I am First Generation at MIT

Here are stories shared by first generation

Interested in connecting? Send an email by clicking on the person's name.

Students

Diego Giraldez

Diego Giraldez '15
Chemical Engineering

I was born in Lima, Peru, where I was raised in a modest home until I was about ten years old. In 2001, my family and I moved to New Jersey. No one in family knew any English and both my parents took working class jobs while my older brother and I attend school. Growing up, my parents inculcated the importance of a good education. Therefore, I applied to and attended the Marine Academy of Science and Technology, a magnet school in New Jersey that offered better opportunities in science and mathematics – a pivotal step in my pursuit for a higher education. While I loved my high school, it was lacking in terms of diversity, both ethnic and economic. However, upon arriving at MIT, I noticed that students did not see the color of one’s skin or the contents of one’s wallet. Instead, one is respected for one’s achievements, both academic and extracurricular, and of course by the fact that one has earned a spot at MIT, just as equally as all of the students here.

Currently, I plan to major in Chemical Engineering with a minor in Energy Studies. During my time here, I hope to research clean energy alternatives and methods to raise the efficiency of our manufacturing processes. After graduating, I hope to enter into the energy industry, applying my education and research background to real world solutions. Around campus, I am a member of the Sport Tae Kwon Do Team, Phi Delta Theta, La Union Chican por Aztlan, and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. Ultimately, MIT’s commitment to diversity and its wonderful student body have inspired me to always strive for equality and mutual respect wherever I may go in life.


Andy Liang

Andy Liang '14
Chemistry and Brain & Cognitive Sciences

I immigrated from Guangzhou, China at a very young age. My parents were raised with a middle-school education, and worked together selling weights used for scales. Up to this day my parents still rely on me to speak English for them. This put a heavy burden on me at a very young age. But I love them. If it weren't for their deciding to come to the US and putting me through an American education system, I would not be in MIT today. What they lacked made me stronger. Here they owned a small furniture store, where they often needed me to mediate discussions. Everything I say to people shows not for me, but for us; so I stressed learning the English language well. Today I am an editor in MIT's newspaper, The Tech, where I constantly mediate the discussions that goes on around MIT.

I believe that it was the strengths, not the weaknesses, of being a First-Generation, that has propelled me to be able to overcome my obstacles. My biggest obstacle: learning English. After that, everything else is a piece of cake.


Peter Nguyen

Peter Nguyen '14
Molecular Biology and Computer Science

I was born and raised in Southern California. Both my parents came over from Vietnam in 1992 and knew very limited English. My father is a manager of an embroidery company and my mother is a cashier at a local supermarket. Growing up, I was primarily a student-athlete, participating in swimming and basketball. I am now a member of the gymnastics team. I think the most important lesson I have learned from my experiences is that success is a natural byproduct of practice, hard work, and determination. I am currently a liaison for the Quest Scholars Network and am dedicated to providing opportunities for higher education to hard-working low-income students in America.


Francisco Pena

Francisco Xavier Pena '15
Brain and Cognitive Sciences

Born and raised only a ten-minute drive from the Mexican border, I came from a family of modest expectations. My parents immigrated to Texas to raise a family where they knew their children would have a better future. My two older sisters went to a local university so it was expected that my twin and I go there too, but somehow, out of nowhere, I rocketed off to MIT. Most of the time I can't really talk to either of my parents about college life since they didn't experience it. Not that many people want to talk about inflationary cosmology anyway but the idea of a fraternity was very new to them. I talk to my sisters about it, though, and we're still very close. From my culture I've brought my love of cumbia and am trying to integrate it into the MIT Casino Rueda club. I will be the first in my family to go to graduate school, becoming a research professor in theoretical physics. I feel that there are a lot of people in life that lead us in the right direction besides our parents, which is why I am in two mentoring programs: I volunteer at a tutoring program for disadvantaged high school students (Upward Bound) and I serve on the board for a summer enrichment program for underserved middle school students (Innoworks).


Faculty

John Belcher

John Winston Belcher
Professor of Physics

I was born in Louisiana, but brought up mostly in West Texas. When I was growing up, my father was a “roughneck” in the West Texas oilfields. My Dad just finished the 7th grade. Both he and my mother came from large farming families. I was really shy and spent most of my formative years buried in the Ector County Public Library in Odessa, Texas. There were no books at home (other than the Bible) so the library is where I came into contact with a lot of the ideas that formed my world view.

