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First Generation Student Profile: Oscar Figueroa Ponce BS’23

by Olivia Muñoz, Dean of Students,

To continue the celebration of First Generation Student Success Day (Nov. 8), we are pleased to feature a few of Willamette’s outstanding first-generation students throughout this week.

Oscar Figueroa Ponce
Oscar Figueroa Ponce BS’23

Oscar Figueroa Ponce BS’23
Pronouns: he/him
Hometown: Salem, Oregon

What has been your experience as a first generation college student?
It’s been a learning experience in terms of maneuvering through college. I have an older brother attending Portland State, but he’s only a year older, so we’re kind of going through it together.

It was definitely a shift in culture to start college. I went to a high school where the majority was minority students, so that was different from Willamette’s demographics. I was a part of Willamette Academy, which I am proud of and which helped a lot, but we were also in our own little bubble. Then my world expanded.

In some cases, it was pure culture shock. But I found people I connected with, met amazing professors, and was part of S-STEM which put me in community with people who were also into my same area of study. They became people I could turn to.

I have struggled because I couldn’t turn to my parents – they don't know the college experience so they couldn’t help with every little thing. I would hear peers talking about getting experience with their dad’s friend in their field and I was like, “Well, I don’t have that so I have to figure something else out.” And I did, with the help of others here.

What activities are you involved in at Willamette?
I am a co-coordinator for the MOSAICS peer tutoring program for students of color, and also a Colloquium Associate and science Lab Assistant. I did research this summer with a team led by Professor Alison Fisher through the Science Collaborative Research Program. We examined a reaction that happens naturally in plants from an evolutionary standpoint. We are presenting on that at the Murdock College Science Research Conference in Vancouver, WA, in just a few days.

Being a first generation college student is one part of your identity. What are other aspects about you that you think about as you navigate your academic journey?
I know who I am: Latino, Mexican-American. I’m from Salem. A fact that I think of constantly is that I’m the son of immigrants. Recent politics make me conscious of that all the time.

What strengths do first generation students bring to higher education?
We bring a strong sense of determination, work ethic, problem-solving skills, and communication – because we have to. We have to speak up to get where we’re going.

What do your future plans hold?
I am applying to the University of Oregon for a graduate degree in Chemistry in their Knight Scholars Program.

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