Forgotten Trailblazers: Everyday First Generation Women in Higher Education

Triseinge Ortiz

March 25, 2018

For the last thirteen years I have spent countless hours reading historical documents and piecing together the history of my ancestry. What I have come to find is that I am fascinated by the stories of challenges and triumphs that ordinary people faced. It’s getting to peak into the lives through documents, and catch a glimpse on what led to the world we live in today. I have a natural curiosity for wanting to know more and dig deeper on understanding issues that led my family to seek better opportunities for themselves. A sad reality that I found was the lack of education that my family had obtained prior to my generation. I took it for granted that we had always had access to education and could strive for higher education. At first, I was a bit angry and I didn’t understand why they hadn’t done more with their lives. That was the ignorance I held at the time for what it took to become a Trailblazer.

I have found that an everyday Trailblazer is often a subtle yet determined individual that sets out a plan with a clear objective. This individual is the first to set out upon the journey and along the way this trail grows rather than ends. It’s not about the accomplishment of achieving the goal but what the trail has opened up to those that follow. For this very reason; a Trailblazer is often not recognized for their feat in clearing the path as it fades in the glory of those that move the trail ahead.

This is a personal story of one ordinary women’s trailblazing past and how I became a first generation woman to attend college and earn a M.A. It is my true version of the story of so many women and one my sisters can claim in their own right. I will do my best to share the everyday that led to a trail that I followed to lead to my own path.

My Grandmother Rose was a homemaker and raised a family in the Midwest during the 1950s with a husband that had served in the US Navy right out of high school. He was the first to graduate high school in his family. My grandmother was an orphan by age 12 with 7 siblings during the Great Depression. She finished the 8th grade and began caring for children in the neighborhood. She also spent some time traveling with circus families caring for their children. She encouraged her daughter and grandchildren to do well in school. She was a PTA mom and a constant presence at Honor Roll Banquets.

My mother was the first in the maternal line to graduate high school and did so with honors. She was active in theater and choir. She married my father and became a homemaker with three children. When the marriage failed she was left without any skills or way to support us.  My mother returned to school and obtained her RN degree in an adult education program through a community college. It was very difficult for all of us, and it meant as the oldest that I took on much of the responsibility in raising my siblings. My mother was no longer a homemaker present to care for us as she had studies, then a full-time job. I saw the value of her education, but was bitter by what had cost me my own opportunities to take part in high school activities. I was determined to finish high school and immediately go on to college. I told family and friends that I would never marry nor have children. I wanted to keep my focus on going to college and didn’t believe that both were possible.

We moved around a lot during my high school years and I managed to graduate from high school with honors. I had taken every opportunity available to set out a plan for success. I was disappointed that the high schools I attended didn’t offer Advanced Placement courses, so I took classes in my junior year at a local community college. I also took advantage of the opportunity to take the AP tests for subjects that the high school said we qualified to take in our non-AP classes. I’m not sure how that was possible, but I didn’t have any prep and didn’t score high enough to earn any AP credits

I took the city bus and I worked at a locally owned Video Store to earn enough money to buy my own car. I went to my guidance counselors for help with filling out the SAT /ACT test sign-ups, FASFA , and college applications. I didn’t have anyone in my family that had ever filled out those forms before, so I relied upon the guidance counselors to direct me. My mother was actually resistant to the FASFA at first since it required her tax information and she didn’t understand why it was necessary. At the time there wasn’t any parent education explaining the process. It took a lot of begging and pleading from me to get that information turned in. I was accepted to my first choice.

Unfortunately, I had made a mistake in signing up for the SAT II Subject Tests and was missing a required test for my top choice. I sent a letter of appeal, but was denied by the University for not having the SAT II completed on time.  I was disappointed as I had the grades and had worked so hard on the college prep coursework, but had somehow been confused by the required tests for admission.  I decided that I would take a different route by attending community college, then transferring to a university.

I worked 32 hours a week at a Rite Aide and took at least 16 units per semester. In the summer I took a full-time job working at a local cement plant, where I swept, shoveled dust, pulled weeds, completed minor cleaning projects, office work, snack preparation, and really anything that needed help with to earn my pay. I saved my money and was able to take a few local trips with friends.

