The Long Road Traveled – How I Got to My Dream College

Recently I was invited by University of Southern California (USC) to keynote their Annenberg High School Day, where they invite youth from different schools in the Los Angeles region to listen to inspirational leaders. It got me thinking about my path to college and how I ended up at the school of my dreams.

When I was in my junior year of high school, I was walking with my friend talking about college and what we wanted to major in, and she mentioned the word “journalism.” I thought, “What’s that?” I had never heard of the term before and she said, “You know, the news?” I loved hearing stories, storytelling and being in the mix of everything, so I was excited to learn that there’s a job that I knew I would love doing.

As I researched colleges, USC ranked as one of the top journalism schools in the nation, and I wanted to go to the best. The only problem was I knew my parents couldn’t afford to send me to USC, so I didn’t apply, and instead put in my college application for a University in California (UC).

When I arrived at the UC I felt overwhelmed, out of place, and knew in my heart that the school wasn’t for me. Needless to say, my freshman year was very difficult. Each weekend I would drive more than four hours to go home and then back to campus, and I fell into academic probation. By my sophomore year, I decided I needed to be fair to myself and give the school a fair shot to see if the university was really for me. I got very involved on campus, studied hard, and managed to pull myself out of academic probation. But I still felt that the campus just wasn’t for me. I really wanted to go to USC.

By the second quarter of my sophomore year, I left the UC on good standing and headed back home. By the following summer, I enrolled at Fullerton College and for the next year I would take general education classes and retake classes I didn’t do so well in at the UC, all in hope to get enough credits to transfer to USC. I was determined. In fact, I was so eager to attend USC, I applied with my low grade point average from the classes I didn’t do so great in while at the UC. Of course, my application got denied, but it was more fire under my bite to get in. I developed a rapport with the USC admissions counselor who helped outline the classes I needed to take to transfer in.

After completing the classes I needed, I applied a second time and got denied again. This time I was shook. After turning my grades around, making up classes and really doing well, I couldn’t believe I got denied. I spoke to my admissions counselor and she advised that I needed just one more “A” to push my grade point average a little higher. Still determined, I did what she recommended, studied hard and earned that “A.”

Finally, confident that this third time I would get in, I submitted my application. I was shocked when I received yet another denial letter. This couldn’t be right. I knew I earned the “A” I needed to get in, so I called the professor to contest my grade. Fortunately, I had kept a paper trail of every single quiz, paper and document with a score or some sort of grade on it to use as proof (I highly recommend all students to keep records like this). As the professor looked into the situation, I resolved to enroll at Cal State University of Long Beach (CSULB). As I was leaving my house to head to CSULB to register for classes, the mail carrier handed me our stack of mail and in it was a letter from Fullerton College. It turned out that the system at Fullerton had a glitch that made errors in many students’ grades, including mine. In my hand was a letter proving that I had indeed earned the “A” I needed to get into USC.

Not long after I was finally registering for classes at USC. I could only register as a part-time student during my first semester, because that’s what my parents could afford to put on a credit card (which by the way, I highly advise to NEVER put college tuition on a credit card). By the following semester, I secured student loans and worked two jobs to pay my way through college.

While I took the long way to get to my dream school, I was determined and I did it. In hindsight, I realize I approached my college-going experience the wrong way. I should have toured the UC before accepting so that I could get a feel for the campus. It’s so important to make sure that the campus life and energy feels right to you before you commit. Confidence in your choice makes a huge difference in how you’ll succeed at the school. I also shouldn’t have excluded applying to USC just because of financial reasons. There are so many scholarships and different types of financial assistance to help students afford college, especially now, so don’t limit yourselves. Go big, follow your gut and if it doesn’t work out the first time, don’t give up. It’s okay to take a step back, enroll in your local community college, while you figure out a new pathway to your dream college. The key is to not stop moving until you get there.

Jacki Cisneros

Key to College Starts With Reading

By Jacki Cisneros

Many studies have shown the benefits of reading to early learners as young as infants. Reading to a young child helps build vocabulary, comprehension, speech and social skills. Each year Generation 1st Degree-Pico Rivera and its volunteers come together to donate 10 books to every kindergarten student in Pico Rivera—typically over 800 books in all! It’s a fun event that gets our future college grads excited about reading and starting or adding to their own personal library at home.

Many of us may think that reading with a younger child is something typically done with a parent or teacher. However, older siblings also play an important role in demonstrating the importance of reading and comprehension, and this goes for all younger siblings—from babies to teens. Children often look up to and want to imitate older teens and young adults. Think back to when you were in grade school and the role models you looked up to.

