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These ag students were their families’ first college grads


For most young people, summer marks the end of an academic school year. For some, it’s the end of an academic journey all together. University graduates both celebrate the end of their studies and prepare for the next phase of their lives. For first-generation college graduates, their academic accomplishments mean much more than the first steps to a new job. It also signifies sacrifice and struggles and serves as a beacon of hope for their families.

Each year, approximately 51,300 students across the nation graduate from their university’s agriculture programs. Even more graduate with degrees related to agriculture or that help get them into agricultural-related fields, like biology, chemistry, engineering, and journalism.

These graduates move on to become our future growers, our future veterinarians, our future stakeholders — they are the future of agriculture.

Obtaining a university degree is a grand accomplishment and experience in and of itself. For first-generation college students, this accomplishment includes charting a new way forward for their families.

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Image by hxdbzxy, Shutterstock

First-generation college students often face struggles in academia that non-first generation students do not endure. When you have parents who have gone through the university experience, you have a better understanding of how to navigate higher education and its many processes and challenges: applying for financial aid, applying for housing, budgeting for college expenses, and even having money for discourse. These are all things that first-generation college students struggle with, often because they do not have someone in their families who have gone through this process before to guide them.

Because first-generation college students’ parents did not pursue higher education themselves or have a different experience with academia, parents often lack the ability to empathize with their college children when it comes to the stress and pressure they face in college, which can be a lonely experience.

First-generation college students are less likely to complete school compared to their non-first generation peers. They are less likely to be aware of their resources and opportunities, which make for an ostracizing and stressful experience to stay in school. Aside from that, first generation college students struggle with the stress of taking care of their academics, their mental and physical health, and making sure their families are staying afloat.

AGDAILY AFT DIversity in Agriculture

Many things can constitute a first-generation student, but some of these things include someone whose parents did not attend college, are the first in their families to graduate, or were enrolled in college at the same time as their parents.

Coming off the 2022 graduation season, I want to recognize first-generation university graduates who have obtained degrees in agricultural-related fields and showcase what they learned and what they can share with us.

Jasmine Flores

Jasmine Flores is from Atwater, California, and graduated from California State University, Fresno with a bachelor of science degree in agricultural education — communication option.

“I value storytelling as a way to communicate and a way to unlock learning,” she said. “Agriculture has so many stories to tell, and often those stories are filled with incredible people who all want the same thing: to help or support those who feed the world.”

Flores’ graduation fills her with joy because it proved she can do anything she dedicates herself to, she said.

“It actually never occurred to me that I was first generation because my parents were born and raised here with some community college experience but didn’t get the chance to finish, so my view of first generation was skewed,” she said. “However, being the first to graduate from college in my family meant I can do all things I set my mind to. I put myself through college 100 percent, and I worked hard in high school and college to make an impact for myself but also for my family who have been nothing but supportive and loving.”

Now, Flores gets to spread the love of agriculture and agricultural literacy with today’s generation of FFA members.

“I currently work for California FFA in Galt as the Leadership Development Coordinator,” she said. “I handle all of the leadership conferences in California FFA, which include five conferences geared toward different high school age groups.”

Riley Ballinger

Riley Ballinger is from Apple Valley, California, and completed her bachelor of science degree in animal science from California State University, Chico.

Ballinger’s passion for helping animals is what inspired her academic journey, she said.

“Many people reach college and realize that they don’t really know what they want to be when they ‘grow up,’ and I feel lucky to say that was not my experience,” Ballinger said. “ No matter the seemingly countless hardships I experienced or the people who told me to reconsider my path, I have always had my sights set on becoming a veterinarian.”

Ballinger dedicates a lot of this accomplishment to her mother, she said.

“When I think about being a first-generation college graduate, I think about my mom and all of the sacrifices she made raising my brother and I as a single parent,” Ballinger said. “She is the most amazing person I have ever known; she basically gave my brother and I no choice but to go to college. I know in a world where not everyone is given a fair opportunity to succeed, I can choose to persevere, not only for myself, but for her as well.”

Ballinger plans to attend veterinary school and become a wildlife veterinarian or a veterinarian for a farm animal sanctuary, she said. But until then, she is looking to gain experience and enjoy the feeling of being a college graduate.

Leo Jimenez

Leo Jimenez is from Denver, Colorado, and graduated from Colorado State University with a bachelor of science in agricultural business.

Jimenez was inspired to pursue his degree by his Mexican heritage and his grandparents, he said.

“I was interested in the ag lifestyle at a young age and would always help them [his grandparents] milk the cows and goats, help harvest their crops and feed their animals,” he said. “As I grew up, I realized their farm wasn’t generating enough income for themselves. This is where it came to me that I wanted to learn how to help expand and grow their business, so I came to a school that combined both agriculture and business; it made perfect sense.”

Despite societal pressure and family expectations, Jimenez’s courage helped push him through his academic ventures and successes, he said. “Going to college was a scary thought. No one in my family has ever done it, and there was major pressure to succeed and become the new standard for future generations. …

“I’ve been building the courage to attend college since I was a little kid in grade school, by pushing myself to learn a new language [English] when Spanish was my only language at the time,” Jimenez said. “I did not let the fear of failing get in my way because I wanted my siblings and my future family to see me as an example of courage and pursue their dreams. Courage has been a big factor in my success here at CSU, and now being the first member in my family to graduate college has allowed me to set the example for future generations.”

Jimenez is taking a break from the ag industry to pursue another one of his passions, he said.

“Right now, I am working in real estate and am currently licensed to be a broker associate with the goal being to open my own brokerage for commercial land and buildings,” he said. “I will never forget about the reason I came to school for, which was to build my family’s farm in Mexico and help provide for my family out there. There is no ceiling too high to reach with the will and power to succeed.”

Saul Reyes

And finally our last graduate: myself!

I recently graduated from California State University, Chico with a bachelor of science in plant and soil science (crops and horticulture option) and a bachelor of arts in multicultural and gender studies (ethnic studies option) with minors in Chicanx studies and journalism (public relations option).

Graduating means a lot to me, but I know it means more to my family. I hope that my siblings look up to me for inspiration when their time for college comes.

As for my future plans, I obtained a job as a junior specialist as part of UC Davis’ rice and weed research program, where I will be a field manager of experimental rice herbicide trials and am continuing to contribute regularly to AGDAILY.

Academia is a challenging institution to navigate, and it is even tougher to do so without having the right resources and guidance.

Congratulations class of 2022. We wish you all success in your future!

Saul Reyes serves as the 2022 American Farmland Trust Agriculture Communications Intern at AGDAILY, with a focus on helping to amplify diversity and minority voices in agriculture. An FFA alum, Reyes is a student at California State University-Chico and is double majoring in plant and soil science and multicultural and gender studies, while minoring in intersectional Chicanx/Latinx studies and public relations. He can be found on Twitter @sreyes710.

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Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of AGDAILY. Comments on this article reflect the sole opinions of their writers.