Jessica Gonzales is used to doing things a little differently in school.
As a first-generation American growing up in Sacramento, she was often sent to the back of the classroom to learn English properly. Because she spoke the same mix of Spanish and indigenous Mayan as her immigrant parents, she was told regularly that her Spanish was “wrong.”
“Being constantly separated from my classmates in grade school made me feel out of touch, and it reinforced that sense of not belonging,” said Gonzales, a pre-nursing major now in her fourth year of college.
High school wasn’t any easier. Gang fighting and turf wars at her underserved school presented many distractions that made it hard to concentrate and excel. A teacher recognized her determination and invited her to enroll in an English honors class and then another advanced course. Gonzales began taking Advanced Placement classes, honed her leadership skills as captain of her senior-year soccer team, and considered life after high school.
“Although my parents always encouraged me to seek out educational opportunities, having never gone to school themselves, they didn’t know how to guide me toward those opportunities,” Gonzales said. “It wasn’t until I was in 10th grade that I even heard of college.”
Her obstacles were far from over. During the recession, her parents lost their jobs and their home, a hardship for not only Gonzales but her four siblings and niece who lived with them. As she couch surfed for months in different friends’ homes, she worked in the fast food industry to support herself and supplement her family’s income.
“It was incredibly difficult being separated from my family,” she said, her eyes welling with tears. “We did what we had to do to survive, but I’ll never forget that feeling of loneliness and longing to be with them again.”
Gonzales knew she wanted to attend college but would have to figure out how to afford it without being able to count on her parents for financial support. Finding work as a farm laborer, picking grapes and training vines before sunrise, allowed her to supplement her savings for college.
In 2014, she arrived at Chico State but struggled with culture shock and being removed from her family and friends. To fight the too-familiar feelings of loneliness, she sought out experiences in Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a (de) Aztlan (MEChA), the Latinx leadership club Destino, and Community Council in University Housing, which helped her feel like she fit in.
She is also enrolled in Promoting Achievement Through Hope (PATH) Scholars, which supports the educational goals of current and former foster youth, as well as unaccompanied homeless youth. The program has provided with her access to grants, funds for her books, and even free housing last summer. Gonzales also became part of the Chico STEM Connections Collaborative, which provides hands-on research opportunities to underrepresented students, and spent 10 weeks this summer in the Chemistry Summer Research Institute (CSRI).
At CSRI, she made an immediate impression on Professor Lisa Kendhammer, with whom she was paired in a blind match. Their research task was to look at student lab skills techniques to learn more about the disconnect between what the industry wants in graduates and their actual level of preparedness.
With data analysis the bulk of the project, Gonzales immersed herself in learning graduate-level statistics programs for data entry and drawing conclusions. Self-driven, hard-working, and taking ownership over the project, she was an invaluable asset, Kendhammer said, noting she invited the student to co-author a paper on their findings.
But what impressed the professor even more, perhaps, was Gonzales’ work ethic outside of school. She works full days on the weekends, administering medications to people with disabilities, and puts in hours during the week as a mentor with the First-Year Experience program, supporting other students through their college journeys as she tries to be a role model for her own younger siblings.
“I’m blown away,” Kendhammer said. “When I look back on myself, I don’t know if I would have been able to do the same thing. … I can’t imagine being up against the struggles she and other students have been put up against.”
The first in her family to attend a four-year university, Gonzales wants to ensure the sacrifices her parents made in leaving their poverty-stricken homeland and the struggles they have endured in the United States were not in vain.
“My mother would always say, ‘There are so many opportunities out there. Go out and get them, don’t wait for them to come to you,’” she said.
Her mother has always been an inspiration. As Gonzales prepares to enroll in Chico State’s nursing program—and complete a second BA in Spanish—memories stir of the healing herbs her mother and grandmother used in their native Guatemalan home. As a child, Gonzales watched the matriarchs of her family cure stomachaches with peppermint and use aloe to soothe skin. Her dream is not only to master modern medicine but to study medicinal herbs so she can someday build a health clinic in Central America and use that blend of knowledge to help people who otherwise do not have access to healthcare.
“When I think about people like my grandma, who lives in Guatemala, where the infrastructure is terrible and the hospitals are far away because they live in a jungle home hours away from doctors, I want to know how to treat people’s illnesses as they’re accustomed to being treated and who don’t have the medical attention they need,” she said.
Part of that dream, she realizes, is a growing passion for social justice that has been stirred by her own experiences.
“I want to fight for people who don’t have the help they need,” she said. “My goal is to give back. You should care about others, you should take care of one another. I just grew up with those beliefs.”
Story by Patti Waid and Ashley Gebb, Public Affairs.