Utah State University undergraduate Karla Sandoval Rodriguez, student coordinator with the Office of Student Retention and Completion’s Aggie First Scholars program, is looking forward to the university’s third annual first-generation scholar week, which kicks off on National First-Generation College Student Day, Nov. 8.
“We have activities planned for Tuesday through Thursday, Nov. 8-10,” says the Biological Sciences Teaching major. “Our theme for the observance is ‘There’s Power in My Journey.’”
Acknowledging one’s power — and taking it back when challenged — is more than a slogan to Sandoval Rodriquez, who entered Utah State in Fall 2019 on a USU academic scholarship and a state of Utah Regents’ Scholarship.
A first-generation college student, she joined the Aggie First Scholars program as a freshman and was hired to help with the program during her second year at USU.
Navigating college life without guidance from parents, older siblings, other relatives and friends who’ve gone before is a formidable challenge, Sandoval Rodriguez says.
“Even before you set foot on campus, things like filling out the FAFSA (federal student financial aid application), can be overwhelming,” says the Utah County native, who graduated from Pleasant Grove High School in 2019. “You have to figure out where to live, what to bring, what an ‘SI’ leader is, along with all kinds of new terminology and unfamiliar experiences thrown at you that students who’ve grown up around college graduates already know.”
But even more daunting, Sandoval Rodriguez says, are the assumptions, misconceptions and low expectations others have about you that create barriers and stress. It’s a challenge that struck her head-on, while serving on USU’s A-Team as a peer mentor during the university’s Connections new student orientation program this past summer.
“While I was explaining the Aggie First Scholar program to new students and their parents, one of those parents made a disparaging remark about first-generation college students,” she says.
The remark stung, but Sandoval Rodriguez maintained her composure and refuses to let the incident reduce her to bitterness. Instead, she considers it one of the reasons the Aggie First Scholar program is important.
“There’s a stigma surrounding first-generation college students that needs to be addressed,” she says. “Those students, along with the entire USU community, need to know we deserve to be here, we belong here and, by the way, we’re thriving.”
It’s a message Sandoval Rodriguez, as an aspiring high school science teacher, plans to carry beyond Utah State. She recently completed her first clinical hours as a secondary education major, during which she instructed teens on the use of Avogadro’s number.
“It was exciting to help students learn something and to be able to explain it in a way they could understand,” she says. “It was so cool.”
Sandoval Rodriguez says she drew inspiration from faculty mentor Missy Kofoed, lecturer in USU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, from whom the undergrad has taken courses in general chemistry and biochemistry.
“I also worked with Dr. Kofoed during the Connections course,” she says. “I love the way she presents information. I learn so much from her and, as a former high school teacher, she helped me set up my clinical teaching experience by connecting me with one of her former colleagues.”
Asked why she chose Utah State as her college destination, Sandoval Rodriguez says the impressions she gained from talking with USU students during her high school years, and visiting campus, convinced her it would be a good fit.
“Utah State felt like home and it seemed like a place with people I wanted to surround myself with — an environment that would challenge me to excel,” she says. “I knew I would grow as a person here.”
Sandoval Rodriguez adds her parents have been her earliest and strongest cheerleaders in pursuit of her dreams.
“My parents didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, but they wanted that opportunity for me,” she says. “They want the best life possible for me.”