If you have a love for reading, why not share it! Remember that colleges are always looking for students that have contributed something unique to the community through volunteerism, leadership or academic achievement. What better way to demonstrate your commitment to education then to become a role model for literacy. It can be as simple as researching and selecting themed books with a sibling. For high school students who don’t have a younger sibling, consider becoming a volunteer at a local school or preschool, or lead a book club or meet up at your local library for younger students in your neighborhood.

As you continue to build your needs for college and scholarship opportunities, don’t forget to think about the little contributions you can make in your home or in your community that could be used as a learning experience and build your character. Document your “aha” moments and think about how the experience has changed you. Every experience will help you tell a great story in colleges and scholarship essays.

Jacki Cisneros

College Tips from Summer Send Off

By Jacki Cisneros

Each year, we host a Summer Send Off where graduating students for Generation 1st Degree-Pico Rivera are invited to a luncheon to hear guest speakers share their knowledge and experience as first-generation college students. Parents are also invited so they too can listen and ask questions about college life.

If you’re a rising college freshman and you didn’t get a chance to make it to this event, you missed out on inspiring speeches by two G1DPR alum, Monica Ochoa and Melissa Aguirre, as well as a chance to win raffle prizes like a computer, printer, mini refrigerator, microwave, money and more.

During the luncheon, I also presented my college tips. Whether or not your staying within the area, moving hours or states away, all of these tips will help you to survive your freshman year of college.

Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. Get involved on campus. Find your niche of people who have common backgrounds or interests. You’re looking for that group of people who will support you. It may take a few attempts to find your group, but don’t give up because once you do, I guarantee they will be your friends for life.
  2. Visit your professors during their office hours. Introduce yourself and let them know who you are. If you’re struggling, let them know what you need help with. While keeping a good relationship with your professor might not translate to an A, they will see your determination and help you out. They are there for you. Here’s how I look at it: College is expensive and the price we’re paying is for the services the professors are hired to provide, which is educate students. Go in with the mindset that your professors work for you. If you do not understand the curriculum, then they are not doing their job. Challenge them to figure out a way to help you understand. If you change your attitude it’ll power you.
  3. Get help before it’s too late. If you’re at a C in college you’re closer to a D than you are to a B. Get help ASAP.
  4. Remember you belong where you are. The admissions office has a process to determine which students would be a great fit for the school. They saw that you belong there and that’s why you were accepted. So even if you feel overwhelmed and doubt your ability to be successful at that college, know that it’s part of the process.
  5. Finally, Call your parents. Set a day and time – maybe Sunday evening. Your parents may not have a reference point of college and what it is like. Sometimes their source of information is what they see on the news about college campuses and that could make them worry. Update them regularly. Keep them involved with your journey. Share your experiences.

My final message is a heavy one, but one I feel I must put in words: “No” means NO! Be smart about where you go and whom you go with. Never walk alone. Text a friend or roommate to let them know your whereabouts and what time you’ll be back. Victims are all sizes, shapes, colors and gender. Keep yourself safe.

Gilbert and I want to wish the entire incoming college freshman a successful first year of college. Know that we are always here for support or as a resource, so don’t be a stranger.



Jacki Cisneros






Your “Community” in College & Why it Matters

Last year, I attended a Young Men of Color conference and listened to several speakers talk about the emotional support first-generation students need to succeed in college. It confirmed what I’ve believed in all along–that first-generation students need to find “their people and/or community” on campus, especially during their freshman year. While the social aspect of it — needing to build new friendships — is what might be the initial driver, what’s even more important is the need to identify with like-minded students from the same culture, upbringing, family dynamics, interests and more. It’s human nature for all of us to feel a huge sense of comfort and relief knowing that we are not alone and that others are facing similar challenges and wins.


As you all continue to attend college campus tours and research the ideal college to attend, here are a few things to look for or ask of the student resource center:


  • Where is my community?
    Find out what types of clubs and associations are on campus that meet your interests and needs. For example, if you are majoring in engineering, join the department’s engineering club. Most college campuses will also have clubs and associations related to every ethnicity and interest you can think of, such as a Latino Club, choir, speech and debate, etc. Once you’re on campus, be sure to reach out to the club organizer to sign up for their newsletter or social media pages for updates on meet-ups, mixers and events.
  • Diversity and Inclusion

It’s also important to note that many colleges will have a dedicated staff member who helps students and staff navigate diversity and inclusion on campus. Determine who the point person is at the colleges of choice and find out what resources are available to students.


