Western student leaders attend inaugural first-generation college celebration at White House

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—White House invitations aren't handed out lightly. So, when Western Michigan University students Noemí Méndez and Joana Zuniga received word they were among a few dozen college students from around the country selected to attend the first-ever First-Generation College Student Day at the President's residence, they jumped at the opportunity.

"It was kind of a 'wow' moment, first of all that I was even nominated or had this opportunity and second of all that it was in such an important building with important people," says Méndez, a social work student from St. Joseph, Michigan.

A photo of Noemi Mendez and Gary Peters inside Senate chambers.

Méndez and U.S. Sen. Gary Peters.

"I could have never imagined it," adds Zuniga, a child and family development student from Grand Junction, Michigan. "Going to Washington to meet a senator, legislators and other leaders; it was an amazing opportunity."

The pair earned the prestigious opportunity by impressing Dr. Cristóbal Rodríguez, associate provost for equity-centered initiatives in academic affairs, with their campus leadership. As a member of President Biden's Advisory Commission on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence and Economic Opportunity for Hispanics, Rodríguez was charged with nominating candidates for the inaugural White House celebration. He says Méndez, president of the Multicultural Greek Council, and Zuniga, president of the Latino Student Association, were natural choices for the nomination because of their impact on campus through leadership and academic success.

"Noemí and Joana exemplify the reason for which WMU operates and sets out in its mission to achieve, which is to provide generational transformation and opportunities that will not only influence generations to come in their families but will also reflect on the success of our communities as they take up new roles in the career and life trajectories in serving our communities," says Rodríguez. "My hope is that Joana and Noemí reflect on their achievements and contributions that have positioned them for such recognitions and consider how they will continue to grow their contributions and achievements to higher levels of community impact."

Within days of receiving word they'd been chosen to attend the Nov. 8 event, Méndez and Zuniga were flown to the nation's capital—a destination neither had visited before. Along with a few dozen peers from across the country, they attended panel discussions led by White House leaders and other executives who were also first-generation college students, meaning first in their family to earn a postsecondary degree, to learn about the importance of educational equity in higher education and resources available to the community.

"There was a really special moment where (Naeem Jenkins-Dixon, deputy director of the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence and Economic Opportunity through Historically Black Colleges and Universities) said, 'I want you guys to take in how you're feeling right now, sitting in this chair with all of these people around you, and … remember it anytime you find yourself in a situation similar to this where you're presented an opportunity and it feels unbelievable. Use it to inspire you for more opportunities in the future,'" Méndez remembers.

A photo of Joana Zuniga and Gary Peters inside Senate chambers.

Zuniga and U.S. Sen. Gary Peters.

"He really emphasized that we belonged there and we were there for a reason, and that we should keep moving forward and voicing our opinions and experiences," adds Zuniga.

After the sessions, Méndez and Zuniga connected with Western alumna Julie Shroyer, B.S.W.'87, president and chief executive officer of Wheat Shroyer Government Relations LLC, who helped set up meetings with U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and an aide to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow

"(Sen. Peters) asked us who we were and where we're from, what we're studying," remembers Méndez. "He was really talking to us … and was genuinely interested in what we were saying to him, so it was a really unique experience."

The students took the opportunity to discuss the importance of the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), which provides supportive services to migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their dependents, and the impact it has had on both of their lives.

"It really felt like we were being heard," says Zuniga. "CAMP really is a home away from home for students like us, and (Stabenow's aide) understood where we were coming from. It was very heartwarming."

"It was exciting because I had never talked with policymakers before or people with such high influence," says Méndez. "I've been really passionate about migrant outreach and advocacy, … so it made me really excited about advocacy in the future. It was really inspiring and made me feel like I can be in the room with people like this and it’s something I want to continue to work toward."

Méndez understands the migrant experience on a deeply personal level. Her grandparents traveled to the U.S. when they were young before returning to Mexico, and her father immigrated to the United States as a teenager, working on a farm to support his family.

"He really inspired me. If he didn't make those sacrifices, I wouldn't be here. I don't know what my life would be like," says Méndez. "I was looking through old photos and found a photo of him when he was maybe 18, and he was working out in the farms. I sent it to him and said, 'I want you to remember all that hard work you put in when you were that young guy. That's me now. It's because of the hard work that you did that I have these opportunities.'"

"My parents came here; they fought for me. And I'm not just finishing the job. I'm helping because I want us to succeed together as a family," Zuniga adds.

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