Greatness from small beginnings: a first-generation immigrant's educational journey

kevin curiel-vazquez
Kevin Curiel-Vazquez (’19 B.A., organizational communication; ‘22 M.A. organizational change leadership) is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) for Olvera Enterprises, a private organization located in Grand Rapids, Michigan that serves as the lead organization for the supermarket chain of Supermercado Mexico; a group of stores that offers various services and specializes in the sale of primarily Latin American products. As COO he oversees the design, operation, and improvement of the organizational structure that creates and delivers the organization's products and services. Kevin recently earned this position after graduating with his M.A. in April 2022. 

This success, however, has been hard won for Curiel-Vazquez, a first-generation college student who was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His parents brought him and his two siblings to Grand Rapids from Mexico when he was 8 years with the ambition to provide them with a better future. His parents sacrificed the lives they had built in Mexico with their family and friends, so he and his brothers could have a better chance at building their own lives filled with opportunity and growth. 

“Being a first-generation college student is a struggle, there is no way to sugarcoat it,” explained Curiel-Vazquez, “but if you overcome the challenges and barriers of being a first-generation student by persevering and being resilient toward your higher education goal; you will be setting yourself up for success and will come out stronger and more prepared to handle any future challenges that life may throw at you. More importantly, you will have the skills and resources to help the next generation of first-generation college students navigate the higher education system, so that they do not face the same struggles you did when you were once in their shoes.” 

Kevin graduated from Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) in 2017 with an Associates of Arts degree after eight years of taking courses and working at the same time to pay his own way through. The extra time gave him the opportunity to figure out what who he is and what he wanted to do professionally. He knew he wanted to continue his education, but due to his immigration status as a Deferred Action Childhood Arrival (DACA), he couldn’t qualify for financial aid or public scholarships and a four-year college or university was going to be too expensive for him to fund his own way. “The barrier of being a self-funded first-generation student made it almost financially impossible to acquire a bachelor’s degree. I applied to many universities across Michigan, but most did not offer financial support or resources for DACA students,” Curiel-Vazquez explained. Western Michigan University (WMU) did happen to provide a highly competitive private scholarship for DACA students, which made Western Curiel-Vazquez’s first choice - not just because of the scholarship but because unlike other universities WMU made him feel seen and valued as a student and was willing to support members of his community regardless of their immigration status. “A university that holds these values made me want to be part of that university,” he said. 

Curiel-Vazquez was accepted to Western, but was denied the private scholarship for DACA students. “At this point, I felt defeated and left without options,” he shared. 

Video of I am first: Kevin Curiel Vazquez

Curiel-Vazquez went to see Erasmos (Mo) Salinas, a then WMU advisor and current Major Gifts coordinator for the Alumni Association, seeking help understanding why he was denied the scholarship. It turned out he had been denied because his grade point average (GPA) fell .12 points short of the scholarship’s academic requirement, but through talking with someone in the Financial Aid Office, they were able to determine the requirement was intended for incoming Freshmen, and not transfer students with more unique situations, like Curiel-Vazquez. 

"When Kevin walked into my office, he honestly reminded me of a young me,” explained Salinas. “Like a typical first-generation student, he struggled navigating the complex policies and procedures on campus. Not knowing what to ask or who to ask in a large new environment can be extremely intimidating. Yet Kevin's assertiveness led him to me, where he proceeded to ask every wrong question, until he managed to get to the right questions. The entire conversation, not once did he ask me to do something for him. Kevin only sought guidance to take care of things; himself. While I made the connection with the right person on campus for him, he followed up and checked it off his list.” 

To this day, Curiel-Vazquez credits Salinas for the decision reversal on the DACA scholarship, but Salinas insists that Curiel-Vazquez’s persistence is what fueled this conversation. “I merely connected with the proper individuals and we asked the right questions together,” Salinas said. “Kevin is a determined and charismatic young man and there is no doubt in my mind that his success will reach as high as he envisions. I say that because Kevin possesses that very real WMU Bronco spirit of grit, resilience, and perseverance.” 

A few weeks after receiving the denial letter, Curiel-Vazquez received an acceptance letter for the scholarship, with the requirement of passing an academic probationary period and maintaining a high academic standing during his time at WMU. “The rest is history,” he shared. “I fulfilled my requirement and maintained a high academic standing at WMU during my time as a bachelor’s student and earned my B.A. in Organizational Communications. I had such a positive experience during my time as a bachelor's student that I decided to continue my master’s at WMU in the OCL program and earned my M.A.” 

His current work responsibilities focus on developing organizational communication structures and executing project developments and management. “The WMU OCL program helped me develop the skills necessary to learn how to analyze an organizational structure and think about the root cause of the problem, and apply data-driven methodologies to overcome organizational problems, execute projects efficiently, and improve organizational culture - all while practicing emotional intelligence, conflict management skills, and transformational leadership methods,” he shared. 

In collaboration with Olvera, Enterprises Kevin is also working on establishing a non-profit organization dedicated to serving the immigrant/Hispanic community of Wyoming, MI. Outside of work Kevin also serves as the secretary of the United Methodist Community House Board where he chairs the Funds and Development Committee which focuses on organizing community events and fundraisers. Lastly, Kevin serves as Event Coordinator/Coach for MNUIS, a Michigan network dedicated to serving and supporting first-generation immigrants in their professional development and transition to higher education. 

Curiel-Vazquez’s advice for other first-generation students: “Slow and steady wins the race - do not let your circumstances define who you are. I spent 8 years as a part-time student at Grand Rapids community college just trying to figure out who I am and what I want to do as a professional. I spent another 4 years at WMU finishing my bachelor’s and earning my Master’s, a 12-year academic journey. I knew because of my circumstances as an immigrant my academic journey was going to take years to accomplish, but I made a plan and stuck to it. I chipped at it every day in some way shape or form and made sure to continue moving forward. I had many ups and downs in this journey, but I always knew that just by trying, even if I fall, I will fall forward and take the time I need to get back up and keep trying.” 

Curiel-Vazquez’s degrees mean everything to them. “My parents took a chance for us when we left Mexico. They sacrificed the lives they had in Mexico with no guarantee of success on the other side. I didn’t know anything about higher education and neither did they. We had to work as a collective to help me get through college, and just hope that we would taste the fruit of our labor one day. I am happy and proud to say that today, we are tasting the fruit of that labor, and more importantly they recognized that all their sacrifices came to fruition by seeing their son graduate with his Masters and build a career,” he shared. 

“WMU took a chance with me and believed in my potential, and that’s sometimes all it takes, just one person believing in you, and I honestly wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for WMU. For that, I will be forever grateful and forever a Bronco!” shared Curiel-Vazquez.