  • El Rancho Alumni and Mentors

Sometimes your best resource is a former student from El Rancho High who now attends the college of your choice. If you’re shy and need an introduction, please don’t hesitate to ask Michelle Sandoval, Generation 1st Degree-Pico Rivera’s program manager, to help assist with the introduction. Many of our students are proud to welcome new students from their hometown to their college campus.


For more tips on how to survive your first year of college, please check out an article we posted after the Young Men of Color conference last year.



Jacki Cisneros


We Thought You Might Like To Know…

Just in case you haven’t heard us say it, our goal is to provide support services for students in the hopes that one day, every child in Pico Rivera has the opportunity to obtain a college degree. Generation 1st Degree-Pico Rivera provides university-focused preparation programs to help students become better prepared for higher education. We have partnered with the City of Pico Rivera. the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF), the Gilbert and Jacki Cisneros Foundation, local colleges and universities and the El Rancho Unified School District in an effort to increase the number of college eligible Hispanic students from our community.

When we look back to the 2016 school year:

98% of G1DPR students went on to college

1,261 students participated in G1DPR programs

390 students attended workshops where students prepared personal statements for college applications

300 parents attended parent-focused college workshops

37 participating organizations during career day

10 scholarships marathons where students learned about applied for multiple scholarships to offset tuition costs

4-day college tour where 40 students visited several California Universities including Stanford, UC Santa Cruz and San Francisco State, to name a few

Hundreds of student test prep and academic advisement opportunities

The 2017 -2018 school year has not yet begun but students are working on essay prep and all of the skills they will need to successfully transition from high school to college. The first college tour of the season just wrapped up and we look forward to a jam packed year. STAY TUNED!

Jacki’s College Send-off Message

It was so great to see so many of our college freshmen and their parents at the Summer College Send-off Luncheon, seeing all the kids come together and meet people who are going to the same college or maybe some students who are already there. It’s important that all our kids get together and celebrate the journey. It’s time to enjoy yourselves and get a pat on the back.

A huge thank you to Justin Uribe and John Barrios, who put the college experience into perspective. It was amazing to have two of our very own El Rancho students share their first-hand college reality.

Gilbert spoke about the importance of time management for college students and how in the beginning, it may seem like they have more free time than they actually do. He emphasized keeping up with online curriculum as well as classroom assignments and that making friends with upperclassmen would benefit them. And while studying, using the library and other resources is critical, he reminded them not to forget to schedule some fun into the mix for their own well-being.

I had the opportunity to share three tips with everyone there and I’d like to share them here not only for those who may have missed the luncheon, but also because they apply to college students everywhere.

1. Get involved! You need to be a part of your college community. There are so many opportunities on campus to learn about new subjects or discover new interests and evolve. You might be shy, but college gives you a chance to change. Parents, please understand that students need to be at school, that it’s not just about books and classes and studying. You’ll find that it’s about becoming what or who you are.

2. Get to know your professors. They are there to teach you, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. Show up during office hours more than once, show an interest in the subject and let them see you are trying. These are the people that you might need to write you a letter of reference, or those you want to think of you when they have a research project that comes up down the line. A good relationship with your professors will go a long way.

3. Call your Mom and Dad. Your parents may not know what’s going on and want to be part of your experience. Keep in mind that your family is going through some dynamic changes and this will take some getting used to, but they are on the journey with you. Your parents are your biggest advocates and will lift you up when you need it the most.

There is one more thing I’d like to impress upon you, now that you’re venturing off to college campuses. Be smart. Let everyone know where you are going when you go out and when you expect to be back. Remember no is no and don’t put yourself in a position to be misunderstood.

The Challenge

As we inch closer to senior graduation, I am beaming with pride thinking of the more than 200 El Rancho High School students who recently took the College Signing Day Pledge to reach for higher education. I know it’s been a tough year—more than a year—preparing for and getting into college. I’m so proud to celebrate each graduate’s wins.

As I mentioned during College Signing Day, I am challenging the incoming senior class to beat 2017’s class of students heading to college. By this time next year, I want to hear that the Class of 2018 has doubled the number of college-bound graduates! As for the incoming freshman and sophomores, if you are thinking about going to college, know you want to go to college, or have your eye on a specific college, please come see us at Generation 1st Degree-Pico Rivera. We are here for you and have the resources and guidance you need to get to college. And if you’re not sure about college, come see us anyway. We have an open door and are willing to support everyone and their academic journey. Plus, we always have tasty snacks!

