A room full of students and alumni listens to CP/EVC Marlene Tromp speak about her experience as a first-generation student. Photo by Lluvia Moreno

“People like you never make it.”

A community college professor once said those words to Black student Brittany Young. Ten years later, Young is a doctoral candidate in psychology at UC Santa Cruz. The words that now echo in her mind are from a different  professor. 

“People like you get Ph.D.s.”

Young was one of five presenters to talk about failure — and bouncing back — at the April 24 “Fail Fest.” About 50 attendees, including students, alumni and staff, went to the First Generation Initiative’s (FGI) event “Fail Fest/Life Happens: Challenging Notions of Failure Through Stories of Resilience” at the Merrill Cultural Center. 

FGI, established in 2017, is a campus organization that facilitates the success of first-generation students by providing support and community. 

“First-generation students are resilient because they face a lot of barriers, a lot of challenges, and yet they still excel,” said Janely Cárdenas Vargas, a volunteer for FGI’s Student Steering Committee and co-moderator for the event. “They still thrive, even in the face of adversity, without institutional support.”

Rodrigo Mora Sandoval, a Professional Career Development Program intern for FGI, had the idea of using storytelling to highlight the unique challenges first-generation students face. 

CP/EVC Marlene Tromp and moderator Rodrigo Mora Sandoval converse before Tromp’s opening remarks. Photo by Lluvia Moreno

Christina Yu, third-year student and FGI intern, and third-year Isis Casillas spoke at the event. They advised their peers to understand failure not as proof of ineptitude, but instead as a key ingredient to personal growth. Their stories demonstrated the tenacity of first-generation students and the ways they can achieve their goals.  

UCSC alumna and actor Adilah Barnes delivered the keynote address, telling her story of attending UCSC just a few years after it opened. Beyond struggling as a first-generation student, her challenges were amplified as a Black woman on a college campus in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

Barnes said world events in 1968, such as the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, reinforced her idea that she and other Black students “would be heard.”

“There’s always a moment when you feel like someone is speaking to you,” said fourth-year student and event attendee Anthony Amador. “For me, it was the first speaker, Adilah. There was the moment when she said ‘you are enough.’ Funny enough, that has become my mantra as a first-gen student.” 

Much like Barnes’ story, Brittany Young’s centered around the hurdles Black women face in higher education. She also spoke about the essential role fellow community members played in helping her flourish academically, showing the need for strong support systems for first-generation students. Despite their different journeys, the speakers shared a common sentiment.

“We want people to leave this event having a different idea of what failure is,” said Janely Cárdenas Vargas, co-moderator for the event. “Often times people think failure is an individual’s fault, that it’s an individual’s responsibility, that if you fail it’s on you. We’re here to say ‘no.’”