April 10, 2011 in Features

EWU profs show college ‘firsts’ can change destiny of family

By The Spokesman-Review
Christopher Anderson photoBuy this photo

Christina Torres Garcia and her husband, Martin Meraz-Garcia, are Eastern Washington University professors and the first in their families to earn post-graduate degrees. Both have Ph.Ds from Washington State University. They tell first-generation college students who come to them for advice that “there’s no way you can go wrong with more education.” They pose for a photo on the EWU Cheney campus earlier this month.
(Full-size photo)

The importance of firsts

Why it matters: College and post-college degrees translate to higher wages over a lifetime, increased mental and physical health and overall life satisfaction.

First-generation college students often change the attitudes toward education for an entire extended family.

“We touch few but reach many,” says Aaron Brown, director of the Academic Support Center at Eastern Washington University. “If you can help one person in a family dream big, they role-model that for their siblings and their parents.”

What supports it? A series of federally funded programs, called TRiO, identify and help support young people in their college quest who are disadvantaged due to income, disability and/or being the first in their families interested in college.

Some of the TRiO programs start in middle school. And the Ronald E. McNair program helps firsts pursue doctoral degrees.

There are TRiO programs in every state. In Washington, for instance, 59 TRiO programs bring in $17 million federal dollars and reach 15,000 students a year.

The challenges: Sometimes studying, combined with family responsibilities – caring for children or aging parents – overwhelms firsts, says Rose Munson, retention specialist in EWU’s Academic Support Center.

Sometimes families of the student feel threatened by the degree quest.

“It can create an unspoken thing of ‘What I did was not good enough for you?’ ” Munson said.

Firsts often don’t know the “hidden rules” of college, passed down by educated parents to their college-bound children. That’s why support systems are essential.

Celebrate: EWU will celebrate National TRiO day April 19 at 2 p.m. in the Hargreaves Reading Room on the Cheney campus. The public is invited. More information: Contact Aaron Brown at (509) 359-6243 or abrown@ewu.edu.

Martin Meraz-Garcia would drive his mother to the Tri-Cities fields at 4:30 in the morning and together they picked cherries and his nose would bleed, stinging with pesticides, and he would think back to his childhood in Mexico, one of 14 children, the son of a murdered father, and how he worked shining shoes in the street until the family moved to the United States, and he was teased so ruthlessly his first day in sixth grade that he told his mother he would never return, and she insisted he go back, and then one day as a teen in the orchards he realized that even if he were the fastest cherry picker in the world, he would never rise out of this poverty.

He decided that day to be anything but a field worker.

And now he has a Ph.D, and he married his Pasco High School girlfriend, Christina Torres Garcia, and she has a Ph.D, too, and they both teach at Eastern Washington University.

Martin is 35, Christina is 32. And they tell their stories in an almost breathless way, as if they can’t believe all that has transpired in their lifetimes.

They are both “firsts.” Martin was the first in his family to graduate from high school, and then college, and then he earned that Ph.D.

Christina’s older brother was the first to get a college degree in her family, but she scored two other family firsts, a master’s degree followed by the Ph.D.

They tell their stories often, especially to students who are also firsts and struggling with questions they cannot call home with, because their parents do not know the college culture.

You just keep going, they tell the students.

You just repeat “Why not me?”

Christina tells them of moving to the United States from Mexico when she was 12 and though she was smart, school officials wanted to place her in sixth grade, and she persisted and got into eighth grade, and then at Pasco High School she took AP classes, as well as ESL classes, and she never doubted she would go to college.

And Martin tells them how he was funneled into auto mechanic classes in high school and did well enough to open his own shop senior year, and he might have been content to be an auto-body businessman the rest of his life had not Christina, the younger girlfriend, said you are going to college. So he did.

And college wasn’t a snap. But they found support at Eastern through federal programs set up for firsts just like them. They found mentors.

Sally Burge and Karen McKinney, women who once oversaw the programs for firsts at EWU, told them about the Ronald E. McNair program, named for a Challenger astronaut and designed for students with doctoral degree potential.

The mentors told them: “You are good candidates. You will have Ph.Ds.”

Eventually, they thought: “Why not us?”

And in his college summers, when Martin was offered a $2,500 stipend to do research, he thought back to those cherry orchards and marveled that he would be paid to read in a library, a roof over his head.

So they pursued doctorates at Washington State University. Martin got his in 2007; Christina in 2009.

And their success changed their extended families, in ways subtle and grand.

For instance, both of Christina’s parents, inspired by their college-going children, earned their GEDs. Her mother, Emma Mendoza Bravo, then took cosmetology classes and opened a hairstyling salon in Pasco.

The families didn’t always understand just what they were doing. Why were they in school so long? Why no children in their 20s?

But the families showed up at their graduations. And they cried. And Martin credits his mother, Gregoria Meraz Sanchez, for insisting he stay in that sixth-grade classroom long ago, the first step toward his educated future.

Younger family members have followed in the footsteps of Christina and Martin. Christina’s cousin is at EWU right now.

Martin is an assistant professor of Chicana/Chicano Studies. And this week, Christina was named EWU’s director of the Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement Program, filling the footsteps of her mentors.

This dynamic duo do not consider themselves extraordinary. They do not brag.

They merely tell the facts of their journey from the streets of Mexico, from the orchards of the Tri-Cities, from the ESL and AP classes of Pasco High School, to their degree-lined offices on EWU’s campus.

It’s a story that leaves you breathless, too.

There are 21 comments on this story. Click here to view comments >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email