McNair Scholars Director, Graduate Studies
On the second floor of the Student Community Center, you will find first-generation college graduate Jose Ballesteros helping undergraduate students achieve their dreams.
Jose was raised in Stockton, CA with six supportive siblings and their parents, who migrated from Mexico in search of a better life. Since he was a kid, his parents instilled in him the idea of hard work. Jose’s parents worked in agriculture and when he wasn’t in school, they would take him with them to the field to work as well. He quickly learned the value of education and was lucky enough to have two older sisters who helped pave his way into college, as they both attended or were in college when his time came to apply.
As I was growing my parents would take us out to go pick. This taught us that if you don’t get your education, this is the type of work we could be doing. It’s tough work, but my parents always stressed that they migrated to this country in hopes to give us, and future generations, a better life…
They would always instill that education is a pathway that would open different opportunities.”
A scholarship took him to San Francisco State as an undergraduate. Although he was filled with gratitude at receiving the award, Jose did not realize at the time that this specific scholarship and the program it came with would eventually prepare him to attain his Ph.D.
But first he had to get through undergrad, in a new city, nowhere near what he was used to. “The transition to a whole new setting. This is a whole new place, people, culture… It was an eye-opening experience and made me appreciate people more… I was a bit in shock, but this experience was essential for me to grow.” Eventually, he took the opportunity to get involved in research at SF State, and he eventually decided to attend grad school, initially in hopes of becoming an optometrist.
Although it took him a while to adapt, Jose excelled in San Francisco State with his research. One of his favorite memories as a college student was having the opportunity to travel to conferences where he could present his work. The most memorable was the conference for the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). At this conference, Jose was filled with joy for the opportunity to be presenting his research in a room full of people of color, just like him, striving to accomplish their goals. The experience was encouraging for him and one he will not forget.
Jose encourages students to hang on to their identities and not to lose sight of who they are.
As a first-gen student you are getting into these diverse spaces, make sure you bring these elements that make you who you are. Hold onto the identities that you have. It is a value that you are bringing in.
After completing his undergraduate degree, Jose found himself at UC Davis to complete his graduate studies in hopes to attain a Ph.D. in Molecular, Cellular and Integrative Physiology. During his studies, Jose went through some personal struggles and began to doubt whether or not he wished to continue with his doctorate degree. One of his mentors, Hector Cuevas, Director of Outreach and Recruitment and Retention for Graduate Studies at UC Davis at the time, was able to help him find the support he needed to continue. “He made sure to let me know to take my time… and that they (the university) was here to support me," Jose said. "It empowered me as an individual to look at things differently.”
After completing his graduate studies, Jose went on to pursue other endeavors, but in 2016, found his home once again at UC Davis, as the Director of The McNair Scholars Program. In this role, he assists underrepresented students to pursue Ph.D. degrees. Truly, it is a full circle experience, as he is now able to mentor students, just as he once was.
Advice for FirstGen Students:
Make sure you get involved. Find different communities that you feel that you are a part of… Once you get connected to this support group, it becomes a holistic experience, they get to know you as a person, they will assist you, they may be like-minded with similar goals who have similar experiences. And as a first-gen student, you need that support… Do not miss out on the college experience and find those non-academic things. As they can refresh you and help you not get burned out. Take a break and get involved.