I had no idea what I was doing when I applied to college. I applied to exactly one school, Rice University in Houston. If I had not gotten in there my plan was to go to the local junior college. The first term at Rice was really rough; my high school did not offer calculus so I was competing in a freshman calculus course with students who had already had calculus.

Also, the summer after I graduated from high school was the “Freedom Rider” summer, and in the Fall of my freshmen year at Rice I took part in the first large civil rights demonstration in Houston (we picketed a meeting of the National School Boards Association). I am not sure whether I was more scared of the Houston police or of my father if he had found out what I was doing.

Read the full story.


Ed Bertschinger
Institute Community and Equity Officer
Professor of Physics

In my household growing up, the word for grit was Sisu—a Finnish word that is central to my cultural background. Finnish Sisu repelled the Soviet invasion in the Winter War of 1939. Although Finland lost 11% of its pre-war territory, it preserved its independence and gave the world a new word for "guts". One young Finnish farm girl—my mother—later emigrated to the U.S. and taught her son the significance of Sisu.

I was born in Oakland, California but my family moved to a small farming community in southern California when my father lost his job and we inherited a house. We were poor; for several years my mother made the best meals she could from expired bread and chicken backs discarded from a caterer. Ours being the only white family in the neighborhood, my brothers and I grew up in a very multicultural environment. I was a misfit, passionate about math and science, while my parents had little understanding of what I was talking about and only a couple percent of my high school class went to college. I studied alone until the summer after my junior year of high school when I attended a summer science program and for the first time was surrounded by like-minded peers. Inspired by that and driven to learn, I wanted to go to MIT. Unfortunately, I was rejected, so I went to a smaller, less diverse competitor in California.

Sisu got me into academia. A rocky start in college led to an instructor advising me not to pursue theoretical physics. After switching into radio astronomy I recovered well enough to get into the Princeton astrophysics graduate program, where I was initially assigned to work on a project in theoretical cosmology. My preparation was inadequate for the problem at hand and after a semester I moved on. However, I wanted to solve the problem assigned to me so badly that I spent two years teaching myself fluid mechanics and mathematical methods of self-similarity without telling anyone, until I made a breakthrough. When I presented my first-year supervisor the draft of a paper and asked him if he recalled the project and would comment on the suitability for publication of my solution, he was stunned. I learned that he, too, had been interested in finding the solution and had enlisted the collaboration of a senior theorist from Japan. Independently, they had just completed a paper on the same problem. Our methods differed but our results agreed, and my supervisor kindly encouraged me to publish my work as a solo paper. It was my first publication and the launching point for a career in theoretical astrophysics.

Social justice has always been important to me, from college days where I followed women’s liberation, to graduate school where I marched in Central Park and contemplated dropping out to join the foreign service, to the present day where I have tremendous privilege as a faculty member and administrator at MIT. Using that privilege to promote equity and inclusion is the most important thing I can give back to my community. You can, too.


Bill Dalzell
Lecturer
Department of Chemical Engineering

My three sisters and I were born and grew up in Chatham, NY, a small farming community about 15 miles from the Massachusetts border. My father was a carpenter and my mother was a stay-at-home mom except when money got tight. My father dropped out of school after 4th grade and my mother, after 8th grade. Few people went to school past 8th grade and essentially no one went to college in those days.

Our parents stressed and inculcated a strong work ethic and a good education in my sisters and me. There was no question in my parents’ minds that all of their children would attend college and there were plenty of chores to keep us busy. I worked at a gas station after school on weekdays and all day Saturday throughout high school to earn money for college.

I had no idea what I was doing when I applied for college. There were no computers, no internet, and no one visited college campuses before applying. I perused college catalogs in the library and thought it might be cool to be an engineer (whatever an engineer was). I applied to and got accepted at Cornell, RPI, and Union and decided to attend Cornell because they offered financial support. A friend, who had gone to MIT the year before, said I should apply there since it was the best engineering school. The application deadline had passed two weeks earlier but I applied anyway. I got accepted and have no idea why or how....

