Jerome Garcia, associate professor of biology and University of La Verne alumnus, shared his experiences as a first generation college student in a recent interview.
A 1998 graduate, Garcia returned to La Verne returned to give back to the campus.
Garcia has taught general biology classes for both non-majors and majors, though his primary courses are human anatomy and human physiology.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the human body,” he said.
When he came here in 1994, he was a first generation, minority student.
He originally wanted to be a doctor and resisted the idea of being a “well-rounded scientist” in the beginning.
“I wanted to focus on the human body and how diseases are caused, but that was not how the curriculum was set up,” he said.
The curriculum instead offered a broad foundation while simultaneously allowing him to specialize and focus on the human body, which he said is a nice balance.
Garcia said that he is grateful to his professors for teaching him what he needed to learn, rather than just what he wanted to learn.
This breadth of knowledge in sciences, he said, has helped him be successful as a science professor because it gave him a broader base of knowledge.
Do you feel La Verne gave you everything you needed when you went here?
Absolutely, I was able to receive grants to do summer research as well as travel grants, so I was able to get exposed to different students from other institutions and that is what really built my confidence.
What else where you a part of when you attended La Verne?
I was a resident assistance, D top; I was a Orientation Week Leader, I tutored in the LEC, didn’t get involved to much in ASULV or fraternities and sororities, but I was active in a lot of clubs as well as on campus programs.
What is your best memory of La Verne?
I would say the informal learning. It is the one thing we have here in the natural science division, is little areas for the students to study.
I remember having not only fun times but also times where the students band together and were studying. So I would say the grad lab area where the informal learning and, I guess you can say, “good times” occurred.
It was a mixture of having fun but also being very serious, and that was what the room is for, a multipurpose room strictly for the students, yes to have fun but to socialize. But a lot of the times it was used for the students to study and learn from each other.
How do you feel about being a first generation student?
At the time I didn’t think of it as a big deal. I didn’t actually realize I was a first generation student until my senior year. It was then that I started seeing a lot of the trials and tribulations I had gone through could have been averted if I wasn’t a first generation student. I just started noticing little things.
I remember my first finals, my fellow students were getting packages saying “good luck” with little trinkets to help them get through. I didn’t receive a thing.
Then the whole mentoring process: what college is about, what are some of the expectations.
It wasn’t until my senior year that I realized, “Wow, if someone could have told me these things ahead of time, it would have been very helpful.”
In the sciences it is a little more difficult, because we have laboratory components, we have experiments, and some basic foundational material that is essential to understanding more complex phenomenon within the human body.
So that is when I started realizing what it really meant to be a first generation student. You come in naïve; you think you can handle everything. Only when you go through it do you start realizing “if I only had someone to nurture or groom me from day one.”
Was there always an expectation from your family that you would go to college?
I don’t know if it is that you have to go to college, more that this was the way my parents knew how to survive to make a better life for their children.
They came to the United States so that myself and my three brothers could have a better life, and they always expressed to us that it was your education that will get you that better life, to use your brain, as opposed to your body.
Can you see yourself being a professor for the next five-to-10 years, or do you want to pursue medicine?
Like I said in the beginning that was my primary interest. I wanted to be an M.D. because that was the only way I thought I could express my passion for science.
Harvey Good was my mentor. He took me in and allowed me to be a teaching assistant and it was there and in the Learning Enhancement Center where I found my passion for teaching.
So by my junior year I transitioned from applying to medical school to applying to a career that primary focused on teaching. If it wasn’t for that experience with Harvey and getting into the lab and being able to teach, I probably would have not figured out that was my calling.
Would I ever change? No, I plan on dying a teacher. That is what I am. It is who I am and what I am passionate about. It has always come really easily to me.
What made you want to teach college students and come back to La Verne?
I liked the idea of teaching students that have a passion. First generations students that are naive to the game, naive to the trials and tribulations of what it takes to be a good scientist and mentor and nurture them into becoming great scientists and to help them on their career path.
For me that challenge was more enticing and so that is why I decided to teach in college and that’s why I got my Ph.D.
Why La Verne? When I look back on my path, La Verne was one of many entities that played a key role.
I love the mission here. Like I said before, it really affected me and helped me find who I was, not only as a person but as a scientist.
I had no idea I would end up here, I always told my wife I wanted to find a place like La Verne.
Little did I know the opportunity to actually teach here would be available, and so when it became available I jumped on it right away.
What do you want your students to get out of your classes?
To be able to think critically. To understand that the basics are important.
One thing I try to do is link those basic foundational materials into their introductory biology major courses with more complex phenomenon and to understand mechanisms. I am a strong believer that if you understand the mechanism of things, no matter what it is, then it gives you the ability to think critically. By understanding mechanisms you can see flaws as well as fix things.
So hopefully when students take my class, it helps them with critical thinking by giving them a foundation of mechanisms.
I heard you play basketball with the students, is that how you reconnect with the students? Or what do you do to reconnect with the students?
I am an adviser for four different clubs within the sciences, so that is one way that I try to connect with the students.
The basketball thing, that was actually something done to me. My academic adviser Dan Merritt played basketball and he had a passion for it and so did I. So we played every Wednesday, this was back in the day when there were no classes on Wednesday.
We played in the afternoon with faculty members. I think for the students, it shows them a different side of me. It allows me to connect me with the students, which in turn allows me to better help them shine.
If there is one thing you can tell your students, what would it be?
To take advantage and live life. Four years seems like a long time but it is not. This is the one time in your life when you don’t have to apologize for being selfish; this is the time to be selfish.
I tell my students where I am at in my life I can’t just get up and do whatever the heart pleases. I have responsibilities: responsibilities as your faculty, as your mentor, as your research adviser, academic adviser, responsibility to my family, my wife, my mortgage.
So take advantage. Live life so that way when these responsibilities come you can look back and say, “I did it, I did it all and now it is time to give back.”
In the end service, in my opinion, is the thing that will make you happy. I think service is the way you build character and how you find yourself.
You have a responsibility to give back and serve others, because your path and your success was not all about you. There were people there who backed you up and poured time into you, and it’s your responsibility to give back.
In the last lecture I wrote, I talked about my history. If you can take one thing away from what I said today, it would be that if you respect and are thankful for any of the things I have done for you as a student or in your development as a person or as a scientist, the one way you can pay tribute is when you see somebody like yourself, a diamond in the rough, that you don’t turn your head and walk away, that you look at that person and help them out like I have helped you.
If you can do that, then my life was worth something.
Veronica Sepulveda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.