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Student Success Womxn in Student Affairs
December 15, 2015 Tracy Pascua Dea, Ph.D.

My mom immigrated to the United States with her younger brother and without my dad in 1974 from the Philippines. On the long journey to Michigan where her father and older sister immigrated to several years before, she carried me in her womb. She was eight months pregnant. She was nervous. She was frightened of what was to come.


I attribute my resilience to my mom. At age 25, she forged into the unknown, a foreign land, to achieve her goals and dreams of having a family, a stable job, a home, financial stability, respect and prestige. She was surrounded by her siblings and father, and yet still felt alone.

Still, she smiled, laughed and won the loyalty of many friends. Even now in her mid-60s, she continues to adjust to whatever comes her way. 

Persistence and Drive.

I was born on December 24, 1974 in Detroit, Michigan and named after a tropical storm that hit Australia on Christmas Eve—tropical storm Tracy.  My grandfather told my mom I would be a “tough girl.” In the short time we lived in Michigan, we lived with my grandfather and his new American-born family. We lived with my aunt and uncle and their two sons. I often hear stories about how “bossy” I was to my older cousins in their own home.

Maybe my name foreshadowed my greatest strengths—persistence and drive. 

Grit, Endurance and Sacrifice.

Three years later my mom petitioned for my dad to come to the U.S. We moved to St. Louis, Missouri where many of my dad’s relatives immigrated. We eventually settled in an apartment building with other Filipino immigrants who later became my parents’ best friends and with whom I share many memories.

Five years later, my brother was born and we moved into a brick bungalow in an area that is now blighted. The elementary school we went to has now been shut down.

Two years later, my youngest brother was born and we moved into a two-story colonial in the suburbs with a yard and two-car garage. By now, Grandma Luming and Grumpsy were living with us part of the time and Gramma Trina lived with us the other part of the time.

At one point, in order to have our beautiful home, three cars, private, Catholic education, a basketball hoop, clothing and food, both my parents were working two jobs each. My dad worked seven days a week. My mom worked 11PM to 7AM, dropped us off at school and then worked from 11AM to 7PM. She cleaned the house and did laundry in between work. I’m not sure if she ever slept. I don’t know if I ever saw my dad during that time.

I understand now as a working mother of two young boys what grit, endurance and sacrifice means. In my 30s, I finally forgave my parents for being consistently late to pick us up from school, for insisting on owning three cars I thought we didn’t need, for cooking food that would leave my clothes smelling all day, for being so strict, and for insisting I become a doctor. 

Lifelong Learner.

I went to an all girls, Catholic high school and was one of five Asian students in my class. I only recall one Black student during my four years there. I loved learning. I became addicted to service and to what later I found out was social justice. 

I grew up in Missouri; today, a place associated with #Ferguson and #IStandwithMizzou. A place I knew held onto these divisions, even as I tried to ‘pass’ as ‘one of them’ – someone who ‘looked American.’

At age 25, I graduated from Boston College with my Master’s degree directly after receiving my Bachelor’s degree two years prior at Saint Louis University. I was the first in my family to receive a BA and an MA in the United States. I didn’t become a doctor (yet). I did make my parents proud. I gave meaning to their sacrifices.

I experienced a lot and I am still learning.


Ten years later I received my Doctorate while pregnant with our first son, after buying our first home, after getting married, after moving from Boston and returning to St. Louis, and after going to school for five years while climbing the ladder of success. I chose to be my own type of “doctor.” I started to define who I wanted to be.

The ladder I climb in my personal and professional life has been filled with many no’s, and with enough yesses sprinkled in to give me the courage to continue to grow. I wanted to build a life for myself and for my family different than what my parents had built for me. I had finally learned to choose me and make room for me within the collectivist life I came from and that fits with who I am. 


I am aware I had a privileged life while also carrying the weight of my parents and my ancestors on my shoulders 

I can’t seem to get rid of the guilt. I feel bad when I have the privilege of traveling nationally to present at conferences. I feel bad when I have to say ‘no’ to students, and really to anyone. I feel bad when I eat at high-end restaurants and stay at five star hotels with my kids who always get picked up from school on time, who never have to wonder if their mom has slept or when they will see their dad, and who had a nanny care for them. I am still learning to let go of the guilt.


I realize all of this makes me the successful, professional they promoted in July. I am grateful to be a mentor to other striving professionals and students and to have been mentored by strong women of color. I am grateful to do what I am passionate about and love. I am grateful I can see opportunities and strengths amongst adversity and challenge.

I am grateful to be the first in my family to hold a high-level, leadership position. I am grateful my parents and experiences as a first gen student formed the person I am. I am grateful that person is, now, a first generation professional.

Tracy Pascua Dea, Ph.D. is the Assistant Vice Provost for Student Success and Co-Director of the High Potential program for first generation to college and low-income students at Saint Mary’s College of California. She is co-author of http://nextgenfirstgen.com