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Faces of South - Zenaida Beltran

Role Model & First-Generation College Student

Picture of campus

November 7, 2017

When current South Seattle College student Zenaida Beltran first went to college, she moved over 300 miles away from her close-knit family in White Center to attend Eastern Washington University, where she described her freshman experience as “culture shock.”

“At first it was hard not seeing a lot people who looked like me,” says Zenaida. “It was intimidating, and I started wondering if any of my classmates really understood where I came from. I even wondered if I could talk the same. Could anybody understand the slang I used with my friends back home; could I use it without being judged?”

Having been raised by a single mother, Zenaida represents just one of thousands of undergraduates who identify as first-generation college students; the first person in their immediate family to attend college. Nearly one-third of students entering two- or four-year colleges and universities in the United States each year are first-generation, with neither parent having received a bachelor’s degree.  

“In high school, I never thought I’d be able to get into college,” says Zenaida, who transferred from Tyee to Evergreen High School her sophomore year. “I had a hard time transitioning, fell into the wrong crowd and started abusing hard drugs. It wasn’t until I found my support system at Upward Bound that I began doing better in school with their guidance.”

Often times, first-generation students can also act as a guide and role model for younger generations. They can set a standard for their siblings and make a college education seem possible.  

“My little sister was also a big part of why I started turning my life around,” says Zenaida. “At that time I was doing drugs, and sometimes my sister would have to take care of me. I knew that she didn’t deserve to see that, and it’s motivated me to do better.”

Her junior year of high school, Zenaida began focusing more time on her studies and joined the gymnastics, cheer and softball teams. She even ran for student body president and won before applying and being accepted to Eastern Washington University in 2012. 

At Eastern, without the backing of her support system from home, Zenaida began struggling with her classes and decided to move back home upon becoming pregnant with her daughter.

After taking a year off to raise her daughter, she decided to enroll at South Seattle College to pursue her Associate in Business degree. For Zenaida, starting at South meant a fresh start.

“When I got to South, I just felt more focused and supported. Immediately after I got to campus, I wanted to connect with resources that could help me reach my career goals. I found my support system in TRiO, and having those supportive staff members and study space on-campus has been a big difference in my life.”

Zenaida now plans to transfer to the University of Washington-Seattle to pursue a degree in digital marketing and entrepreneurship.

“Going to school while raising a child can be a struggle,” says Zenaida. “It’s hard to balance spending time with my daughter and making time for schoolwork. But the one piece of advice I can give to first –generation students is to focus and find your support system on campus. You might be the first in your family to go to college, but you are not alone.”