//BY ANGELA MENDOLARO
First-generation students experience a unique set of challenges and barriers to pursing their dream of a college degree. Without a parent who has navigated college, they are forging their own paths. Many have witnessed their parents struggle in the job market without a degree. They also recognize that they are setting an example for their siblings and generations to come.
Florida’s First Generation Matching Grant Program (FGMG) is a need-based grant program available to degree-seeking, state resident, undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need, and whose parents have not earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. Available state funds are contingent upon matching contributions from private philanthropic sources. Thanks to the generous donors of Valencia College Foundation, more than $3.1 million in scholarships has been awarded to more than 3,500 first-generation students since 2007.
“For first-generation students, a college degree not only transforms their lives, but alters the trajectory of their families for generations to come,” said Geraldine Gallagher, Valencia College Foundation president and CEO.
This is certainly true for Christian Pinto Rey ’08, who emigrated from Colombia to Queens, New York, with his mother and two older brothers when he was around six years old. His mother worked in a jewelry factory, and his brothers started working in a supermarket when they were 15 to help support the family. Christian joined his brothers at the supermarket stocking shelves when he was 12. His brothers each obtained a commercial driver’s license (CDL) and earned good livings, first as truck drivers then working their way up to management.
Christian followed in his brothers’ footsteps and obtained his CDL, but he wanted something more for his life. “Even though the income was good, it wasn’t the career I wanted,” explained Christian. “The industry was changing more than I liked. There was flux in income and job security.”
For first-generation students, a college degree not only transforms their lives, but alters the trajectory of their families for generations to come.”
Christian always knew that he wanted to pursue higher education, but didn’t think it was possible until a cousin pushed him to apply. His family had relocated to Orlando several years earlier, and at age 25 Christian charted a new course and enrolled at Valencia College. He earned straight A’s his first semester.
Living so close to the space industry and Kennedy Space Center inspired Christian to pursue engineering. Thanks to hard work, financial aid and scholarships, Christian was able to complete his associate degree in two years. His stellar grades earned him a four-year recurring summer internship at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center where he inspected the interior of the Space Shuttle Atlantis for its final journey to the International Space Station. An added perk of the internship: NASA paid half of his college tuition, enabling him to enroll full time at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University after completing an associate degree in engineering at Valencia College.
Today, Christian is a test and evaluation engineer at Boeing, where he is working on the Space Launch System for NASA’s history-making mission to Mars. He is also pursuing a master’s degree in engineering management. Christian’s wife Eloisa Centeno is also a first-generation Valencia College alumna who received her associate degree in 2012. The couple has a son who is five years old and a daughter who is 18 months. Immediately after the birth of their son, Eloisa enrolled at University of Alabama in Huntsville where she completed a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Christian and Eloisa have succeeded in broadening the horizon for their children. Regarding his children, he says, “We can bestow our experiences on our children. If they are smart, they will work hard and keep moving forward.”