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First-Generation Student Joanna Marie Hilao

Joanna Marie Hilao
Undergrad: Mesa Community College and University of Arizona

Q. What is your background? Where did you grow up?
I am the oldest of four children, and we all grew up in a small rural town in the Philippines. I lived there until I was around 11 years old.

Q. Why didn’t your parents attend college?
My biological father received a high school diploma and had no choice but to enter the workforce until his untimely passing. On the other hand, my mother graduated with a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management from a university in the Philippines. However, she was not able to use her degree upon moving to the United States. My step-father also received a diploma in the Philippines but had to enter the workforce as a mechanic and construction worker to provide for our family.

Q. What made you decide to attend college?
Since my biological father passed away when I was 14, my mom, siblings, and I moved to the United States to seek a better future. Being in America opened a lot of doors for me because had I still lived in the Philippines, high school and college would be questionable ventures for my siblings and me. I knew that going to college would be the first step in ensuring a successful future for me and my family. 

Q. Did you know you were a first-generation college student?
I knew I was the first person in my family to pursue a college degree in the United States, but I didn’t actually realize that I was a first-generation college student because my Mom received a degree in the Philippines. It wasn’t until my community college advisor informed me that I realized I was a first-generation college student.

Q. What were the biggest challenges you faced as a first-generation college student?
All I knew was that I wanted to get good grades in junior high and high school, because that way, I can make my parents proud and inspire my younger siblings to follow suit. During my junior and senior year of high school, I realized most of my peers were preparing to take the SATs and filling out college applications. I didn’t know what the SATs/ACTs were. All I knew was that everyone was taking them, so I did the same. I remember being so confused because neither my parents nor I knew how to get to college, much less afford it. We had no clue what the FAFSA was. We didn’t know college tours existed. My family and I didn’t have a conversation of what school would be the best “fit” for me. Since my parents worked, I found myself navigating my path to college alone. I drove to my local community colleges and sought out the best options for me to get started on my dreams of becoming a physician. This journey led me to attending Mesa Community College. At university, since the student body was larger, it became more challenging to find personalized advising and navigate my way to get my degree. This was a completely different ballpark because I was now away from home, and I found myself having to look even harder for opportunities to succeed.

Q. Why did you enroll in the Health Science Intensive program?
What drew me to the program was its focus on introspection and the one-on-one. I liked how the program values our experiences, knowing our individual journeys provide us with the wisdom to take part in important discussions on education and healthcare. The rigor also drew me to the program, and continues to challenge and strengthen my knowledge in the sciences. In addition, one of the challenges I faced in the past was getting personalized advising when it came to navigating college. Both Dr. Alex Tan and Zuri Obado have given so much of their time to provide personalized advising when it comes to improving our application to medical school.

Q. How does being a first-generation college student affect you now in the Health Science Intensive program?
Meeting other first-gen students has been incredibly helpful because I’ve found people who understand the struggles of trying to bridge gaps and meet and surpass societal expectations of students from our background. It has been a supportive environment that gives students with varying experiences the opportunity to thrive and learn from each other. The medical school application process is complex, and having the experience of navigating community college and university in the past has helped me become a woman of action.

CATEGORY: Academics