first-generation student goes beyond expectations

Soon-to-be graduate goes beyond first-generation expectations

(Ashland, Ore.) — To describe Nansi Cortes simply as a first-generation college student and soon-to-be Southern Oregon University graduate would ignore both her personal history and her family’s unwavering support.

Nansi’s immigrant parents, whom she said had “lower than a grade school education,” were nonetheless aware of education’s potential impact on their children. So they were all in when Nansi was in eighth grade at Medford’s McLoughlin Middle School and became eligible for the SOU/McLoughlin Bulldogs-to-Raiders partnership, a pathway program designed for first-generation Hispanic students to learn about higher education and receive extra help with coursework.

A Spanish translation of this story can be found here.

Nansi, a senior in the SOU Honors College, will receive her bachelor’s degree at the commencement ceremony in June. She has served as a student mentor, a teaching assistant and a lead student assistant in the university’s Office of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion. And she already has been accepted into the SOU master’s degree program in Clinical in Mental Health Counseling.

“Mental health has been seen as a controversial topic for the Spanish-speaking communities,” Nansi said. “I will help educate the importance of mental health, become a bilingual counselor for young adults in Rogue Valley and advocate the benefits of therapy within the Spanish-speaking community.

“As I have been a resource for students at Southern Oregon University, I will continue to be a resource for Spanish-speaking communities.”

Her path to achievement has been neither straightforward nor easy. Her grade point average before transferring to McLoughlin Middle School was 1.9, which she quickly raised to a 3.8.

“About two months in at a new school, I passed classes with A’s, received higher test scores and eventually was asked to enroll in honors courses,” Nansi said. “With the support system I received from the new school, I began to believe in my potential to succeed and desire to plan my educational future.”

Which is where Bulldogs-to-Raiders came in. As part of the program, Nansi participated in SOU’s Academia Latina Leadership, Cesar Chavez Conference, Dia Familiar Latino and other Latinx-oriented youth programs. Those in the program visited various colleges and universities, where they received advice from students on the application process.

“As a first-generation student, I could experience the (SOU) campus by joining workshops and events, while the program taught my parents how to support me,” Nansi said. “Before joining this program, I did not think I was qualified to apply to colleges, pass courses or find the funds to attend. Bulldogs-to-Raiders gave me the opportunity for an education.”

As fate would have it, the COVID-19 pandemic was at full stride when Nansi graduated high school and enrolled at SOU in 2020. She was accustomed to learning through face-to-face classroom interactions, and was concerned about the shift to online coursework – but also felt that her scholarships would be impacted if she took a term off, so met with her guidance counselor.

“She encouraged me to attend the professor’s office hours when I was confused, join a study group for each course for support and seek the tutoring center at the Hannon Library,” Nansi said. “I completed my first year with immense help, and motivation to continue.

She learned about the SOU Honors College while attending the Cesar Chavez Conference with her Bulldogs-to-Raiders cohort, worked hard to be accepted into the program and became an Honors College student as a freshman. She has taken on the role of an academic leader among her peers, and counts that as one of her greatest achievements.

“I have tutored students outside of class to explain the material step-by-step, helped them find sources for their papers and helped the professors with grading,” Nansi said. “This has been an accomplishment because I did not have someone at home to help me with assignments. I wanted to be an additional resource for students.

“These achievements have prepared me for my future by leading me to my goal of becoming a bilingual counselor.”

She also serves as a role model to her siblings, helping them with their educational decisions, and has found her way to a rewarding, meaningful future in counseling.

“My parents will endlessly express their gratitude toward programs that help students achieve academically,” Nansi said. “They are proud to see how far their daughter has gotten in life. The sacrifices they made so I could receive a proper education will never go unseen.”