There was an opportunity to take part in a new Model United Nations club on the campus of the community college I was attending, but I turned it down. My professor met with me and asked me to consider it, but I explained that I wasn’t looking for that experience. I needed to stay focused and obtain admission to a university upon completing my units. I failed to see any need to explore extracurricular activities at that point. I kept regular appointments with counselors and kept a chart of what I needed to complete for transferring. I was being extra cautious this time to ensure everything was in order. I went to all the college fairs held on campus and signed up to meet with a recruiter for my second choice UC. That person was extremely helpful in ensuring I had my paperwork put together and classes completed. We caught an error in my credits in time for me to sign up for an additional course at the community college. Without his help I would have missed my IGETC certification and second chance at being admitted to a university of my choice.

I graduated from community college with honors and I transferred to the University of California, San Diego, where I graduated with a BA in Political Science. I eventually went on to earn a MA in Political Science from California State University, Fullerton.

I consider my educational journey my personal success. I set my plan and achieved it. I learned that I could also be a mother and a wife. I’m happy to say that I was wrong when I thought I had to forgo that experience for higher education. I have found a way to embrace the balance that many women decide to take on because it’s what makes me happy and fulfilled.

That is my simple Trailblazer journey. I went on for more because I saw the value in it for myself. Now I see the value in it for what I can teach others. I am sure that my experience shaped my interest in helping students to find their path to education and career success. I have been working with students in higher education for over 12 years now and many of it has been dedicated to advising.

As I said before, there are many Trailblazers and I doubt we know their names or struggles. But I hope that you read on to learn about a few of these everyday forgotten trailblazing women. These are women that used higher education as a tool and resource in their trailblazing.

  • 1861 – Mary Corinna Putnam Jacobi - First woman to graduate from a pharmacy school in 1861. She went on to become a physician. She also married and had children.
  • 1862 – Mary Jane Patterson - A teacher, graduates with a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College in 1862. She is considered the first African-American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree.
  • 1874 – Myra Warner served as a principal and teacher at the Arkansas Female College. Her daughter Julia carried the legacy forward when she began teaching at the college at age 17, later a co-founder for the Mayflower Society and Daughters of the American Revolution. 
  • 1943 –Thelma R Shreiner, an educator with a M.A. from New York University, becomes the Dean of Women and an instructor for English and drama. She had previously been the Assistant Dean at Colby Junior College.
  • 1974 – Estelle Cooke-Sampson was part of the first co-ed class at Union College. She went on to earn a M.D. from Georgetown University in 1978. Estelle is a life-long community service and medical professional. She is also an African American-Korean War orphan who was born in South Korea and came to the United States when she was six years old.
  • 1992 – Mae Carol Jamison, a medical doctor, is the first African American women accepted into NASA’s training program.
  • 1995 – Karen Haynes becomes the only female Dean serving at the University of Huston. She has continued to be a Trailblazer as a CSU President in San Marcos.
  • 2005 – Ruchi Sanghvi is selected to work for Facebook in 2005 as the first woman engineer. Her trailblazing continues.
  • 2013 – Darlene Clark Hine becomes a Professor of History at Northwestern University and in 2013 awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama.
  • 2015 – Mee Warren, one of the top women professionals in the male dominated financial industry, earne the Wall Street Women Trailblazer Award.
  • 2015 – Jessica Murphy, an Expert Developer, becomes the leader of Salesforce Saturdays that inspires others, especially women developers.
  • And finally, 1972 – Present – All of the women that have stood their ground and supported the creation and endurance of Title IX, as it provides legislative empowerment and support for equal opportunities in education and athletics for women.

These are all women that have contributed to trailblazing as part of their personal journeys. Their stories, barriers, and challenges cannot be assumed but rather appreciated for what the path before them lays out for other women seeking to better themselves and society through higher education.

The importance of these everyday women trailblazers is not earth shattering, but rather subtle. It is a collective change that brings the path of women forward. We have a wider path with more choices now because of women that dared to explore and try a new trail forward. We owe the essence of their stories a place in our classrooms, home discussions, and daily gratitude.

It is my hope that every woman reading this learned or was inspired to learn more about a great woman that came before her on the journey.

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