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'Firsts' head for graduation

BY BILL COONEY, CARLY MATTHEW, AND GRACE PATERAS | MAY 15, 2015 5:00 AM

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Melody Mata

Melody Mata took her last final at the University of Iowa on Wednesday. On Saturday, she will walk along other social-work graduates at their ceremony.

Her parents, a brother, twin sister, aunt, and cousin will be in the crowd watching as the first woman in their family graduates.

Mata said she wants to be a role model for family members, especially younger cousins in Mexico.

“When I look at the Mexican culture, women usually don’t go for that college degree,” she said. “So I don’t want them to get married at a young age and settle for something that is typical. I want them to go far beyond that.”

Mata wanted to get away from her hometown and meet new people. After she finished two years at Des Moines Area Community College, she transferred to UI because of the social-work program.

“I wanted to expand my horizons,” she said. “I wanted to live away from my house, because my siblings both stayed home and went to school. You don’t get that college experience if you stay home.”

During her time at the UI, Mata was on the executive board for the  Association of Latinos Moving Ahead, a group that organizes community-service events.

“Sometimes, minorities don’t always feel a part of campus,” she said. “That’s how it’s always been, even though they try to make it very diverse for us. But we just feel comfortable around each other.”

Kyle Davis

Kyle Davis spent his college years harnessing his own potential. Next, he wants to help others embrace theirs.

Davis studied pre-law and majored in English and theater.

He’s looking into opportunities through AmeriCorps and Teach for America working with underprivileged youth.

“I feel like when you’re exposed to higher education, it makes you more likely to reach that goal,” he said.

Davis grew up in Chicago and attended a high-risk school. He said he always liked academics, was a hard worker, and was at top of his class.   “My teachers said there was no way I could not go to college,” he said.

He said though his parents didn’t have college experience, they always gave him good advice and kept him grounded when he called home feeling overwhelmed.

Davis found his stride after attending a Black Student Union game night. He eventually became the president of the group as well as the Multicultural Fashion Show.

He said his sister, 10 years older than him, went back to college partly because he went.

Davis said becoming the first to graduate college in his family on Saturday will be a proud moment for him.

“It means everything,” he said. “It makes me want to further my education even more.”

Karla Montiel

Karla Montiel returned to Iowa City Wednesday from a semester of student teaching in Chicago to make it back for her graduation ceremony.

“My mom’s probably going to cry on graduation day,” Montiel said. “Everything my parents did is finally paying off.”

When she was growing up, Montiel spent much of her time with her grandparents and cousins, her parents often working from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Montiel never had to find a job before coming to the University of Iowa. While she was busy poring over homework, her parents were sure to never pull her away.

“Anything they had was always for my brother, my sister, or me,” she said.

They were somewhat hesitant, though supportive, about her decision to attend school outside of Illinois, especially as their first child.

“For a majority of Latino households, it’s very hard for parents to let their kids go,” Montiel said.

Being a first-generation student, her parents didn’t always understand her new day-to-day life.

College has a lingo all its own. Things such as ISIS and ICON, the stress of finals week, and all-nighters were difficult to explain.

“I would just tell them I’m doing fine. I didn’t let them worry,” she said. “I had to find things out for myself.”

Montiel developed her “home away from home” through student groups.

She sometimes missed simple things such asspeaking in Spanish or the shared culture.

“I asked myself how I could help empower Latina women on campus,” Montiel said.

Thus, she became a founding member of the second-ever Latina sorority on campus, Lambda Theta Nu, which became an official chapter last semester.

In the future, Montiel said she hopes to teach for several years before returning to graduate school and taking up something in the area of student affairs.

Liz Tito

University of Iowa senior Liz Tito, a first-generation college student majoring in social work and minoring in psychology, will continue her education after becoming a graduate.

“I’ll be leaving for my internship in Romania pretty soon,” Tito said. “I’ll be doing research on traumatic brain injuries while I’m over there.”

Tito was born in Ecuador and moved to Chicago with her parents when she was 5.

Tito said she didn’t start thinking about college until her junior year in high school.

“I was just focused on getting through classes,” she said. “I didn’t give it too much thought until my counselor started telling me I should start looking at colleges.”

Tito’s advice to college students was to keep things balanced.

“Meet new people, talk to your professors; there’s really no reason to stay in your comfort zone while you’re in college,” Tito said.


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