"OK, this is from Aug. 20, 2021…"
Arath Herrera removes a scrap of paper from his pocket and gingerly unfolds it. The converged broadcast media major is sitting in the courtyard outside Kerr Hall, the residence hall he's called home for the past nine months, but the letter he's about to read will transport him to a time before he settled into the rhythms of life at UNT. He penned this note-to-self at the university's First-Gen Experience, a gathering of more than 50 first-time-on-campus students hosted by the First-Generation Success Center a few days before the beginning of the fall semester. At the conclusion of the event, each attendee was tasked with writing two letters -- one to their future self, another from their future self.
Herrera laughs a little. "This is the scariest part for me," he says. "I always cringe when I read things I write."
Dear future self,
Hopefully by the time you read this, you will have figured out what your future job is going to be, and you're pursuing it. You're finally in college, and it's your first time fully gone from home. I hope that you're happy with yourself and have fully accepted yourself and who you are. Realizing that you've worked so hard to be here, and even now, you don't believe it, but you've made it so far in life. I hope that your future is successful -- his voice wavers -- and that you can make your mom proud. I hope UNT makes you a better person and that you become a happier person. I hope that you're reading this in your own office someday. Take care.
Herrera shakes his head and waves his right hand, batting away the emotional wallop of his words.
"That's been my dream -- the American dream," he says. "It's only been a year, but this note shows that I've had so many opportunities here, and that I've already made my younger self proud."
While Herrera's journey is uniquely his own, that longing for the American dream -- a college education, a satisfying career, a life bursting with seemingly endless possibility -- courses through the UNT campus, where 41.5% of undergraduates self-identify as first generation (typically defined as an individual whose parents did not complete a four-year college degree). Supporting these students was the impetus for UNT's First-Generation Success Center, launched in March 2021, which collaborates with campus partners to design workshops and presentations that address topics such as campus resources, financial aid, financial literacy, college terminology, career preparation and academic coaching. The center expanded on the university's existing resources, such as TRIO Programs and the McNair Scholars Program, to boost first-generation student success.
"As a first-generation student, you don't know what you don't know," says Desiree Padron, director of the First-Generation Success Center, who was herself a first-generation student. "That's why we're here to help them find academic resources, show them how to engage in class and network with peers and faculty, explain what the financial aid process looks like and the dates and deadlines they should know, and identify opportunities for career development. We're looking to support our first-gen students in a holistic way and champion them. Sometimes people just want to know that they're supported, that they can do these things and that they have somebody who is rooting for them."
That was certainly true for Fatima Macias Ortiz, a theatre major and aspiring actress, who like Herrera, attended the First-Gen Experience in Fall 2021 to absorb a little guidance and a lot of reassurance. A native of Mexico who graduated from Fort Worth ISD's R.L. Paschal High School, she moved to the U.S. on her own prior to her freshman year at her mother's urging. She wanted a better life for me, Macias Ortiz says. And a big part of that meant the chance to enroll at a four-year university.
"My mom encouraged me all the time to go to college," says Macias Ortiz, who also strives to serve as a role model to her two younger sisters, ages 13 and 1. "And well … I'm here."
Of course, entering college is the easy part -- persisting, and better yet thriving, is what's hard. In their first year as UNT students, Herrera and Macias Ortiz experienced triumphs and challenges in equal measure. But no matter the twists and turns, they both relied on the same north star to illuminate their path: the promise of a dream fulfilled.
Marvel superheroes are prominently displayed throughout Macias Ortiz's Clark Hall dorm room. On the wall is her high school mortarboard that boasts an image of Captain America's star-encrusted shield. A nearby shelf holds a painting of Iron Man, as well as a coffee mug that features the cinematic universe's most famous faces -- Spider-Man, Thor, Daredevil, Hulk.
Next to the mug is a framed Polaroid of Macias Ortiz, situated against a purple background (her favorite color), that was taken at the First-Gen Experience. The placement might be unintentional, but it's appropriate nonetheless. Like the heroes who surround her, Macias Ortiz is shouldering massive expectations. Now she must prove she can rise to the challenge.
