First-generation college students face unique challenges — challenges that soon-to-be graduate Vanessa Espinoza can relate to.

Espinoza is originally from El Paso, Texas, and the challenges she faced are likely experiences many students enrolled at the University of New Mexico may relate to.

Being the first in her family to attend a four-year institution, the lack of experience and knowledge about attending college proved to be challenging.

Nonetheless, Espinoza persevered and began her undergraduate career as a dental hygiene major. But she said that she eventually discovered the discipline left her uninspired, and she decided to change majors.

“I took biology, and I wasn’t the best of friends with biology. I did some journalism in high school, and I was a part of my yearbook committee. I really liked it, so when I was deciding to change my major, I decided to change it to mass communication and journalism. I ended up really enjoying it. I got to meet different people and make friends,” she said.

The transition proved to be difficult for her parents to understand.

“When I told my parents I was switching my major they weren’t too happy; they thought I was making a mistake. In reality, they didn’t know the stress that I had while I was still a dental hygiene major. After switching my major, I was happy and enjoyed the stuff I was doing,” she said.

Espinoza’s close friend and roommate Kaila Calabrese said she has continually served as an inspiration to her during their college careers.

“By living together, we got to share our cultures, beliefs and dreams. Because of her, I became more open-minded and experienced things I never had before. She taught me to be strong on my own and work hard in school,” Calabrese said.

Currently, Espinoza is particularly involved with photojournalism, and her attraction for photography dates back to her high school days.

“My teacher was a journalist too, and I think he was the start of my inspiration for photography. From then on, I’ve always enjoyed taking photos. My family, they always say, ‘It’s weird not seeing you with a camera,’” Espinoza said.

In the future, Espinoza would like to apply her journalistic skills to alter the perception of the southern U.S. border and align herself with the DACA initiative.

“I want to take pictures of how the border really is, and because El Paso is a border town with Juarez, that’s another thing too,” she said. “Juarez is not as bad as the media makes it seem.”

She said that while she is not a DACA recipient, she thinks those who are have the right to education and “deserve to be in this country.”

For now, Espinoza has not solidified postgraduate plans, but will continue to be involved in reporting and photojournalism.

She offered advice for those still working towards their own graduation.

“Just take it one day at a time. Life will always throw obstacles at you, but if you set your mind to it, you will overcome anything — life just takes time. Don’t stress if you didn’t finish in four years,” she said.

She also gave advice for those who might be considering changing their major, but are apprehensive about the process.

“One of my little cousins started college this semester, and I told her don’t be scared to change your mind later on always do what you want to do, not what anyone else wants you to do. Because at the end of the day, it’s what makes you happy. I also tell my brother the same thing, and he starts UNM this coming fall. I tell him do what makes you happy, because it’s your life and no one else’s,” Espinoza said.

Austin Tyra is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at, or on Twitter @AustinATyra.