Rafael Velasco ’19 makes first-generation mentorship his top priority

The summer after his freshman year at CMC, Rafael Velasco ’19 worked as a part-time custodian at an elementary school in Illinois. While cleaning desks in an empty classroom, he had the feeling he should be somewhere else.

Nothing against the work, Velasco said. His father proudly earns a living as a janitor. Instead, Velasco kept revisiting conversations with peers who had summer internships, their career prospects already on track after their first year. One CMC friend was so natural at networking and getting on the phone with his dad for internship advice that Velasco felt way behind.

“I think it’s true for a lot of first-generation college students. Our parents weren’t able to teach us these things,” said Velasco, who grew up in Waukegan, outside of Chicago.

“I just remember feeling inadequate when I’d hear these conversations. I’d be sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, is it that time of year? Should I be looking for internships?’ I didn’t know what to do.”

Velasco realized his uncertainty was shared by several of his friends. When he returned to campus, Velasco co-founded 1Gen, a resource and support community for first-generation students at CMC. During their sophomore spring semester, the group (Tre Gonzales ’19, Tony Chau ’19, Devang Patel ’19, and Justin Rodriguez ’19) had an epiphany while eating lunch together. Instead of lamenting their perceived “mistakes” during the first two years of college, they vowed to use the knowledge they had gained to become mentors to underclassmen.

“We formed a constitution. We created a budget to get funding,” Velasco said. “Right there, we decided to go for it and do our best to start this club to help other students.”

The experience of forming the club, Velasco said, gave him the confidence to create opportunities for himself and others.

In the past year-and-a-half, 1Gen has reached more than 100 CMCers by hosting events like resume workshops, career and course registration prep sessions, reflective retreats, and First Gen Day bonding celebrations. The main goal, Velasco said, was to carve out space on campus for first-generation students to encourage each other and not feel so alone. 1Gen has also become more intentional about peer-to-peer mentorship this academic year, with Velasco emphasizing the need for upperclassmen to give back by offering advice and emotional support.

“College is a huge culture shock. The academics are tough. The social situations are different. There are things happening at home that you can’t control or take care of,” Velasco said.

“As a first gen, you’re going to need to talk to somebody. We thought it would help if that was a student who shared the same struggles, who had a common experience. We understand it.”

Learning to lead

Without a Chicago-area college access program during his freshman year of high school, Velasco isn’t sure he’d have pushed himself to explore the liberal arts. He definitely wouldn’t have left the Midwest for California. Affordability was always an issue.

His dad works three jobs—as a janitor at two schools, another as a part-time cook at a nursing home. His mom is a human resources manager and volunteers as a nursing assistant. Because his parents worked so much, Velasco was often called upon to take care of his three younger siblings at home.

While at CMC, Velasco has used ROTC as a way to offset college costs. His freshman year financial aid package wasn’t enough to cover full tuition, so he decided to target an ROTC scholarship for the final three years. All the 6 a.m. wake-up calls for Army training paid off—he got the scholarship. ROTC also built his confidence in valuable ways.

“I’ve learned that I can be a leader, and that I like rallying people together around a common cause,” said Velasco, who after graduation, will head to the Army Reserves to serve in the Quartermaster Corps handling supply and logistics.

“In ROTC, you are given a mission and it’s up to you to come up with the plan. At first, I was always nervous and unsure of myself. But I’ve accomplished so much here that I never thought I could push myself to do.”

Finishing strong

Velasco has carried ROTC leadership and self-discipline principles into 1Gen and another ambitious venture, his own social media start-up, SocialSpur. Because he isn’t busy enough, Velasco joked, he is working with small businesses in and outside California to optimize social media marketing. “I’m focused on small and medium-sized businesses who don’t have this in their budget or don’t have the expertise,” Velasco said. “I’m not charging anything. I just want the experience.”

It’s yet another outlet for Velasco to test his growing skill set and experiment with what he’s learned at CMC. A Neuroscience major, Velasco isn’t sure what his career path will be following graduation in spring—the options seem endless now. But this much is certain: He’s no longer afraid of having more questions than answers.

“One thing about CMC is that if I have an idea, it can become reality because of the support systems here. I can talk to faculty and staff. I can talk to alumni. I can find funding. The people here motivate you beyond the classroom,” Velasco said. “I know the personal impact of that is going to extend well beyond my four years on campus.”

Thomas Rozwadowski