"It's super hard sometimes," she says. "You don't want to disappoint your family, and you don't want to disappoint yourself. I just remind myself why I'm doing all this. I know one day it's going to pay off."
To be fair, it's already starting to. She hit it off with several fellow freshmen during First Flight Week and made fast friends with her Clark Hall suitemates. She joined the Women in Cinema club and made a splash at events like Kerr Hall's infamous "Kerr"aoke Nights. One afternoon, as she walked through the Clark lobby, Macias Ortiz heard a resident playing Bruno Mars' "When I Was Your Man" on the piano. She broke into song, to the delight of onlookers.
"At one point, I was like, 'Oh my God, what am I doing?' and I panicked," she says. "But everyone was like, 'Keep going.' So I did. The guy who was playing the piano ended up introducing me to a bunch of people. As soon as I stepped onto campus, I got a good feeling. I'm more outgoing here."
Her classes, too, have drawn her out of her shell (though with her bubbly personality, she admits people often don't believe her when she tells them she's shy). Her favorite course is Acting Fundamentals because "we dance, we do movements, we talk a lot. It's super fun." She was even cast in a spring production of Spamalot.
It's everything she dreamed of when she received her acceptance letter to UNT just a few months before. Her aunt brought her the envelope, and when Macias Ortiz tore it open, it felt different from the letters she had received from other institutions. She was drawn to UNT for its diversity ("I knew no one would make fun of my accent here," she says) and the caliber of its theatre faculty. Now here she is, racking up academic and social experiences that she previously only imagined.
"It just felt right from the beginning," she says. "I knew I was going to be included and that I was going to be appreciated."
But it hasn't all been easy. She got lost on the first day of classes -- "My mistake was not locating the classrooms the week before," she says -- and when she finally returned to her dorm room, her confidence was shaken.
"I was like, 'I don't know what to do,'" she says. "I almost wanted to cry."
And then, a few weeks into the semester, she took a job as an usher with the Murchison Performing Arts Center. Balancing work with academics sometimes proved difficult, especially during midterms and finals, where she pulled all-nighters and then had to report to the Murchison the following day.
"It's a lot of studying, a lot of working -- a lot of ups and downs," she says.
It's also a lesson in the importance of asking for help. At the First-Gen Experience, she learned about resources like the Writing Center, Career Center and Emerald Eagle Scholars program. She was so used to doing everything on her own -- from filling out admissions and financial aid applications to signing up for move-in dates and advising sessions -- that it never occurred to her to ask for help. But now she's drawing on those support systems, and the people around her, to sustain her momentum. She stays after class and attends office hours to ask questions. It's just a whole new mentality, she says.
"I don't like asking for help, but then I realized no one is going to think I'm dumb because I'm asking," she says. "People here want you to ask for help. Whether it's a small question or a big question -- just ask."
After all, the Avengers don't do it alone. And like her Marvel role models, Macias Ortiz has never considered throwing in the towel when times get tough.
"It would be easy for me to toss everything away and just not do it," she says. "But all the hard work I've put in -- where would that go?"
Herrera graduated from Rappaport High School in Waco, where the student body numbers fewer than 200 and his graduating class consisted of 30 seniors. That meant the transition to a university with more than 42,000 students was, in addition to the usual anxieties that accompany the first year, a bit of a shock. "It was a little intimidating at first," he admits.
He moved into Kerr Hall two days before his roommate, and the alone time only deepened his uncertainty. Though he had entered UNT with enough dual credit classes under his belt to technically make him a junior, the doubt still creeped in.
"During my second night here, I was like, 'Is college really for me?'" Herrera says. "I worried, 'Can I really do this? Am I able to be on my own for the next nine months?'"
For Herrera, though, attending college was never really a question. Though his parents had straight A's and a passion for learning, they couldn't afford the tuition to attend high school in their native country of Mexico. Once in the U.S., they refused to let their eldest miss any opportunity to bolster his potential through education -- a message he more than took to heart.
