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First-Gen Feats: 'They gave us the opportunity to live this life and focus on our education'

Victor Sandoval is a Denver Scholarship Foundation scholar who is inspired by his grandparents to earn a college degree.

DENVER — The Denver Scholarship Foundation (DSF) has turned college dreams into reality for thousands of Denver Public Schools (DPS) students over the past 14 years. 

The group serves about 7,500 students through Future Centers which serve 22 DPS high schools – the goal is to provide tools, knowledge and financial resources necessary for education after high school to DSF scholars like Victor Sandoval.  

He’s a freshman at CU Denver trying to navigate hurdles in his first year of college.

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“I feel like the workload has definitely picked up getting towards the middle end of the semester,” he said. “It’s all in my routine, so I feel like I have pretty good control over it.”

DSF is made up of business and community leaders who believe that college is possible for all when the right tools and resources are available to help scholars like Victor.

Credit: Byron Reed

“We partner with 31 institutions of higher education programs across the state,” said DSF CEO Lorii Rabinowitz. “So that we can not only have a dedicated resource on campus for students to meet with on a regular basis, but we can continue to work together to gauge that progress.”

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Sandoval is a first-generation college student who graduated last year from North High School where he was the senior class president. Now, he’s a freshman at the Denver campus and recently changed his major from public service to communications.  

He’s taking 15 hours of classes remotely, working 30 hours a week as a barista and helping his girlfriend babysit. He said his biggest battle was time management his first semester, but was dedicated to get his degree because of his grandparents.

“My grandfather actually comes from Mexico,” Sandoval said. “My grandpa has literally shown me that you can come from nothing.”

Credit: Victor Sandoval

Sandoval said his grandparents instilled the emphasis of family and giving back to their grandchildren. His mom graduated high school and went to college, but realized school might not have been an option for her at the time, so she could raise her sons. 

Sandoval said his grandparents always stressed to them the importance of education. 

“They were actually the first people I called when I got accepted into CU Denver,” he said. “They gave us the opportunity to go to school, they gave us the opportunity to live this life and focus on our education.”

Sandoval knew he wanted to stay closer to home so he can continue to help with his family. He said he realized what it meant to get a job and support himself financially. It’s another challenge some first-generation students face going into college this year. 

“I think the pandemic has made things more challenging for students,” said Rigo Rangel, student services manager for the Latin American Educational Foundation (LAEF). “We’re having to help students navigate that relationship and their living situations, so they could continue to do their work, continue to participate in classes, be successful, but at the same time.” 

LAEF focuses on providing Hispanic and Latino students access to higher education. Rangel said these are some of the hurdles he’s seeing some first-generation students face when they enroll in a primarily white institution.

“Some of the things that we’re encountering is differences in academic expectations, time management, also some ‘imposter syndrome’ where primarily students of color encounter feelings that they’re undeserving of where they are…that their achievements feel like it’s still not enough,” Rangel said. 

“I never really feel like I experience ‘imposter syndrome,’ but I know how to cope with it when I do feel those vibes coming towards me,” Sandoval said.  “One person who was able to help me with that was my girlfriend.”

Sandoval said the support he’s received from his girlfriend has helped him cope with his first year of college. She’s graduating this year from high school and experienced her own ‘imposter syndrome’ while going to classes.  

She’s now a Daniels Fund Scholarship winner who gave him some advice to help him make the most of his freshman year.

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“(With) ‘imposter syndrome’ you’ve got to believe in your opportunities, and you’ve got to believe that you’re making the right choices by taking advantage of them,” Sandoval said. “There’s this environment that you may not feel you belong in, but you belong because the opportunity was presented to you.”

Rabinowitz agrees these are issues most first-generation students like Sandoval face going through the DSF program. 

“About 88% of our scholars are first-generation and it’s so extraordinary to have the opportunity to work together throughout their post-secondary journey,” she said.

It’s a journey Sandoval said wouldn’t be possible without the inspiration of his two biggest fans.

Credit: Victor Sandoval

“My grandparents are definitely my biggest inspiration out of everyone,” he said. “My goal is to be able to give them the worriless life they’ve always wanted for us.”

The DSF has invited us to follow Sandoval's second semester of college to give some insight to what difficulties some first-generation students face.  

Next month, we’ll be checking in on him and Jocelyn Gonzalez who is the DSF scholar we featured last semester, as they prepare for finals and the end of their freshman year.

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