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Celebrating First Generation American Students

Three first generation students and faculty, text reads: "In celebration of first generation students"

We are celebrating First Generation students by sharing the stories of some of our optometry students here at Berkeley.


Helen Tasho, Class of 2024

Being First Generation is something that I have grown to love and appreciate. Growing up, I was reluctant to tell people that my parents didn’t know English, that I spoke a different language at home, and that my food was different from “American” food. As I matured and learned more about my parents, their struggles, and their sacrifices, I began to appreciate the path that brought them to where they are today. My parents came from a country ruled by a communist regime in which their families were directly threatened and survival was the priority. Needless to say, education wasn’t a top priority, although its value was never overlooked.

When my parents and brother were blessed with the opportunity to come to America (shoutout to papou Ziko), they were overjoyed; they finally had the chance to live freely, practice religion freely, and raise and educate a family. My parents always made my brother and I aware of how privileged we are to be educated; they never had the opportunity to seriously pursue learning and do something that they loved, so they did everything they could to make sure that we had those doors open. They couldn’t help their kids with homework, college applications, or school projects, but they helped in any other way they could. My parents worked blue-collar jobs, odd hours, and constantly struggled with the language barrier and stresses of moving to completely new country. I liken their experience moving to America to me moving to China if I was from a rural village in the mountains somewhere without any technology, without any education, and having never heard Chinese before.

With this new life came changes in roles. Although my brother and I depended on our parents for food, love, support, etc., they in turn depended on us (and still do) for translations, technology help, and navigating this strange country which their kids know better.

Their sacrifice and dedication to providing a better life for me and my brother has brought me to where I am today. Their hard work has inspired me, has motivated me, and continues to push me. Who would’ve thought that the granddaughter of shepherds, the daughter of a custodian and chauffeur who settled in a quiet Chicago suburb, the little girl in ESL would be attending the University of California, Berkeley, School of Optometry— I sure didn’t. I would not be here without the sacrifices of those who paved and continue to pave the path for me. I will always respect and admire their grit.


Johnny Pascual, Class of 2021

Being a first-generation student means I have the opportunity to give my community a voice. I am able to share my traditions and culture with my academic community. As a first-generation student my path to entering higher education has been shaped by unique challenges and circumstances.

My journey can be traced back to a time before I was born. My parents immigrated to the United States from a small Q’anjob’alan Mayan village of Guatemala, Jolom Konob. The dedication that my parents exhibited when making the treacherous 2,500 mile journey to Los Angeles and abandoning the place they called home set the tone for my future in the United States. Unfortunately, they settled in a poverty-stricken and gang-filled neighborhood of South-Central Los Angeles, which created challenging circumstances.

As children with the same education as our parents, my siblings and I were in a constant struggle with our schoolwork in the densely populated South-Central Los Angeles school system. Yet, we maintained the diligent work ethic we inherited from witnessing our parents sacrifice everything. By learning to cope with our limited resources environment, I further realized the importance of investing in an education to bring a change within our family and community.

As school became difficult, I could hear the sorrow in my mom’s voice saying “Lo siento” or “I am sorry,” for not being able to help with college applications. My dad would feel guilty during his doctor’s appointment, studying for my exams would have to take a pause because his doctor’s visit was far more important. I believe my parents did the small things that count, they knew working minimum-wage and long hours in the garment factories of downtown Los Angeles was a small price to pay to ensure the success of my siblings and me.

As I rotate through my fourth-year clinical internships and externships, I am reminded that I’m here to uphold the promise I made to continue serving individuals from similar disadvantaged backgrounds by becoming a well-rounded and dedicated optometrist. As a first-generation student, born to parents with minimal Spanish and no English but plenty of aspiration, I am proud of representing my Guatemalan American community in the field of Optometry. Go Bears!


Zhilin Huang, Class of 2024

When my family and I first moved to the US, we spent many years living in a low-income district. As a child, I never understood why I barely saw my parents on the weekends. It was only when I got older that I realized the sacrifices they made as they juggled between work shifts, raising a family and going to school. My family’s story is just one of millions. Many immigrants work backbreaking jobs in hopes of creating a brighter future for their loved ones. My mom got her master’s degree after almost 10 years of schooling in middle age, and she is still the inspiration that keeps me going today. I am forever grateful for my immigrant experience, as it made me who I am today and is one of the main reasons why I am pursuing a career in healthcare: to spread awareness of eye health among immigrant populations and to provide low language barrier eye exams. It taught me to take nothing for granted and serves as a reminder for the kind of eyecare provider I want to become in the future.