"My dad works construction, and he would come home tired and sunburned. He'd say, 'I never want to see you come home exhausted like this. I want you to come home wearing a suit and happy because you're doing something you truly enjoy,'" Herrera says. "This is something I want to do for myself and for my parents."
A converged broadcast media major, Herrera's dream is to work for a TV station -- "big or small, it doesn't matter," he says. But knowing what your dream is and knowing how to achieve it are two very different things. That's why he made it his mission to reach out to as many organizations as possible that could help him thrive socially and academically. The Multicultural Center provided access to several important programs and services, including free printing ("It's one of the greatest places on campus," he says). First Flight Week furnished opportunities for social connection with other new-to-campus students, along with explorations of academic and career readiness resources. And the First-Gen Experience -- which featured a panel of first-gen student leaders relaying their experiences on campus, along with a lunchtime meet-and-greet with first-gen faculty and staff -- offered a glimpse into what the future can hold.
"Seeing first-generation students and alumni being so successful -- becoming doctors and professors -- made me think that I can be just like them," he says. "Even though they didn't have all the same resources a lot of other students had, they were still able to make it to where they are today. I just have to put my mind to it, and I'll be successful."
By week six, with broadcast projects looming and midterms on the horizon, that mantra more or less played on a loop in Herrera's head ("I've been nonstop busy," he says). But even with a hectic schedule, he finds time to enjoy the freedom of being an undergrad. He's made a bunch of new friends, some who are first generation like him and others who aren't. He's attended concerts and movie screenings hosted by the University Program Council. And he volunteers with the campus radio station, KNTU, where he deejays from 9 a.m. to noon.
And through it all -- the studying and exams, the activities and events, the days in class and the nights out on the town -- Herrera never loses sight of what it means to be here.
"Even though my parents told me to get ready for college, they couldn't really tell me how to prepare," says Herrera, who has a younger brother. "I felt like I couldn't relate at first to other students because so many of them had parents who went to college and knew how to navigate everything. So to me -- no matter how scary it may seem -- being first-gen is about getting out of your comfort zone so that you can be that stepping stone for your family."
"I made the Dean's List!"
Even though last semester was busy, and the spring semester is shaping up to be even more so, Macias Ortiz is all smiles. Not only did she earn stellar grades in the fall, but in just a few days, she'll have a full week to relax and reunite with family over spring break.
Though you wouldn't know it from her sunny demeanor, it's a much-needed respite. She took a second job this semester waitressing at a local restaurant to help pay for her housing. The workload led her to bow out of Spamalot, and she spends most of her weekends studying.
"I knew that I'd eventually have to get a second job -- I just didn't expect to have to do it so soon," says Macias Ortiz, who's also saving up for a car and possibly (any theatre major's dream) a trip to New York City. "A lot of people don't have it as easy as others. But I'm in college, I have two jobs, good grades, and I still have a social life. I'm really proud of myself for that."
And at this point, she says, there's really nothing to do but look to the future. In Fall 2022, Macias Ortiz will add a dance minor so that she can focus on musical theatre, and she plans to move into an off-campus apartment with her suitemates. She wants that feeling of true independence, she says. That is, after all, one of the major rewards of persevering through the frequently confusing ins and outs of freshman year.
"A lot of people think that everyone who's in college is prepared, but some people are just trying to figure it out," she says. "I'm still trying to figure it out."
But she's the first to recognize how much she's grown over the past nine months. She's gone from the girl who got lost on the first day of the fall semester to someone who can juggle two jobs and five classes while still carving out time to appear in locally produced short films and music videos. And that success doesn't just belong to her. It's a gift, she hopes, for her sisters.
"I'm paving the way for them so they can learn from my experiences," Macias Ortiz says. "When I was applying for college, I was so naïve, and now I can actually help somebody else find their way. That's how I see it -- you have to pass that knowledge down so other people don't have to struggle like you did."
But even in those early days, when she imagined the obstacles that might materialize in her path, Macias Ortiz had an inkling she could overcome them. Her future self, after all, told her she would.