Read the full story.


Woodie C. Flowers
Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Emeritus

I grew up in a small town in Louisiana. Because mom and dad were great parents, my sister and I had delightful childhoods. Because my father was very creative but a terrible businessman, we were literally dirt poor. Always in debt. I could not afford a car. Dating was tough! So with guidance from my father, I designed and built a hot rod roadster. Fun! So I planned to graduate from high school, get a job in the local oil fields, and buy a Corvette.

In the last part of my senior year, one of my teachers noticed that I could not fully extend one arm (I broke many bones as a kid). Through his help, my crooked arm led to a rehabilitation scholarship to a state college. I gave up on the Corvette and went to college. I had much to learn! I took algebra and trigonometry in college. I was a sophomore before I took my first calculus class. Throughout my life, I have been surrounded by people much more capable than I. So I work hard. I believe that recognizing that you are among capable people, but feeling that you can keep up if you try hard is a helpful combination. Mix optimism with intense effort. Never rely on being smart.

I believe MIT is a reasonably gracious meritocracy. It can be a wonderfully powerful lever. For Margaret and me, the MIT community has been expansive and a great source of satisfaction.

Joseph Formaggio
Associate Professor of Physics

Both my parents were Italian immigrants. My father, who had been raised primarily by his grandfather on a farm in Sicily before moving to the US, met my mother during a visit to Italy. They soon married and moved to America, where I was born, in Flushing, New York. After six years away from her family, my mother’s homesickness was too great and so we all moved to Italy, where I spent the next five years growing up downstairs from my maternal grandparents in a small apartment in the large city of Catania.

It was clear to me, even at my young age, that my dad regretted moving back. Maintaining a business in Sicily was nearly impossible in those days. Though he never let us go a day hungry, we were always living hand to mouth. My school, too, left much to be desired. I distinctly remember as a 5th grader being left “in charge” of the class while the teacher spent hours smoking in the teachers’ lounge. I wish that was not a true story.

My dad was always a strong advocate for my education and knew that staying in Sicily was doing me no good. I was ravenous for learning new things, things that my school simply could not provide. There were no public libraries in Catania, so I would just borrow any book I could get my hands on. I read everything—comic books, science fiction, gardening, physics. One of the best presents I ever got as a child was a space encyclopedia set from my father. That’s still in our house, closely treasured.

Little by little, my father saved enough money to go back to the US. He returned alone at first, then, saving more money, flew my mother and me back to New York. There isn’t a manual labor job that my father hasn’t done: he was a piano tuner; he worked in the garment district; he delivered pizzas; he was a welder. At his job, his nickname was “the ant” since he was only 5’1” but could lift 3 times his weight.

Going to college wasn’t really a question for me, fortunately. Both my parents valued a good education, even if they themselves never benefited from it. As a young adult, I realized how fortunate I truly was to have parents who sacrificed so much for my education and general well-being. I hope to be an equally strong advocate for my own two children. The circumstances of their childhood are certainly very different from mine, but already I can see that hunger for learning. That’s a good sign.


Scott Hughes
Associate Professor of Physics

I grew up in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, a small town close to where Philadelphia suburbs end and rural countryside begins. Both of my parents were brought up in working-class families; college was not an option for them. My dad went into the Navy; my mom was told "Girls don't go to college." After the Navy, dad became a heating repairman. When I wasn't in school, I spent a lot of time with him on service calls; convinced he could fix anything mechanical, I developed a fascination for understanding how things work. Mom stayed at home for my first eight or nine years before returning to work, eventually ending up as a teaching aide in the local elementary schools.

Although neither of my parents went beyond high school (my mom was later certified for her work as a teaching aide), both were voracious readers and made sure I got a library card as soon as I could. My dad was fascinated by history, especially the Civil War; that became another thing we talked about out on service calls. Both parents were happy for me to dive into whatever interested me at the moment. Whether I was fixated on dinosaurs, Tolkienian linguistics, or World War II airplanes, I never heard "What's the point of that?" from them.

Money was tight, though it wasn't until I was older that I understood just how tight. The first time I felt like we were poor was when one of my sister's elementary school friends was told she couldn't come over to our home after school: her parents didn't want their kid in the house of someone who did manual labor. This is the only time in my life I remember seeing my dad really upset.

