The summer after his freshman year at CMC, Rafael Velasco ’19 worked as a part-time custodian at an elementary school in Illinois. While cleaning desks in an empty classroom, he had the feeling he should be somewhere else.
Nothing against the work, Velasco said. His father proudly earns a living as a janitor. Instead, Velasco kept revisiting conversations with peers who had summer internships, their career prospects already on track after their first year. One CMC friend was so natural at networking and getting on the phone with his dad for internship advice that Velasco felt way behind.
“I think it’s true for a lot of first-generation college students. Our parents weren’t able to teach us these things,” said Velasco, who grew up in Waukegan, outside of Chicago.
“I just remember feeling inadequate when I’d hear these conversations. I’d be sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, is it that time of year? Should I be looking for internships?’ I didn’t know what to do.”
Velasco realized his uncertainty was shared by several of his friends. When he returned to campus, Velasco co-founded 1Gen, a resource and support community for first-generation students at CMC. During their sophomore spring semester, the group (Tre Gonzales ’19, Tony Chau ’19, Devang Patel ’19, and Justin Rodriguez ’19) had an epiphany while eating lunch together. Instead of lamenting their perceived “mistakes” during the first two years of college, they vowed to use the knowledge they had gained to become mentors to underclassmen.
“As a first-gen, you’re going to need to talk to somebody. We thought it would help if that was a student who shared the same struggles, who had a common experience.”
“We formed a constitution. We created a budget to get funding,” Velasco said. “Right there, we decided to go for it and do our best to start this club to help other students.”
The experience of forming the club, Velasco said, gave him the confidence to create opportunities for himself and others. A neuroscience major, he carried ROTC leadership and self-discipline principles into 1Gen and another ambitious venture, his own social media start-up, SocialSpur.
In its first 18 months, 1Gen reached more than 100 CMCers by hosting events like resume workshops, career and course registration prep sessions, reflective retreats, and First Gen Day bonding celebrations. The main goal, Velasco said, was to carve out space on campus for first-generation students to encourage each other and not feel so alone. 1Gen has also become more intentional about peer-to-peer mentorship, with Velasco emphasizing the need for upperclassmen to give back by offering advice and emotional support.
“College is a huge culture shock. The academics are tough. The social situations are different. There are things happening at home that you can’t control or take care of,” Velasco said.
“As a first-gen, you’re going to need to talk to somebody. We thought it would help if that was a student who shared the same struggles, who had a common experience. We understand it.”