Navigating CSD as a First-Generation College Student

Although I was born in California, my family moved to Mexico when I was about a year old. Most of my childhood was spent in the beautiful rancho, Ayutita, in the outskirts of city of Autlan de Navarro Jalisco. It was filled with beautiful memories on my abuelitos’ farm—riding horses, milking cows, helping tend to the fields, growing and harvesting corn, cilantro, and tomatoes . . . just like my mom did when she was a young girl.

But it was also filled with hardships. As the oldest sibling in my family, I grew up fast, taking on roles and responsibilities that most don’t take at a young age. I remember waking up early to help my parents prep food to sell, then taking care of my younger sisters before and after school. Most weekends were spent in the kitchen prepping and selling pozole, tacos, and tortas—at times, having to go door-to-door selling tomatoes and tamales.

When I was 12, my family decided to move back to the States for a better life and a brighter future for me and my sisters. The transition was hard. I was the voice of my parents—translating everything from parent-teacher conferences, job applications, doctor visits, etc. Meanwhile, navigating a foreign education system was overwhelming. I remember being bullied for not speaking English, not having fancy clothes, or not bringing the “typical” lunch (my mom always packed us beans and rice).

My parents didn’t finish elementary school. I was the first in my family to graduate from middle school . . . from high school . . . from college. And now, I’m the first to pursue a master’s degree. But my milestones were met with adversity and there were many obstacles to overcome while pursuing higher education.

My First Attempt at Undergrad

During my first attempt at undergrad, I failed miserably.

Because my parents didn’t have a formal education, I didn’t have any close personal role models to follow in my pursuit of higher education. I dealt with imposter syndrome a lot; comparing myself to others and noticing the resources and opportunities they had that I didn’t.

At this time, my father also moved back to Mexico. Being away from home while going through this family trauma was hard. I felt huge amounts of guilt for pursuing my education, knowing that my family needed me.

School was important, but supporting my family financially was also a major priority. I had to be okay with going to college part-time so I could work, which would take me twice as long to finish my degree. As a housecleaning business owner, my mom worked hard and sacrificed to give us a better future . . . and I needed to be able to help support her, her business, and our family.

All of this took its toll . . . I was eventually put on academic probation, then disqualified.

Attending Community College

Being unsuccessful at college was difficult. Having watched my parents face their hardships as immigrants made me realize I had to change the narrative—for my life, my family, and my legacy.

So, I started over and enrolled in community college. This time, I had a newfound drive and made school my number one priority. I adopted new habits that helped me stay on track and took advantage of school resources and opportunities that would position me to be able to transfer into a four-year university again.

Undergrad—Try, Try Again

Four years later, I transferred to Portland State University. Once I arrived, I realized there was a huge lack of diversity—particularly Latinos—in Portland, and the university’s speech and hearing sciences department. While I felt discouraged and lonely at times, I realized I can offer a unique perspective as a bilingual and bicultural Mexican Latina. My next goal was to not only complete my bachelor’s degree, but to get into grad school and become a bilingual SLP.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the luxury of only worrying about my courses . . . I had to pay for them too! I worked full-time as research assistant during the day, nanny in the evenings, and commercial office cleaner at night. Days were long, and nights were even longer.

But my experience as a research assistant in both the Speech and Hearing Department’s Monolingual and Bilingual Lab, as well as the Special Education Department’s AAC Lab gave me opportunities I’d never imagined:

  • participating in research that supported and advocated for multicultural communities like mine,
  • attending professional development workshops,
  • networking with local and international SLPs,
  • attending conferences, and
  • presenting at the ASHA, Oregon Speech and Hearing Association, and Apraxia Kids conventions.

These experiences were empowering! Through them, I built relationships and found mentors within our department and the local SLP community. Another spark was ignited in me, and I realized I could accomplish anything. That imposter syndrome I’d felt the first time I attempted undergrad would not take over my narrative this time.

After a long 10-year journey, I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in Speech and Hearing Sciences in 2019!

Taking a Gap Year

The next step to achieving my goal of becoming a bilingual SLP was attending grad school. But that would be expensive—not just attending, but the cost of submitting grad school applications was a barrier too. I couldn’t afford it at the time, so I took a gap year.

During this time, I channeled the strength of resilience that our Latino community carries and continued forward. I used this resourcefulness to research scholarships, capitalize on opportunities for fee waivers toward grad applications, took advantage of Portland State’s career center to help with my resume and personal statement, and educated myself on the “language” of higher education and academia. I used this year to take my time applying to programs that would be a natural fit.

Advocating for Change While In Grad School

I’m now a master’s SLP student in the bilingual concentration program at Portland State and am once again conducting research on bilingualism. In fact, I was accepted to present at ASHA again this year!

To get more involved, I also applied to and was awarded the position of graduate student representative for both the Oregon Speech and Hearing Association (OSHA) and ASHA’s Hispanic Caucus. These opportunities have allowed me to connect with my local SLP communities, learn how associations work, and learn how we can advocate for ourselves and the professions through legislative action. It’s allowed me to use my voice and bring a unique perspective to the table.

I also use my experience to support and mentor other first-generation and minoritized college students. I speak at high schools to encourage minoritized students to join the professions because diversity in this field matters! There’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to increasing diversity in the CSD professions and I want to be a catalyst for change.

I’ve sometimes felt discouraged that it’s taken me longer than most to get this far in my education. My journey has been a long one, with many obstacles to overcome. At times, I wanted to quit. But through my journey, I’ve realized that it’s ok for there to be a slow build of success and accomplishments. My voice matters and so does yours. We have the power to bring change—not just in CSD, but in our communities. So, remember . . . “Si se puede”—yes you can!


  1. Karen Michel September 21, 2021 at 10:07 pm

    Gang Gang that’s my sisterrrr!!!!!!

  2. Amanda Corr October 13, 2021 at 11:35 pm

    You have an amazing story Izela!! Congrats on all your accomplishments. I’m so happy for you!


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