Written by: 
Erin Cristales
Photography by: 
Ahna Hubnik

t’s a warm, overcast November morning, perfect conditions for this year’s first-generation graduates to gather in the Union’s fourth-floor rooftop garden to take portraits in their Mean Green regalia. Alondra Lopez is up first, striking a series of poses as McConnell Tower looms in the background. When her session wraps, she grabs her phone to snap one final picture.

“This one’s for Instagram,” she laughs.

It’s no surprise that the media arts major’s mind is on social media -- that’s the career path she plans to pursue post-graduation and the reason she came to UNT in the first place. Lopez’s dad preferred she stay closer to home and attend UNT Dallas, but it didn’t offer a media arts track. Ultimately, he gave in, and she grew up, transforming into a confident, headstrong student capable of navigating the challenges inherent in college life.

“When I first applied to UNT, I didn’t even tour the campus -- I was just like, ‘I’m going to go there,’” says Lopez, who graduated from Dallas ISD’s School of Business and Management at Townview Center and went on to become an Emerald Eagle Scholar and social media coordinator for ntTV’s entertainment Instagram account. “When I finally came here for orientation, everyone was so nice, and it was so fun. I had never been out of Dallas, so coming here provided me so many new, wonderful experiences.”

That’s exactly what the day’s photo shoot seeks to capture -- how a campus whose undergraduate population is comprised of nearly 42% first-generation students works tirelessly to help them soar to new heights. The free portraits were arranged by UNT’s First Generation Success Center, which opened in March and is dedicated to better supporting first-gen scholars through workshops and presentations addressing topics such as campus resources, financial aid, financial literacy, college terminology, career preparation and academic coaching. Though UNT has long been focused on bolstering first-gen student success -- including through resources and programs such as ACCESS Mentoring, Emerald Eagle Scholars and MARTIAL Eagles -- the new center means the possibilities are practically endless.

“It’s really unique what we have here versus what’s available everywhere else in the country,” says Alexandria Abbrat (’20), a graduate student assistant at the First Generation Success Center who is herself a first-gen student, and will graduate with a master’s degree in higher education in May. “Depending on life experiences, first-gen students could be anybody -- they’re not just 18-year-old freshmen. First-gen can be transfer or nontraditional students, single parents, veterans.”

Take, for instance, Roy Jimenez, who will earn his bachelor’s degree in digital/broadcast journalism in May. The San Antonio native spent nearly a decade in the workforce before transferring from a two-year college to UNT, where he’s become an integral part of the campus community, working for ntTV, serving as an Eagle Ambassador and member of the prestigious leadership organization NT40, becoming a leader in the Lambda Theta Phi Latin Fraternity Inc. and joining the National Society of Leadership and Success, among other accomplishments.

“I felt very supported when I came here -- being a transfer student and also a nontraditional student, we sometimes tend to feel scared and not welcomed,” says Jimenez, who following graduation will pursue a master’s degree in higher education through UNT’s Toulouse Graduate School. “But when I first arrived here, I automatically felt welcomed, and I knew this was the right place for me. Even though I am six hours away from home, I know that I have a home here with all the resources that are available to me. The faculty and staff have been very, very supportive, as have the students I’ve met and the organizations that I have been involved in.”

Lucia Arroyo, who arrived at UNT in 2019 with an associate degree she earned through dual credit classes in high school, is set to graduate in December with a bachelor’s in psychology and a minor in French. Like Jimenez, she’s grateful that she found a home at UNT and a support system that has allowed her to flourish.

“My parents didn’t have the opportunity or money to continue their education, and they came to the U.S. from Mexico to allow me to explore mine,” she says. “It’s been a pretty incredible journey. UNT has allowed me to expand myself not just socially, but to figure out what I like. This whole experience has given me the opportunity to figure out who I am as a person.”

Following graduation, Arroyo will attend UNT’s Toulouse Graduate School to pursue a master’s and ultimately a doctorate in clinical psychology. Professionally, her goal is to destigmatize mental health. Personally, it’s to continue to serve as a role model to her brothers and sisters -- the youngest of six children, she’s the first in her family to earn a college degree. And she has advice for all those who will follow in her first-gen footsteps.

"Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there,” Arroyo says. “Trust me, you have nothing to lose -- and everything to gain.”

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