There was no question I would go to college. My mom thought Penn State was the only place we could afford, and didn't believe we would get financial aid: I remember her insisting at one point, "Places like that don't help people like us." I ended up at Cornell, which turned out to be significantly cheaper than Penn State with financial aid. To pay the bills, I worked full time every summer (first as a custodian in Doylestown, then doing research at Cornell) and part time the rest of the year. The work ethic I learned from my mom and the curiosity I got from my dad blossomed at Cornell: despite all the hours I put into paying the bills, I finished at the top of my class, and knew that I wanted a career in science.

It's interesting being where I am now as a First Generation person. One of the things I do for the Physics Department is meet with prospective students and their families. My background gives me a lot of understanding for what they are going through, and helps me to connect. I hope I can do the same thing with MIT's First Generation students.


Sean Patrick Robinson SB '99, PhD '05
Lecturer
Department of Physics

I remember being poor as a small child. Through good choices, hard work, and lucky breaks, my parents slowly moved their way up in the world, and I was still young by the time the threat of poverty was well behind us. They had both managed to graduate high school, but college and the social opportunities it could bring were just not an option for young parents with no money.

I grew up on the Massachusetts "South Shore", a region strongly identified with the Irish Catholic roots of the plurality of its population. This community has somehow retained (or continuously reinvented) its identity as an immigrant culture for over a century. Like many immigrant cultures, its values include "hard work", "family", "toughness", and perhaps "skepticism for authority". Any values beyond this short list are optional and vary widely across families and generations. Notable examples from the optional list include "education", "sobriety", and "obeying the law".

I don't know how many of the boys I played with in elementary school are dead or in prison now, but I'm sure that it's more than I care to know. My parents' efforts ensured that by the time I was in high school, we were well above all that. In contrast, there were plenty of other kids in school, from other neighborhoods, for whom a future of good colleges and successful careers was the assumed default. No one explained how this was supposed to happen: you were either in the group that knew, or the group that didn't need to know! As a "smart kid", college had become an expectation, but I had only rough notions of what that meant.

I somehow stumbled into MIT, a place I had only vaguely heard of before: the only scientists I knew were TV characters! Financial aid was the deciding factor between MIT and the Navy. Eighteen years later (all at MIT, doing physics), I still often feel like a clueless outsider in academia, and my family still has no idea what I do, but both MIT and my family make me feel happy and "at home".


Leona Samson
Professor of Biological Engineering
Professor of Biology

By the time I went to high school I had lived in six different towns and attended several different schools. The transitions usually happened mid-semester. It’s not particularly surprising that, like my older brother and many of our friends, I dropped out of high school at age 15.

This didn’t alarm anyone in my family. I grew up in the industrial North of England, near Manchester, a region that used to be dotted with cotton mills and coal mines. My grandfather started working half-days in the coal mine at age 12 (spending the other half of the day at school); he went to work full-time at age 14. My grandmother started in the cotton mills at age 14. My mother fought against being sent to work in the mills, but she too left school at age 14 to become an office clerk. My father actually finished high school. Like the rest of my family he didn’t go to university; he joined the Canadian Navy instead and was sent to England.

Stationed just outside Manchester, he met my mother. They married when she was 19, moved to Canada, and had two children (one of whom was me), but then my mother moved us right back to her familiar working class neighborhood to live with my grandparents (without my father). When I was 11 (a short time after my father re-entered our lives by coming back to England from Canada) we moved to the industrial region of Scotland, near Glasgow....

Read the full story.

 


Alumni

Melanie Adams

Melanie Adams '13
Materials Science and Engineering

I grew up in Brooklyn, NY in a community very representative of the West Indian upbringing my parents received. At an early age, the importance of doing well in school was stressed because my parents weren’t given the same opportunities in the countries they came from. I was encouraged to try any and everything that sparked my interest which eventually led me to MIT. I graduated in Course 3 and I hope to pursue a career in biomaterials.


George Apostol '87
Electrical Engineering

I was born amongst the cacti and Gila monsters in the small town of Yuma, Arizona. My father, a high school graduate, is a first generation American whose father came from the Philippines, and my mother, who never completed grade school, came to the United States from Mexico. Each of my parents comes from a family of 10 siblings. I am the first person on both sides of my family to receive a college degree.

