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CAMP Helps First-Generation Students Find Their Voice and Tell Their Stories

By SU Integrated Marketing

SALISBURY, MD---Esteban Garcia-Ailon has an important story to share. All he needed was the opportunity.

Growing up, Garcia-Ailon often felt as if he didn’t belong. In addition to being a first-generation college student, he is an Indigenous person of Mesoamerican Mayan descent. He grew up without seeing himself in any of the stories surrounding him, and he felt marginalized in both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking communities. It wasn’t until he learned his parents’ story of surviving the Guatemalan Civil War, which threatened the genocide of Mayan people,  that he came to a very powerful realization.

“I always struggled to find my identity. I never realized who I was or where I came from,” Garcia-Ailon said. “But now I know: I am an Indigenous American , and our stories need to be heard.”

The need to tell the stories of his culture and reach out to other children like him is what led him to enroll in the Early Childhood and Elementary Education dual major program at Salisbury University. Being a first-generation college student, there were many challenges to pursuing his education—but SU’s College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) opened the doors of opportunity for him.

CAMP eases a great burden for migrant workers and their children, who may otherwise find it difficult to get into college and stay in college. The program not only pays for the first year of tuition, books and other expenses, but connects students with resources and services to help them through their college experience, including tutoring, help filling out forms like the FAFSA and transportation for students who commute to campus.

Garcia-Ailon is one of the first students of the program and will graduate in fall 2023.

“Being a first-generation student has been an eye-opener for me, because I have nobody in my family to go to for advice about my college experience,” Garcia-Ailon said. “Being a college student, I have to manage schoolwork, social life and internships, and I have to deal with all of these new experiences on my own. But CAMP and my professors have helped me with anything I need.”

Being connected to resources and mentors has made all the difference in Garcia-Ailon’s education. In addition to his internships at local schools, he has had the opportunity to pursue a research project to create more Indigenous representation in children’s literature. Working with faculty mentor Dr. Cristina Cammarano of SU’s Philosophy Department, he and his research partner Kimberly Arriaga-Gonzalez ’21 wrote six children’s stories based on Mayan and Aztec mythology and folklore, called “Katzi Txumu’n: Native Thoughts.” The stories were inspired by their own lived experiences as well as the traditional stories of their cultures.

Someday, Garcia-Ailon hopes to be a kindergarten teacher in the Salisbury area, so he can give back to the community where he grew up and reach out to young students who may have a similar background and struggles as him.

“SU has prepared me for my future career. My professors want me to succeed. They want me to have a career in teaching, and they believe in my potential to create change in our schools,” Garcia-Ailon said. “Now, I get to put my voice out there, and hopefully other children can listen to my stories and see themselves in them.”

Learn more about CAMP and other resources for first-generation college students.

Learn more about SU and opportunities to Make Tomorrow Yours.