designed to identify and provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. Student clubs and organizations such as the Dreamer’s Club, SACNAS (Society for Advancing Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science) and the First-Gen Study Abroad program give students pathways to connect with educational opportunities and each other.

In addition to the support services and clubs, Castellano said inclusive faculty and courses have also been very helpful. “I have found support in my faculty as they have been accommodating to my individual needs as a first-gen student and mother,” Castellano said. “National first-gen day gives me a sense of pride and joy, as it’s a day to recognize other first-gen students and their amazing journeys to higher education. Although, we should celebrate these students every day as their work can only be summarized as extraordinary. We are capable of accomplishing our dreams. There is a power that comes from us taking up space and being exactly as we are.”

TRIO hosted a celebration event on Nov. 8 for first-generation students, from 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. in the Floyd Atrium on campus. Click here for more information on WSU Tri-Cities’ resources for first-generation students.