Congratulations Class of 2017! You’ve accomplished a major milestone by earning your high school diploma, but the journey has just started. As you prepare for college, always remember that Generation 1st Degree is here cheering you on. And similar to how we helped you get through high school, we’re here to help you get through college so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you need a familiar voice to talk to or need us to help you identify additional resources for you on your college campus. Go, Dons!


Jacki Cisneros

President & Founder

Generation 1st Degree-Pico Rivera

A New Year Brings New Opportunities

The New Year has already brought new and exciting opportunities for our Generation 1st Degree students. In just the first week of 2017, my husband Gilbert and I traveled with El Rancho High School student Bethania Perez to Washington D.C., where Bethania was inaugurated as one of Michelle Obama’s Better Make Room Student Advisory Board Members. We are so proud of her and excited about the fact that she is one out of 17 students, nationwide, to be appointed. This speaks volumes of the caliber of leadership qualities she brings to the Better Make Room Student Advisory Board.

During our trip to D.C., I got to watch Bethania experience so many rare opportunities for any student, let alone one of our students from Pico Rivera. As the day unfolded, it just got better and more unreal and memorable for her. She experienced snowfall in D.C., mingled in the White House in a room full of civic leaders and celebrities; and last but not least, she met First Lady Michelle Obama and got be part of history as we all listened to Mrs. Obama deliver her final speech.

We were all moved and touched by Mrs. Obama’s words. Listening to Mrs. Obama deliver her final words was an experience all of us will remember forever. As I look back and think about the words she shared, I can’t help but feel extra proud that Bethania will be continuing the hard work that Mrs. Obama has spearheaded for first-generation students. I also feel encouraged that despite any challenges or hiccups we may face as individuals, students or as a community, there is hope in the next generation of smart, ambitious and fearless leaders.

I hope that Bethania’s story will inspire other students in our community to aim high. Don’t be afraid to believe in yourself. Take advantage of any opportunity that comes your way. You may have to put in the hard work to earn that opportunity, but once that door opens, it opens up the possibility to so much more.




A Year In Review from our Founder Jacki Cisneros

When my husband, Gilbert, and I started this organization in 2013, we had one goal in mind: to help local children and their families pursue and achieve their dreams of obtaining a college degree. As I look back at 2016 and see all of the milestones we’ve hit, I am astounded by what we’ve been able to accomplish with the help of our community and partners.

Now that the year is coming to an end, we’re asking for your continued support. Gilbert and I have made a pledge to match EVERY donation made in the month of December. This month is your opportunity to double your donation and help us build on all of 2016’s successes to make 2017 even greater! Here’s a glimpse at how your financial donation has directly supported the programs and successes from 2016….

Last January We Blasted into the New Year with NASA Astronaut, Jose Hernandez
We invited NASA Astronaut, Jose Hernandez, to speak to El Rancho High School students and the community and share his journey from a young Latino from the farming area of Stockton, California to becoming a NASA Astronaut. He inspired us with his stories and shared his own father’s words of wisdom: “You have to draw yourself a roadmap of where you want to go & keep your eyes on the prize. You have to go to college & always give more than what people expect of you.”

March Madness with ABC7 and 4th Annual Town Hall

In March, we were honored when ABC7’s Alysha Del Valle came to Pico Rivera to interview us for a Vista L.A. feature on higher education. Just a few days after, we hosted our 4th annual Town Hall, which is designed to help students and their parents learn how to leverage G1DPR college access programs, high school and middle school resources that will help them more easily prepare to have a competitive college edge.

Spring Flings: College Campus Tours and “College Signing Event”

Spring is always an exciting time of the year because by then, our senior high school students have received acceptance letters, many receiving positive letters from not just one, but also several colleges! In the spirit of college going, we took more than 30 students on a Northern California college campus tour, which included visits to Stanford, San Francisco State, and UC Santa Cruz. A few weeks after, on April 29th, we celebrated all of our students’ academic achievements with our “College Signing Event,” where students proudly wore t-shirts or sweatshirts from the college they will attend in the fall.

Summer Send Off Luncheon and Senior Boot Camp

Once our senior students walked the stage and accepted their high school diplomas, the fun didn’t stop. We hosted our annual College Send Off Luncheon where El Ranch High School alum, the newest graduates and the incoming senior class had a chance to mix, mingle and share success stories and tips.

In July, the incoming senior class participated in a Summer Senior Boot Camp, which gives the students an opportunity to get a jumpstart on college preparation by visiting local colleges and preparing resumes and personal essays.


