Highlighting First-Generation College Graduates in the College of Medicine

Highlighting first generation stories

National First Gen Day is held each November to highlight the unique contributions and successes of first-generation college students. Washington State University defines a first-gen student as one whose parents or legal guardians did not complete a bachelor’s degree.

To celebrate first-gen students, faculty, and staff at the WSU College of Medicine, we asked a few people to share their unique stories, inspirations, and advice for others.

Jihun Cha

Jihun Cha is a first-year medical student in the College of Medicine.

Why was it important for you to go to college?

My family never forced or pressured me to pursue college. I was raised in a single-parent household with my mom. She did not have a college degree, but she was strong and capable. I grew up knowing that it is possible to provide for your family without a degree. Thankfully, my mom always respected my perspective, so I didn’t really feel like I had to go to college. Instead, I explored different interests and naturally landed on the decision to go to college. In high school, I thought about many different paths. I was passionate about mathematics at the time, and I wanted to continue studying in college. The thought of being surrounded by like-minded people to study something I am interested in was the most important factor of my decision.

Was there a specific moment or event that influenced your decision?

Because of my interest in math, I participated in a summer program at the College of Engineering at the University of Washington. Before that, I had a very vague idea of college in terms of what students spend time doing. The summer program showed me all kinds of unique and fascinating projects and activities I can do as a college student. There were about 30 other students in the same program, and that felt like a mock-college experience for me as well. I really enjoyed the whole thing and I believe that’s when I decided to go to college for sure.

What does your family (or mentors) think about your higher ed successes?

Interestingly, I switched direction and ended up in medical school. My family is proud of me, of course, but they probably would be proud of me regardless of what I do. I think they are prouder of the fact that I have achieved everything despite all the obstacles I had to face as an immigrant and first-generation student. I reconnected with my old mentor a few weeks ago as well. He was a college student when I was in middle school. He was one of the volunteers at my school, and now he’s a practicing physician. He was very glad to hear that I chose to go to medical school and so proud of how far I’ve come.

What advice would you give to high school students considering entering college as a first-generation student?

I know the idea of going to college as a first-gen student can be terrifying. It is a very different environment. No one will urge you to do anything and your education will be your sole responsibility, unlike high school. Please don’t let that fear deter you from going to college because there will be a lot of people who would be willing to help and mentor you. It is a great place to learn new things and meet people from all kinds of background, which is what I enjoyed the most about college.

Myles Avila

Myles Avila is a first-year medical student in the College of Medicine.

Why was it important for you to go to college?

Going to college was important for me to follow my interest for knowledge and to immerse myself in an environment of scientific thought. Going to college was seen as a must in my family as [I was] the first person in my family that was seen as “able to.” I needed to represent not only myself, but the upper boundary of what my family was capable of.

Who are the people and moments that influenced your decision?

When I was in college my family went through a time of housing instability and I knew then I needed to succeed in my education. Not only did I need to get to a place of education where I could someday provide for my family, but my younger brother needed positive representation of what he could achieve.

What advice would you give to high school students considering entering college as a first-generation student?

Find and work with your counselors in high school and in college. There are always really lovely people that want to help you and have an understanding of the large and overwhelming pieces of school that can help you through it and help you plan how to it on in a way that works for you specifically.

Leila Harrison

Leila Harrison, PhD, MA, MEd, is the vice dean for admissions, student affairs, and alumni engagement in the WSU College of Medicine.

Why was it important for you to go to college?

I grew up seeing my parents impacted by their level of educational attainment, in particular my mother. I also observed and experienced many challenges growing up that led me to determine at a very young age that I wanted to ensure I did things in my life to allow me to take care of myself. I don’t think I necessarily knew at that age that it meant higher education, but in time, I knew an education was a significant part of my need for safety and self-reliance. I saw many examples of women in my life staying in unhealthy relationships because of lack of opportunities for themselves, and I knew I wanted to forge a different path for myself. 

Was there a specific moment or event that influenced your decision?

I was surrounded by examples growing up that confirmed for me it was something I needed to do (I equated an education with safety). I also enjoyed school but was bullied for being a “school girl” in elementary and middle school, though it did not deter me. When I applied for college (on my own), I only applied to in-state schools (and one small out-of-state program on the border of our state) because anything else simply didn’t seem feasible. When I received notice fall of my senior year in high school that I had received a full scholarship to the college in my home town, I cried because I knew it was now possible. My family was unable to contribute financially to any aspect of my higher education, so the scholarship was necessary for me. Going to orientation by myself was overwhelming, but I did it and it served as a significant influence in my current career to guide others along their path. 

Was there a specific person who influenced your decision?

Honestly, my father, who raised me, always encouraged me to do more than he had. He always made me feel that I could and never discouraged me when I shared topics I was interested in. He had a tremendous work ethic which he instilled in me and is why I was able to be so resilient in pursuing my goals. I also credit all the mentors I have had along the way who helped me dream beyond what I could see or what I knew.

What does your family (or supporters/mentors) think about your higher ed and/or career successes?

My family have shared how proud they are of me. While they don’t understand why I pursued 14 years of higher education, they see how my career has advanced and I know they’re proud. Being the first in my family to earn my bachelor’s degree was significant, but seeing my family at my commencement ceremony for my PhD knowing I am the first and only member of my extended family to have earned a PhD was unlike anything else. 

What advice would you give to high school students considering entering college as a first-generation student?

You are NOT alone! Seek out others to walk alongside you. Never forget that you BELONG!! Being the first to go to college means you forge a path that others may not understand (and some may discourage or minimize this path), but an education can open so many doors for the future. Don’t rely only on you—seek out resources and let others help you!

Learn more about programs and services available to first-generation students at Washington State University by visiting the First at WSU website.