By Valerie Olivares

Coming to Chico State, I was different. It was a type of “different” that took me forever to embrace.

Everywhere I went, I carried fear with me. I didn’t look like my peers. I didn’t have the big vocabulary to carry on intellectual conversations. I didn’t have parents who owned businesses. I didn’t have parents who were lawyers, doctors, or engineers. I didn’t have parents who went to college. I didn’t have parents who understood what it was like to be a college student.

I was challenged every day by thoughts that I wasn’t good enough and didn’t deserve to be here. I needed to work twice as hard to understand the material I was being taught.

I felt pressure to meet all these expectations and was constantly reminded of all the people I couldn’t let down. I carried the fear of disappointing someone or being a failure. I constantly battled negative thoughts trying to take control of my new life in college.

It hadn’t started out that way.

I was excited to begin my journey at Chico State and looking forward to new friends, new adventures, and new lessons. My first opportunity was attending the two-week Summer Bridge Program hosted by the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). I met my mentors, experienced University lectures, attended workshops and presentations, and met other EOP students, faculty, and staff who would help me start my successful college experience.

The opportunity to be with other first-generation students with similar backgrounds helped me to not be as nervous to start college because we were in this together. But after the first few weeks of my first semester, I recognized that the feeling I did not belong on this campus or in the community was persisting.

I knew I wanted to embrace my differences even though I wasn’t fortunate enough to have things I listed above. Through it all, I needed to have an outlet, to live, and make the most of my experience at Chico State.

With a little exploring, I found it.

Valerie Olivares sits with her laptop open in the front row of a classroom filled with students at their desks.
Valerie Olivares (right front) graduates this week with her bachelor’s degree in business administration. (Jason Halley / University Photographer)

My freshman year, I sought out opportunities that allowed me to slowly settle into this place that was going to be my home for the next couple of years. I got involved in the community and around campus as a way to meet new people with the purpose of building a community that would empower me and encourage me to thrive.

I committed time to volunteer to help others, make connections, and bring fulfillment to my life. Among those experiences were starting as a volunteer with the Career Center greeting employers to our campus and helping build a home for a low-income family with Habitat for Humanity.

Even though I knew I wasn’t getting paid to do any of these acts of service, I kept volunteering, because the most important reward to me is the feeling in my heart that I have made a difference in someone’s day by lending a hand or even just simply putting a smile on their face.

Valerie Olivares grins and braces herself with her legs as she yanks on weeds in Bidwell Park during a group clean-up.
Whether yanking weeds at ‘Cats in the Community or helping build houses with Habitat for Humanity, Olivares discovered her passion for community service helped connect her other similar-minded students. (Jason Halley / University Photographer)

The Freshman Leadership Opportunity program, allowed me to learn more, do more, and be more. Through the program I gained a mentor who was an elected officer for the Associated Students Government Affairs who I shadowed throughout his term. This experience influenced me to run for a position to serve as a voice for students within the College of Business and students within the Latinx community.

Sophomore year, I was elected to serve as the senator for the College of Business. During my term I voiced any issue students encountered and things they wanted implemented. I have had the honor to work in various offices on campus like the Career Center, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and EOP.

These opportunities have transformed my life in many ways. Even though I was compensated with money, the real value was the support I received and the support I provided to other students.

I gained a support system that accepted me for who I was and saw the potential in me. They pushed me and challenged me to take risks I doubted I was capable of taking. I am grateful for the time and energy they dedicated to my success.  Because of people like Tray Robinson, Dawn Frank, Brianna Ellis, Kate Buckley, David Buckley, Vic Trujillo, and many other faculty and staff, I can confidently say I have grown personally and professionally.

Wearing matching blue E-O-P shirts, Valerie Olivares and Chela Mendoza-Patterson stand at a podium.
Chela Mendoza Patterson, right, is among the many mentors who encouraged Olivares along her journey. A first-generation student herself, she showed Olivares how to support and inspire others who were struggling to feel they fit in. (Photo courtesy of Olivares.)

As I graduate this week, my advice to current or future students who struggle with feeling like they don’t belong is to take the risk by putting yourself out there to find people who share similar interest and values. It may take time but they are out there.

Reflecting on my freshman self, I can now say I am confident, courageous, and bold. I am proud of who I have become by embracing my differences and proud of the decision I made to be a Chico State Wildcat.


Valerie Olivares is senior who graduates this week with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. She will be attending graduate school at Miami University in Ohio this fall.