Being a first generation college graduate will be a proud moment for these two Newman students

Oct 13, 2016
Newman University - A Degree of Difference

Maria Martinez and Gabriela Figueroa both have one semester left before they graduate with education degrees earned at the Newman University Western Kansas Center in Dodge City.

While they may have the same choice in majors, however, Martinez and Figueroa have few things in common.

Martinez is married and a proud mother of three while Figueroa is happily independent. Martinez regularly returns to her hometown of Mexico City, and Figueroa has only returned a couple of times to her hometown of Tecolotlán, Mexico. Martinez, who came to the United States when she was 25, speaks with a thick accent, whereas Figueroa, who came at 15, does not.

Yet one thing the two women do share is the fact that they will both soon be the first in their families to graduate from college.

Maria Martinez with her student teaching class.
Maria Martinez with her student teaching class

The Newman Western Kansas Center has helped many students over the years who come from families in which parents and siblings do not have a college education. Western Kansas Center Director Jessica Bird said first generation college students like Martinez and Figueroa, as well as many adult students, find Newman is a good fit because of the attention they receive from faculty as well as the close-knit atmosphere of the classrooms.

“The advising process helps make the students comfortable with going back to college and is very personalized,” Bird said, “and the students become very close, much like family, and offer support to each other throughout the program.”

Martinez was the youngest of 12 children and grew up in the Mexican capital. She attended elementary through high school in Mexico City and moved to Garden City after meeting her husband, who had worked in Garden City for five years and moved back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico. Because she and her husband did not speak any English, she enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at Garden City Community College and eventually learned the language and started taking college courses, though she said it was difficult because she still had a full-time job and a family to take care of.

Another obstacle for Martinez was that she often found that she was the oldest in the class and had a thick accent.

“I was afraid to participate,” she said. “But eventually I got more confidence.”

Martinez said with the help of her teachers and after-class tutors she was able to maintain a 3.8 GPA throughout college. Her three children were also a driving force to keep her grades high, she said.

When Martinez finishes student teaching in December, she said she will start looking for kindergarten and first-grade teaching positions. However, she said that won’t be the end of her educational journey.

“Later on, I want to learn sign language,” she said.

Maria with her husband and children.
Martinez with her husband and children

Martinez’s three children, who speak Spanish and English, have learned some sign language in school and they often use it at home, she said.

“When they want to hide something from their father, they speak English and when they want to hide something from both of us they sign to each other,” she said.

Figueroa came from a decidedly smaller family. Until she was 10, she lived with her older sister, mother and an abusive father. Then, her mother left her father and a year later her mother was tragically taken from her, leaving only Figueroa and her sister. Figueroa’s brother, who is 12 years older and who lived in California at the time, then moved back to Mexico to take on the role of guardian for his two orphaned sisters. They were not complete strangers, though, as he had visited them as often as he could.

“I remember he would visit every two years,” she said. “I remember it was very exciting when he was coming to town.”

Gabriella with her fiancé Devin and their dog Skye.
Gabriella Figueroa with her fiancé Devin and their dog Skye

Figueroa said that she and her siblings then bounced around Mexico, living with friends, but that eventually her brother decided if they wanted a chance at a better life they needed to move to the U.S.

“The principal at the middle school or high school, I can’t remember, said ‘You need to get her out of here,’” Figueroa said. “At that point, I had lost so much that I had no attachments.”

She then moved to Dodge City, where her sister had been living for a few years, and enrolled in high school. Not knowing the language, however, she always felt like an outsider. The next few years of high school were a blur. She moved from Dodge City to Downey, Calif., where she had other extended family, and she said she never felt like she could focus on school, especially because she was still learning English.

“I remember, now that I’m older, like all of my other classmates were applying to colleges or community colleges around there,” she said. “I never did that.”

Instead, Figueroa moved back to Dodge City with the goal of securing a job and gaining her independence. In the next few years after graduation, she moved back and forth between Dodge City and California, finally deciding to remain in Dodge City and get her life on track.

“I was like, ‘Ok, Gabee. You’re 21. You need to get it together,’” she said.

Gabriela and Tamara.
Gabriela Figueroa and Tamara Davis

Figueroa said then she met someone who helped her change her life: Tamara Davis, attorney at law and partner at Davis and McCann, P.A. in Dodge City. Figueroa said working with an educated woman like Davis inspired her to go to Dodge City Community College. However, when only three credits shy of graduating with her associate’s degree she had to drop out due to a family emergency that necessitated she go back to working full time, she said.

“I was like, ‘Forget it. School is going to have to wait,’” she said. “I was going through a really rough time … ‘what am I going to do with my life’ and ‘I’m not going to get anywhere.’”

Then Davis, once again, pushed Figueroa to try to get her college education and even drove Figueroa to different colleges for visits and applications. Figueroa said she applied to and was accepted by Fort Hays, Wichita State, and Kansas State University. She decided on Kansas State, but on her first day she said she became overwhelmed by the size of the university and left.

“I was discouraged after that. I was like, ‘Well, it’s not going to work out.’”

Fortunately, she said, she and Davis found out about the Newman Western Kansas Center in Dodge City and they went to check it out.

On her first visit to the center she spoke with Bird, and soon learned that Newman was exactly what she had been searching for.

“I swear it was like it was meant to be, like, I was meant to be there,” Figueroa said. “We met and she gave me information and it was such a different experience.”

“I think what makes us unique is the personalized experience,” Bird said. “Students know that they can rely on our faculty and staff to have their best interest at heart.”

Figueroa said she often found herself asking “83 questions” in class because she wanted to really understand the material, and that her professors would always oblige.

Figueroa then enrolled in the 16-month Teacher Education Program, and is now only four months away from standing in front of her own classroom. Through it all, Figueroa says she has been urged on by many teachers, friends, her brother and sister, Davis and her husband, her fiancé, and the memory of her mother.

“It doesn’t matter what life gives you. It just matters what you do with it. You just have to turn that around and make it better,” Figueroa said.

Last semester, she said, when she was overwhelmed by work and classes and felt like giving up her sister said, “Mom never finished elementary school, and you’re about to be an elementary teacher. You’ve done so great. Just keep pushing.”

Figueroa and Martinez have another other thing in common: Figueroa does not plan on stopping with her bachelor’s degree.

“I want to get my master’s and I want to get my ESL endorsement,” she said. “I’m very physically active so I want to try and get my P.E. endorsement.”

Figueroa said she is looking forward to helping students realize their full potential, as she has come to realize in herself. Bird said this desire is something she has seen in both Figueroa and Martinez.

“The one thing that probably stands out the most about both of them is their desire to make a difference, to change the path of other students who may not see their full potential and to show them by example that anything is possible,” Bird said.

With help for the Newman Western Kansas Center, Figueroa and Martinez will soon have her chance to do just that.

“I’ve had a lot of teachers help me believe that I could do it,” she said. “I want to be who they were for me. I want to be a person who kids can count on.”