Helping Other First-Generation Students Find Their Way to College

Grace Merritt
Grace Merritt

2 min read

In Thalia Fuentes’s family, no one had ever gone to college because they knew they couldn’t afford it.

“For a lot of my high school and junior high school years, I felt guilty for wanting to go to college because my older brother and sister were working to help out my mom and dad. I thought, ‘Why do I get to be the only one who decides to care about myself?’ I felt a little bit selfish,” said Fuentes. “But my family is really great. They said ‘No, you want to do this. You definitely have to do this.’”

So Fuentes applied and not only got accepted to UConn, but was awarded the George R. Aylward Scholarship and a BOLD Women’s Leadership scholarship, a pioneering program cultivating courageous leadership in young women during their college years. UConn is one of six institutions nationally selected by the BOLD Leadership Network to participate in the program.

Fuentes said her scholarships have greatly relieved the financial burden on her family. They’ve also helped build her confidence and develop some new leadership skills as a Latina woman.

In fact, Fuentes, who was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Bridgeport, Conn., is helping other first-generation students navigate the path to college. Through her BOLD scholarship, which requires scholars to develop individualized projects, she is piloting a college and career readiness program in the Bridgeport public schools.

Working with the Fairchild Wheeler Interdistrict Multi-Magnet High School, she has organized workshops on how to fill out the common application for college admissions, how to ask teachers for letters of recommendations, and where to find scholarships.

“When I was applying to college, it felt like a very lonely process,” she explained. “So, I’m hoping that through a program like this, these first-generation students can do it themselves and find consolation in knowing that other people are going through the same thing.”

If the program proves successful, she hopes to bring it to other schools.

Besides the readiness program, Fuentes is double majoring in business management and political science, works at a campus dining hall, and volunteers for UConn’s SOS Food Recovery, which donates surplus food from UConn dining halls to an area soup kitchen.

For Fuentes, getting a college education is not a solo journey. It’s for her family.

“Although my family couldn’t help me with filling out the application, getting all the letters of recommendation, or filling out the FAFSA, they were there in a different way,” she said. “They were there to help me emotionally throughout the whole process, so I’m really grateful to all of them. They are the main reason why I continue to pursue these great opportunities. I feel as if I’m doing this for all of us.”

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