On my first day as an undergrad, I was shocked to see many white people in my classes. For the first time, I was the minority in an academic setting. Could they tell I was Mexican American? How do they perceive me? Do I interact with them differently? I felt like somebody woke me up to reality with a bucket of ice water.

For the first time I genuinely realized that the statistics were right: as a Mexican-American woman, I am a minority. In the predominantly Latino community where I had grown up, all of my friends were either Latino or Asian. We shared similar family customs, and most of my friends were also first-generation students.

But when I got to college, I found myself surrounded by white students who had college educated parents.  Parents with degrees? This was a phenomenon to me. My parents and friends’ parents did not have bachelor’s degrees, yet alone master’s degrees.

Communities like mine are doing the best they can to succeed in education with the resources they have. Unlike in white-majority communities, there is a serious education gap between immigrant Latino parents and their children who grew up in America. First-generation Latino students often want to go to college, but cultural and financial barriers stop them from getting there.

I’ve heard it all in the Latino community. Why should we invest in a college education when she’s just going to get married in a few years? Why is he going to waste four years in college, when his cousins are already making twice as much without a degree? What will she do with that major, anyway?

Statistics reflect these doubts and hesitations. In April, the Campaign for College Opportunity released a Latino-focused report on the state of higher education in California, where I live. The numbers are sobering: Despite being the largest ethnicity in the state, Latinos are underrepresented in every segment of higher education. The majority of Latino college freshmen in California enroll in community college, but only 30 percent of them transfer to a four-year university within six years. Only 12 percent of Latinos have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

This gives Latinos with college degrees a responsibility to participate in community outreach and show immigrant families college is accessible. I have been thrown in situations where I have to inform younger first-generation students and their parents about financial aid options and college deadlines.  It is our duty to help even out the playing field by providing Latino families with the same knowledge already integrated in upper class communities.

As a recent college graduate, I’m not taking these negative statistics as a personal challenge, but rather as motivation to use my education as a springboard for other Latinos to go to college. Community outreach from people of the same ethnicity makes it easier for younger generations to break cultural barriers by using us an example to family that college is worth it. This will cause a domino effect that will that will increase college attendance among Latinos.

With more Latinos attending college, I foresee a more diverse educational environment and understanding society. Students are demanding a more diverse faculty, but how can this be achieved if most Latinos do not reach the graduate school level?

An overall diverse faculty at any university is essential, but for first-generation Latinos, the unspeakable bond with a person of a similar culture cannot be duplicated. There is a sense of camaraderie when Latino students are mentored or taught by a person who has experienced the same cultural and financial struggles as them. First-generation students need outspoken Latino allies at universities that can provide additional guidance.

With the large Latino population in California only increasing, it is also important to bring the Latino perspective to students from all ethnic backgrounds. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 84 percent of full-time professors were white in fall 2013. A larger Latino faculty will help shatter stereotypes and instead help spread a realistic view of our culture and the vital role Latinos play in America. Universities are vital to exposing future professionals to other cultures and how to integrate minorities in workplaces.

Unfortunately, the higher I take my education, the fewer fellow Latino students I have by my side. Having white people in my classes is not strange to me anymore, but some thoughts I felt on the first day as an undergrad crept back when I visited my grad school program for the first time—why aren’t there more Latino students?

In an interview with the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, Golden Globe winner Gina Rodriguez puts it best when she says, “The second you follow your dream, you give someone the allowance to follow theirs.”

I plan to become a professor one day, share my knowledge and help inspire minority students to pursue careers in journalism. And I ask all Latino graduates to help end the fear and doubts in the community about college, allowing others to follow their dream.

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  • Mariela Patron is a first generation Mexican American who likes chai tea lattes and waking up early to see movies in empty theaters. She is a recent college graduate and is currently a UC Berkeley J-School master’s candidate.