My family spent the early part of my childhood traveling up and down the California coast as migrant farmworkers. We lived in labor camps, where the children waited while our parents worked the fields, that is, until we were deemed old enough to work ourselves. I began working with my parents around the age of 10, and by 12, was working in crews apart from my parents. I worked in the fields up until my high school graduation, when I left for college.

Applying to MIT was a fluke. After I took the PSAT, MIT sent me a brochure, and, though I knew nothing about the school, I liked the picture of the sailboat on the Charles with the Great Dome in the background. My father took me to an information session in Phoenix, where I made contact with the first and most influential person during my MIT career. Marilee Jones was an associate admissions officer and spent hours enlightening me to a world I could only imagine. It is because of Marilee that I applied, was accepted, attended, and survived. In a foreign environment, in an unknown path, life at MIT was difficult, but she and other friends never left me behind.

With a degree in EE, I landed my first job with Xerox. MIT prepared me well, and I succeeded early in my career, receiving the President’s Award for Technical Achievement. I moved to Silicon Valley to Xerox PARC, where I worked with some of the greatest minds in technology. From there, I went to SGI before following the dream of being in a start-up. I have participated in raising over $200 million of venture capital used to start several companies, where I was either an early employee or a founder--TiVo, RedCreek, BAY IS, BRECIS, Audience, to name a few. Within 10 years of graduation, I became a Vice President of Engineering and have been on the executive staffs of both private and public companies. Today, I am a Vice President in the Strategy and Innovation Center for Samsung Semiconductor.

I have lived a life of extremes, but there is no doubt my success started with my college education. I am proud that, since my graduation, my aunts, brother, and several of my cousins have received their degrees as well. I also met my wife at MIT, and this year we celebrate 25 years of marriage. We have three wonderful children, our greatest achievements. The eldest is starting college in the fall of 2013. I am certain the college legacy will continue to grow for generations to come!


Alban Cobi

Alban Cobi '12
Mechanical Engineering

I was born in Albania in a small village of about 50 just as the Cold War ended. I knew nothing about the war or politics though because I was really young at the time. My grandparents grew up as farmers but my parents had more "professional" jobs. My dad was an officer in the army and my mom a nurse in the nearby city. At the age of about 2, my parents decided to move to Greece because the economy in Greece at the time was way better than it was in Albania. When they moved to Greece they left me in Albania with my grandparents. The crazy part is that I have no recollection of this time in history or these events, but every time I look at the few black and white pictures we have from my childhood in Albania life seems so different there.

A few years later after my parents made some money and got stable jobs in Greece they decided to convince my grandparents to move to Greece with them. After moving to Greece I attended 1st and half of 2nd grade, and then my parents along with my uncles and aunts from my mom's side decided to make the bold move and move to America where there was opportunity for their children to grow up and do something great. As I learned later on in life, I had a great grandfather who migrated to America in the 20s, and left his wife and children behind to make extra money. He then earned his citizenship and moved back to Albania to raise his kids. If it wasn't for him, I probably wouldn't be here now.

My childhood memory only goes as far back as the 2nd grade here in America. I went to a bilingual elementary school, the Ohrenberger here in Boston and then attended the Washington Irving Middle School in Roslindale, MA. After taking an entrance exam, I got into the John D. O'Bryant School for Math and Science in Roxbury, Massachusetts. High School is what shaped my interests and what really helped me get into MIT. When I was a junior in high school the Science Director came to me and a fellow student Bruno and asked if we'd be interested in building robots. Both of us, knowing nothing about robots but interested in learning about them, enthusiastically replied with a "yes" and later found out he was referring to FIRST Robotics. After spending a year in the FIRST Robotics team and meeting Ed Moriarty, who works in Outreach for MIT's Edgerton Center, we learned about MIT and that it was the "best engineering school in the world".

You can guess what happened from there. We both got in, and now we're both here studying Course 2. To be very honest, only recently have I realized how great it is to have the background we as first generation students do. Every time I tell my story to someone it makes them feel like they don't even have a story. The FGP has really helped in me being proud of my history, and has made me realize that a lot, or should I say ALL of the things I've gone through as a first generation student, someone else here at MIT has gone through them as well.


