Joy Abdelmalak didn’t speak or understand English when she moved to the U.S. from Egypt.
Chinenye Eneh had to get herself on the college track without any help.
Patrick Essio’s parents fled the Middle East with hopes of a brighter future for their children.
Karen Morales did not think she would even be able to enroll in college.
Ashley Schletewitz strived to study while trying to block out ongoing drama at home.
Five very different paths, all leading to the same place: Westwood. Though their backgrounds and childhood experiences vary widely, these five teenagers have one critical thing in common — they are all the first generation in their families to go to college. And not just any college. This fall, they’ll be proudly wearing the blue and gold of UCLA.
“One of UCLA’s greatest strengths is the diversity of perspectives they bring to the classroom,” remarks Gary Clark, executive director of undergraduate admission at UCLA. “Our first-generation students have blazed their own trail to college and bring the kind of drive, ability and optimism that encapsulates the Bruin spirit. Their journeys to UCLA are as diverse as the students themselves.”
DID YOU KNOW?
25% of domestic UCLA freshmen last year identified as FIRST-GEN
Without parents who can provide guidance with lessons from their own college years, first-gen college students can face a tough road to higher education. But grit, determination and hope still propel many to earn a spot at UCLA.
“My parents really drilled into us the importance of education, even though they didn’t get a chance to have a higher education,” says Abdelmalak. “So the fact that I got into UCLA and I’m [even] able to go to college is such a huge accomplishment on its own.”
Morales, who grew up a few blocks away from Cal State Los Angeles, says she’s excited about being a college student and gaining more independence. Well, mostly, anyway. “It is also insanely nerve-racking,” she says, “because I do not have any family members that can tell me what college is like or support me through the challenges I will face when classes start.”
Not everyone who trailblazes their family’s path to college does so with anxiety. For Schletewitz, the chance to branch out and explore a new environment her family hasn’t experienced is thrilling. “I have a completely blank slate,” she says, “and the opportunity to accomplish great things — and make my own mistakes that I can learn from.”
For Essio, going to college means he can help try to make his family’s life easier. “My family has always been in blue-collar labor, and the fatigue shows,” he says. “College provides an outlet for me to further progress in my life and work toward my dreams, and also an outlet to pay my family back.”
As for Eneh, she hopes to continue inspiring her sisters and the communities around her that anything is possible. “Being the first to go to (college) is such a proud moment, but a humbling experience for me,” she says. “Like, it’s UCLA!”
Yes, it is.
Hurdles to Clear
With more than 100,000 applicants a year, it’s no easy feat to get accepted into UCLA. And trying to become the first in your family to go to college can be particularly audacious.
Raised in East Los Angeles by her mother, a certified nursing assistant, and her father, a warehouse worker, Morales knew from a young age that her family wasn’t well off. She didn’t think college was even a possibility. “In my mind, I had painted a picture of the ideal college student: a young and rich individual from an educated family,” she says. “There was so little representation for college students that did not fit the norm.”
Schletewitz also grew up modestly, working on the family farm in Fresno. But her obstacles ran even deeper than economics. She dealt with issues in her family home that included substance abuse. She worked extra hard to stay focused on her studies as her mother tried to provide a steady stream of support. “I overcame this by looking to the future,” Schletewitz says, “and trying to do anything in my power to make sure I wouldn’t have to deal with the same behavior when I grew up.”
Those from immigrant families face a very specific set of challenges. Abdelmalak spent most of her first eight years in Egypt, where her father was a well-known pastor. But 10 years ago, he and his wife and four daughters fled to the United States to escape religious persecution. They “left everything behind in Egypt — our family, our house, our clothes,” Abdelmalak recalls. “All we had was each other and the clothes on our back.”
Read about eight new Bruins and their extraordinary journeys to UCLA in “This Magic Moment”
They settled in the San Diego suburb of Escondido, where her mother worked two part-time jobs to help provide for the family. The 8-year-old Abdelmalak went to school without knowing any English, leaving her feeling isolated. But with her teachers’ help and her own determination, she adjusted. And thrived.
“I wasn’t doing well in school, which was so hard for me because I was a pretty smart girl in Egypt,” she says. “But math was like my time to shine, because the numbers were all the same.”
Essio faced a different set of challenges. His mother was born in Syria and grew up there; his father was born and raised in Lebanon. Fleeing the Middle East to avoid the war-torn region, they came to Los Angeles, where Essio was born and raised. His parents lacked a strong formal education; Essio’s father didn’t even finish high school. “My parents,” he says with pride, “made the sacrifice to place my education high on the pedestal.”
For Eneh, who describes herself as a “born-and-raised Nigerian girl from Southern California,” representation was important. She had virtually no guidance when it came to college matters, so she did her own due diligence. She was thrilled to discover a welcoming Nigerian community at UCLA. “Although my Bruin heart pains me to say, I used to be a hardcore USC Trojan,” she says. “But the more I researched, the more I fell in love and found a place at UCLA.”
To help introduce first-gen students to campus resources, UCLA offers programs such as First to Go, which provides peer mentorship, academic counseling and other services. “Our goal is to help our first-gen students persist through their college career with confidence,” says Simone Jackson, assistant director of First to Go.
You never forget that “magic moment” when you open an acceptance letter. But for these first-gen students, it may have been even sweeter.
Essio was competing in a volleyball tournament when he opened his UCLA acceptance letter. After he signed in and saw “Bruin Bound,” he jumped up and shouted, “I got in!” “My coach even took a timeout just to congratulate me, and the whole team brought it in for me: ‘1, 2, 3, PATRICK!’”
Schletewitz recalls that she and her family had no words when she opened her letter, saying they were “excited to the point where we were speechless.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Nearly 1 in 3 college students nationwide is FIRST-GEN
Abdelmalak’s family had the opposite reaction. Right before she opened her letter, they huddled in a circle and said a prayer together. Then, when the letter was finally opened, “They shouted congratulations and threw confetti, and we all started screaming. Everyone was crying.”
Morales says she was “over the moon” when she found out she had been accepted. “I felt that UCLA was a place for winners, and a place for the very best,” she says. “On top of this, seeing that there was representation for marginalized communities at this school was something I was looking for when choosing a college.”
Eneh had a more unique experience. On Catalina Island for a four-day field trip — without internet access — when decision day arrived, she could not even check her notification until her phone’s internet bars kicked in during the two-hour boat ride back to the mainland. She went to a private area of the boat, read the email and could not contain her excitement. “Being overloaded by friends’ congrats, and bringing the good news home to my family and community later,” she says, “is a core memory UCLA has been able to give me.”
No matter the path, these teens have paved their way as first-gen students. And UCLA will be an important part of their next chapter, now just beginning.
“Seeing the ‘Bruin Bound’ text filled me with something indescribable,” says Essio. “Years of hard work, dedication, sacrifice and ambition all became worth it in that instance. I could not stop telling myself that the best is yet to come.”
It sure is.
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Fall 2022 issue.