College can be a challenging time for many students, but first generation college student Vanessa Alvillar saw it as an opportunity to learn more about others, as well as herself.

This spring, Alvillar will be completing a major in psychology with a minor in criminology. After graduation, she said she hopes to pursue a master’s degree in social work at New Mexico Highlands University and eventually become a clinical counselor.

Alvillar said she was inspired to become a psychology major after taking a psychology course in high school. She said that psychology is more than just a major and has helped her understand other people.

“I remember taking my first psychology class in high school,” she said, “I was a junior and I just liked the way it helped me understand myself and it helped me make connections with other people...I feel this is more than just a major — it has helped me understand the bigger picture of the world.”

Although she will be graduating from the University of New Mexico, Alvillar began her college career at Central New Mexico Community College. Alvillar said starting out at CNM helped ensure her long-term success as a college student.

“It was a really good transition,” she said. “ I could not have seen myself starting off at UNM. I would have been way too overwhelmed.”

Once she transferred, Alvilar said attending UNM allowed her to take interesting psychology courses, such as Positive Psychology and Psychology of Personality. She also took a Chicano and Chicana Studies course that allowed her to meet a professor whose class had a profound impact on her.

“I met my (Chicana and Chicano) Studies professor, her name is Carmen Samora,” she said. “I actually met up with her last week just to let her know that her class was one of the most influential classes I have ever had. She changed my perspective on my identity... She helped me learn my history, my depth and my roots.”

Although she enjoyed her time at UNM, Alvillar said the financial aspect of attending a large university was challenging.

“I feel like I had to depend on financial aid a lot, and sometimes that was not always easy,” she said. “I tried paying out of pocket last semester and that drove me crazy. I just wanted to have an anxiety attack and give up, but I think going through those struggles is what helps you appreciate when you are done.”

When asked what advice she would give to incoming college students, Alvillar stressed the importance of mental health.

“I think you have to stress the importance of self-care,” she said. “You have to make sure your mental health is coming first and foremost because I think it is easy to slip and become overwhelmed, and once you’re at that point you cannot do anything else.”

Brianna Gonzales has been friends with Alvillar since the two were in sixth grade. She said Vanessa has overcome many challenges during college, and said Vanessa’s education will continue to help her have a positive impact on the lives of others.

“Vanessa has already impacted society with the compassion and empathy she has given to the world,” she said. “I feel like her education has little to do with her impacting society, because even in the sixth grade she was bringing smiles to people’s faces and love to their (hearts).”

Despite all the challenges she has overcome, Alvillar said college is a journey that has helped her grow as a person.

“I really stress the importance of (college),” she said. “It’s not just the degree that you’re in, it’s the journey that I see most important. The processes you go through, the obstacles you face — that’s what you learn.”

Mikhaela Smith is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at or on Twitter @MikhaelaSmith18.