Shamarah Hernandez '12
Economics

I’m from central Florida, about an hour from Disney World. I was raised with an understanding that education was going to be a big part of my future. Mom and Dad grew up in Jamaica and Trinidad, respectively, and neither of them, nor their parents, nor their parents’ parents, etc. went to college for a Bachelor’s. At some point before I was born, they decided I would be the first. I grew up with the expectation that my future wouldn’t be like my parents’ past. My mother made learning really fun, and she told me that particular kind of fun was the kind that would make my life easier down the road in terms of independence, empowerment, and financial freedom. So, I went all in. We didn’t know exactly what, but my family and I knew that my goal was to something big, something special with this whole school thing.

I remember my guidance counselor telling me that we’d be getting junk mail from a bunch of colleges, and she warned us not to put too much stock in it. “Like if you get a letter from MIT, for example,” she said. Everyone laughed, including me. When I actually got one, though, it kind of scared me. The first thought I had was, “what if I actually got in? No one would even believe it.”

I remember telling my parents about the “Reach, Match, Safety” school model that we learned about in school, which would help us organize our school applications. When I described MIT as my Reach, Dad interrupted me and asked, “Why are you putting your dream school out of ‘reach’? If you want to go there, and God wants you to go there, you’ll go there. End of story.” This was five years ago.

Now? (There are times when I still can’t believe it, but) I can actually say that I went there. Me! I’m a young woman who once laughed at the idea of being on MIT’s radar, who felt silly even thinking about applying for admission. Those seeds planted way back in 2008, in 2000, in 1989 when I was still in Mom’s belly, and when God was still creating the heavens and Earth … they have grown and produced fruit. Fast forward to June 2012: I was the sole Black woman to graduate with a degree in my field that year. The gratitude, the tears, the elation and the knowledge that I am blessed beyond belief – these are the things that I carry with me everyday after my chapter as an undergraduate at the Institute. But what makes me the proudest is that while I was the first in my family to graduate from college, I can proudly say that I am not the last: after seeing me walk across that stage, my father built on his 2-year degree and is now the proud recipient of a Bachelor’s!

Shamarah is now living in Washington, DC and working as a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton. She builds predictive models for clients in the defense sector.

 


Luis Juarez

Luis Juarez '13
Biological Engineering

I was raised in the small village of Valtierrilla, Guanajuato, Mexico for about ten years. My family then moved permanently to Houston, TX in 2001 because my parents wanted my brother and me to have a future by excelling in academics. We faced all the normal cultural challenges such as language, less family oriented style of life, different foods, and mentality that everyone may succeed. It was hard adjusting to this new culture, but it was a good challenge because it helped our family become even closer. Nowadays if one person is sick, or has failed at something, the rest of the family suffers as well. The reverse also holds for when a person succeeds. My mom’s saying, “if you are going to do something, do it well or don’t do it at all” still rings very strongly inside of me. Going to church on Sundays also kept our family close. I was raised Roman Catholic, and up to this day I continue to attend Mass on Sundays even though I do not live with my family any longer. At MIT I led a Bible Study and helped out in Mass as a Eucharistic Minister. I also played soccer for the MIT Men’s Varsity Soccer team. I graduated in course 20, Biological Engineering, and enjoy doing biomedical research relating to the heart. One of my hobbies is being a DJ because of my love for sound and music.


Staff

Anna Babbi Klein

Anna Babbi Klein
Communications Manager,
Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education

I was brought up in Buffalo, NY, in a very traditional household where Italian was our primary language. My parents immigrated from Italy in their late 20s and while they adjusted to America they never truly adopted American ways. What was important at our house was doing your best, being respectful, and food. Dad was king and women were certainly not considered equal to men. My sister and I both did very well in high school and found our way to college with no real guidance. My mother, in particular, was distraught when we both went away to college and then devastated when we did not move back home afterwards. Doing well in college was my way of saying to my parents “See, I may not be home, but you can be proud of me.” I went on to earn two master's degrees and 25 years later have had a very diverse and satisfying career…but there has always been a pull to be home, take care of my parents, and prove that I do my best.