"I honestly don't even remember what I wrote," she says, removing from her desk the letter she penned during the First-Gen Experience. "OK, so it says …"
Dear self: I am so sorry for not seeing your worth and always doubting you, even though we both know how amazing we are. And honestly, look how far we have gotten by ourselves! We are still standing. There are times where I wish I wasn't so hard on you and maybe we could have prevented so much damage we have done to ourselves. We are brave and nobody else is like us. You have been through so much, and you deserve to be where you're at. There's so much waiting for you in the future. One day you'll be on Broadway, just like you've always dreamed.
"It's a short letter, but I think it covered most of what I wanted to say," she says. "It's OK to feel down sometimes, to be scared that you might fail. But if you really, truly want this, you can get it done."
She smiles, like always.
"Just don't give up."
Herrera couldn't help but laugh when a mother at UNT Live walked over to his table and immediately peppered him with questions. She scribbled notes, asked for email addresses, tapped her son on the shoulder and commanded him to listen.
"My mom was the exact same way," he says. "It was like I was seeing myself from a year ago -- kids and their moms asking UNT students a bunch of different questions."
Of course, Herrera is more than happy to answer those queries. At the event -- where incoming freshmen and transfer students learn about UNT's nationally recognized programs, admissions and financial aid processes, and 14 colleges and schools -- he relayed his own experiences as a first-generation student. He also talked to them about organizations like Latin Dreams, which he recently joined, and how it helps Latino men feel more at home on campus. Being part of the group has been transformative, Herrera says.
"Before, I never felt 'Mexican enough,'" he says. "But talking with other Latino men who feel the same way made me realize I'm not by myself here. It's made me more involved with UNT, and I've been able to meet a ton of different people -- I even connected with someone from the Career Center through this program. It's just helped me so much."
That Career Center connection paid off with a videography internship, another addition to Herrera's growing list of broadcast experiences. He's still involved with KNTU, and he also took on a role this semester with ntTV, where he works on "Buenos Dias North Texas."
And that's on top of five classes, including two media arts courses. Herrera's goal is to make the Dean's List again this semester, and he's discovered one of his favorite places to study is Sycamore Library ("It's always really quiet there," he says). He learned a lot from the fall semester, he says, which has made him more prepared for the rigors of spring.
"I know what works and what doesn't work, and I'm giving myself time to just breathe," he says. "This semester, I'm just really focused on myself and my education."
Still, Herrera acknowledges, the stress can be brutal. His parents want him to take more classes, but he has his hands full with five. Between working, studying and volunteering, he can't help but think he's missing out on certain aspects of campus life. But he knows it all comes down to prioritizing.
"There are points where I've wanted to cry, but I'm like, 'No, I have to study,'" he says. "I'll study first and then cry afterwards. I can take my crying break while I'm in the shower."
But it's not all crying jags -- after all, he has plenty to look forward to. Next year, he'll have enough credits to graduate, and the vision of himself draped in regalia, tossing his mortarboard in the air as his parents look on, is more than enough to keep him going. Plus, he plans to move into an apartment with friends, and he'll continue his work with the Career Center, ntTV and KNTU, as well as take on a mentoring role with Latin Dreams.
In early May, when his parents drove up from Waco to help Herrera move out of Kerr Hall, they both sported UNT shirts and an unmistakable pride in how much their son has accomplished. His mom, Lola Lugo, was beaming. Part of it, of course, was the chance to spend the next three months with her eldest ("She's already made a whole list of horror movies for us to watch together once I'm home," Herrera laughs). But the biggest part was seeing how amazing he's managed on his own.
"It's been difficult for him because he is the first," Lugo says. "We've wanted this for him for so many years. When he was in elementary school, we'd be like, 'You're going to college, you're going to college.' I still don't believe it. The day he walks across the stage, I still won't believe it. All I've ever wanted for him is to find what he loves to do. If he's happy, I'm happy."
I am, Herrera tells her.
"I'm here, I'm living my college dream, and I have the kind of life that my younger self would think is pretty cool," he says. "It's hard at first, but once you get into the groove and out of your shell, it is absolutely the best experience you'll ever have."