July was by far one of the most memorable highlights this year. Gilbert and I took two of our students to join First Lady Michelle Obama during a “Beating the Odds” summit. We had several “pinch us, are we really in the White House,” moments and I will never forget being able to share this opportunity with two of Pico Rivera’s young, bright future leaders.

Back to School with the Dodgers and Kindergarten Book Giveaway

In September we took several of our students to their very first Dodger Game, in partnership with the Dodger Foundation.

Our 5th annual Kindergarten Book Giveaway took place in October, where few of our first giveaway recipients, who are now in 4th grade, joined us as guest speakers.

UCSB Rolls out the Red Carpet for 72 Pico Rivera Students & Parents

In November we took to the road once again, this time with 60 students and about 12 parents, to visit UC Santa Barbara. This was the first time we’ve been able to offer parents an opportunity to share in a college campus tour and provide them with their own separate workshop to dispel some of their fears about sending their child away to college.

And sprinkled in between all of the milestones I mentioned above, were dozens of college-prep workshops focusing on fine tuning personal essays, filling out college applications, meeting with college admissions staff, navigating financial aid and celebrating individual successes.

2017 Will Be Great with YOUR Help!

As you can see, each year Generation 1st Degree works diligently and creatively to provide unique experiences that help prepare and inspire Pico Rivera youth to reach for a college degree. We are excited to bring more college-inspiring and preparation opportunities to our students from preschool on up in 2017, but we cannot do it without your help.

If you or your family have been touched by any of the resources Generation 1st Degree has offered throughout the year or want to help increase the opportunities for our students to earn a college degree, we hope you will consider donating a gift in honor of our community’s future leaders. Keep in mind that Gilbert and I have made a pledge to match EVERY donation contributed in the month of December. Here is your chance to DOUBLE your donation so twice the number of students can benefit!



From my family to yours, thank you for your ongoing support! We wish you a festive and safe holiday season.

Jacki Cisneros





Scholarships: Apply for as MANY as You Can!

Many of our senior high school students have been working overtime to complete personal essay statements and put finishing touches on their college applications. I am so proud of the commitment they’ve poured into these last few weeks leading up to college application deadlines. With that said, I want to remind students and parents that after college applications are submitted, the work is not yet done.

November was National Scholarship Month, I thought it was fitting to talk about how important it is for our students to reach and apply for scholarships – and not just one or two scholarships, but 15 to 20!

We all know college tuition is expensive. However, students and their families can offset a large percentage of those fees through scholarship money. The most wonderful thing about scholarship money is it is an award, meaning you do not have to pay the money back. Nothing makes me happier than hearing that our students are going off to college without carrying the burden of large student loans.

Here are a few tips and strategies on how to approach scholarship applications:

  1. Think about what makes you unique. Create a list of characteristics that describe who you are, including your ethnic background, hobbies, passion, group associations (such as Girl Scouts of America), even illnesses or personal challenges you’ve overcome.
  2. Next, head to the College & Career Office and look for two large scholarship resource books. Using the list you created in step 1, begin to look for scholarships that were created to give financial assistance to students like you. Also do some online research because you might stumble upon a new scholarship. There are tons of scholarships offered for a variety of characteristics and personality traits. Be creative with your search—you might hit a goldmine!
  3. Create a scholarship fundraising goal and back it up with a plan. Think about the tuition costs for the most expensive school you’ve applied to and map out the scholarships you need to get as close to that amount as possible.
  4. I recommend applying for at least 15 scholarships. However, keep in mind the more scholarships you apply to, the greater the chance of reducing out-of-pocket tuition fees.
  5. Diversify and sweat the small stuff. While it may feel tedious to apply to several smaller scholarships, the possibility of being awarded the smaller amounts is greater. It’s true that the larger the scholarship amount, the more competitive it becomes to earn the amount. While I still recommend applying for the larger ones, I also strongly encourage students to mix it up.

6. Find more information right here:

Keep in mind your fundraising goal and note that a combination of several scholarships ranging from $250 to $5,000 can add up. And if you’re awarded a large scholarship in addition to the smaller ones, consider it icing on the college cake!

If you start to burn out filling out scholarships, think about this as motivation: There’s a huge difference trying to earn $3,000 through a summer job versus $30,000, or worse having to decline your dream school due to financial constraints. Getting accepted into your dream college is a HUGE milestone and one you should be proud of. Be prepared to confidently accept that offer by putting in the work now to financially support the tuition costs later.

Good luck and keep up the momentum for getting to your dream college. As always, we are here for support!