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BETHZAIRA FREGOSO Reflecting on her own challenges, a student shares her experiences with potential students who are less familiar with college.

Just one month into her first semester at The University of Iowa, Bethzaira Fregoso wanted to go home.

She’d dreamed of college since elementary school, but the Elgin, Ill.-native had never imagined the culture shock or homesickness she felt being so far from her close-knit Mexican family and Latino community.

Struggling, she turned to Nancy Humbles, director of the UI Center for Diversity & Enrichment (CDE).

“Nancy told me that she’d be here for me. No matter what I needed, she’d be here,” reflects Fregoso. “That really made an impact on me, that someone was looking out for me and wanted me to succeed.”

Fregoso persevered. In May 2008, she became the first in her family to graduate from college, finishing in the top 2 percent of her College of Liberal Arts and Sciences class.

She credits UI support staff and faculty members with her success. And Fregoso sought to give back, by reaching out to young people from similar backgrounds who might be considering college.

Fregoso volunteered with the CDE’s Pen Pal Program, in which UI undergraduates write letters to elementary school children in Cedar Rapids, West Liberty, Sioux City, and Waterloo.

“It’s a chance for the kids to meet someone in college, to become more familiar with college, and to be more prepared,” Fregoso says. “I hope it makes their transition to college easier.”

Fregoso also visited her high school during semester breaks to encourage students to attend college; volunteered as a peer leader with Iowa Edge, a summer orientation program for incoming minority and first-generation students; and participated in panel discussions during campus visit days.

When she spoke to incoming and prospective students, Fregoso says she talked openly about the challenges she faced during her first year, while underscoring the opportunities she gained at the University. If she’d returned home, she says, she never would have been exposed to so many new ideas and perspectives, or met people from many different backgrounds—such as a roommate from the Netherlands.

“I talk about what the transition was like. I try to be honest. I tell them that it was hard at first. But I tell them to never give up. The challenges and obstacles will teach you a lot.”

As a first-year student, Fregoso discovered a passion for connecting with people, declaring a major in social work. Her future plans include a master’s degree in social work and public health.

“It’s not just that she survived, but she thrived,” Humbles says. “She had personal struggles, but they made her stronger.”

Story by Madelaine Jerousek-Smith; Photo by Tom Jorgensen

August 25, 2008