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WATCH: Several first generation students in the South Bay get accepted into prestigious colleges across the country


Thursday June 2, 2022
By Regina Yurrita

Students from San Diego, Montgomery and Hoover high school all earned acceptance letters to some of the most prestigious colleges in the nation.


SAN DIEGO — High school seniors have been studying endlessly to get to this moment, the moment where college acceptance letters begin to arrive.

For first generation scholars who are receiving this acceptance letter it doesn't only mean getting into their dream college, it also means inching closer to achieving the American dream.

It's an emotional moment for 17-year-old Umulkheir Sharif from Hoover High School who is sitting next to her family. Her and her family are about to find out that she has been accepted to the University of Pennsylvania on a full ride scholarship.

Although she won’t be accepting the offer because the university doesn’t have the program that aligns with her career choice, Sharif is still overjoyed to know that she earned an acceptance letter to a prestigious school like UPenn. She instead, will be attending the University of San Diego, a local private university. “Definitely a groundbreaking moment for me,” said Sharif.

However, it’s not just Sharif, her friend Victoria Ruiz from Montgomery High School was also experiencing an emotional moment. 

Ruiz is unable to contain her tears in front of her Spanish teacher after learning she will be attending Dartmouth College next year, also on a full ride scholarship. “The moment that I opened it and saw that I was a match, I started crying,” said Ruiz.

There’s also Zhi Nava-Chen from San Diego High School who was shocked after knowing he earned an acceptance letter to Brown University. “I’m really grateful,” said Nava-Chen. 

Except, the path to becoming part of the Ivy League success wasn't easy. Sharif, Ruiz and Nava-Chen are low income students living in South Bay San Diego, the three have different immigrant backgrounds.

Sharif and her family are from Kenya , Ruiz from Mexico and Nava-Chen is also from Mexico, but his mother and her side of the family is from China.

The one big similarity they share is that these graduates are all first generation scholars. 

“As a first generation student and being low-income, me and my mom would live in a studio apartment and because we could hardly afford rent we had to live off of food stamps. My father passed away, my mom was unemployed and we weren’t making ends meet, so it was very difficult,” said Ruiz. 

Trying to make ends meet was part of the struggle, being first generation also means learning how to navigate the nation's education system on your own. Most immigrant parents are learning the education system at the same time as their kids.

“Neither one of my parents went to college, they came from Somalia, they never went to first grade. They don’t even know English. So when I went home, I would go home to a family who didn’t know how to set me up for college. They didn’t know what the medical field entails,” said Sharif.

According to the most recent data from the nonprofit First Generation Scholars –an organization that has helped hundreds of first generation scholars get into college, and also helped Sharif, Ruiz and Nava-Chen– one of every three first generation students don’t even graduate college. The acceptance rate for Ivy League universities is less than 10 percent and the average annual cost is over 80 thousand dollars. 

If you are first generation student graduating in 2023 and are interested in joining the First Generation programs click here.

Making the college dream seemingly unreachable for first generation students.

“My mom started crying for like 20 minutes, she was happy for me, but she was worried about paying for college and when she heard I got a full ride she couldn’t believe it,” said Nava-Chen.

Now with a 4.0 GPA, in the honor system and Sharif even being valedictorian, the three students have proven that a language barrier and their background doesn't define their future. It's the work they have put in all these years to earn a college experience.

“I even started a club where it involves motivating other students who are also low income, to apply,” said Ruiz, who now plans to major in biomedical engineering.

Sharif plans to pursue a career in the medical field as well as Nava-Chen. All three of them will be graduating in June.