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Stories from First-Generation Graduates 

Image of David de la Rosa

David de la Rosa
Assistant Director
Office for Diversity and Inclusion


I just earned a Master of Science in Leadership degree this past December. Truth be told, I never thought I’d make it this far. I didn’t know how to articulate these feelings at the time, but there is this thing called “Belonging” and it’s something that we as humans all search for. It makes us feel safe. And I almost dropped out of high school in my final year because of it. I didn’t know how I would “fit in” because I didn’t know many people that successfully did.  

Money was always an issue growing up. “How could I possibly afford this school, even with scholarships?” This thing was always a possibility and a reach, never a guarantee. Once I was admitted to West Chester University, paying for school was a main priority. I worked at Dorney Park as much as I could. I served Fresh Cut Fries and Hot Dogs at Center Stage, right behind the Dominator. I would look at the schedule and ask my coworkers if they wanted days off, with a “Switch Shift” form in my hand. In the mornings, I’d turn off my alarm, dreaming it was a button on the cash register because I had been working Open-Close shifts all summer.

I grew up with a disability and while I am mostly independent today, I really learned that independence through my time at college. I still remember, the first few days I was walking around with a campus map and each class had a distinct color for the route so it would be easier to see. Getting lost at this big school was my biggest fear. And explaining my level of disability as I searched for my own independence was such a hassle. I didn’t know anyone that could relate to that level either.

My first year at West Chester University, I really struggled to find this sense of Belonging. I became an English major because I wanted to teach, and I thought English would be fun. I was not as familiar with the rhetoric that comes with an English Degree, I just really liked Harry Potter. I rarely spoke out in my classes, for fear of them catching this imposter English Major. Being First-Generation, who would I talk to about majors?

Then, one day, walking up the steps to Tyson Hall, it hit me. I thought to myself, “If I’m going to make it 'here' (West Chester University), then I need to make it 'here' (Tyson Hall).” How could I possibly make it in school if I wasn’t even comfortable in my own residence hall?

Boom! I became an RA for the last two years of my college career.

I was one of just a handful of First-Gen students on my RA Team. (I was only one of two Latinos on my team for both years.) So, I did not quite get a lot of the things that were happening. Truthfully, I never would have understood a lot of things if I didn’t get a job working at the university. I was fortunate that in my first year as an RA and my 3rd year at West Chester, we watched a documentary called “First Generation.”

I thought to myself, “Wow, these kids are like me.” and “That’s me!” Representation is important, and seeing those kids struggle on the big screen of the theatre made me feel better about my circumstances. That following year, in my University in Fiction Class, we profiled several First-Generation students. I did my paper on First-Generation students and it was like I finally understood what was going on.  Then I graduated at the end of the semester. I found out what this "First-Generation" thing was way too late.

But my research led to a job as a Hall Director in New Jersey. This led to my passion for equity in education and access to leadership development. These passions led me to the Office for Diversity and Inclusion in the College of Health and Human Development this past July.

If I could write a letter to my younger, first-generation self, I would say the following:

College is hard for everyone, and you’re not the only one feeling lost or struggling. My fellow First-Gens and I, sometimes we forget that. It’s not meant to be easy. College is foreign in this context. There are no stories from our parents. With no stories to go from, we often write our own.

Chances are that this graduation will lead to some sort of social mobility. It’s a big deal and oftentimes, a dream comes true. If I could go back and speak with my younger self, I’d say that education is your right. This school is your opportunity. Take advantage of everything. Be upfront with your questions and seek support because it is there. If I can help you in any way, stop by my office in Henderson 20 or email me at