Tania Molinar-Castillo’s college access story began when she was in eighth grade. After a presentation at her middle school highlighted the life-long economic benefits of college, Tania decided to commit herself to getting into a university. Coming from a family where nobody held a college diploma, Tania began to see college as a way to avoid working a series of dispiriting, low-income jobs following her high school graduation.
During high school Tania threw herself into her studies, becoming an honor roll student and student athlete. Originally intending to pay for college by running cross-country, Tania instead spent much of her senior year looking for scholarships and other forms of financial aid. Luckily, her first choice was the University of Denver, which ended up giving her a strong financial aid package including a large merit award. This, supplemented with other scholarships from programs like the Denver Scholarship Foundation, allowed Tania to achieve her goal of obtaining access to college in an affordable way.
Talking retrospectively about these experiences, Tania describes them as arduous, and as a “pretty lonely process” overall. However, she also points to eventually finding the right contacts like the director of DU’s Volunteers in Partnership program, who supported Tania in navigating the labyrinth nature of her college application. This person-to-person contact is considered by Tania to be fundamentally important, and something missing from her interactions with several other schools. “I think it was one of the biggest reasons why I chose to come to DU,” Tania said while reflecting on her journey. “It’s really important to have that person […] who knows your situation.”
The challenges Tania faced as a first-generation college student did not dissipate when she arrived on campus. She describes her first few weeks as being one of her “worst experiences”, full of extreme culture shock. At orientation and in the immediate days after, she gained the impression that she wasn’t going to be accepted at DU, and that there wasn’t a sufficient number of people who understood her cultural background.
Eventually, Tania was able to establish a sense of belonging. She worked hard to find communities on campus where she felt “safe and appreciated.” One of the things she did was join a multicultural sorority. “That was really huge because [then] I was around female, first-generation college students, students of color, and women who understood what I was going through,” Tania said, while describing how she began to feel more comfortable. “It’s huge finding places that not only have resources but also people who you can have a conversation with.”
Now in her final year of her undergraduate program, Tania is remarkably engaged in the campus community. In addition to her studies (she is a double major in Psychology and Women’s Studies), she works as a College Access and Diversity Fellow with Undergraduate Admission and is also the President of DU’s Multicultural Greek Council. Although exponentially more comfortable now, she remains mindful about what institutions can do to help first-generation students, zeroing in on transition programs (like DU’s ELI Program and Pioneer Pathways) as being key components. “Both bring students from underrepresented backgrounds to campus […] two weeks before orientation, and they are able to get a better sense of community and support systems before classes even start. That would have been super helpful for me, and I think it could have made a huge difference.”