Celebrating Our First-Generation Community at SAIC

Celebrating Our First-Generation Community at SAIC

Celebrating Our First-Generation Community at SAIC

November 8 is First-Generation Celebration Day! On this day, and every day, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) honors all community members who identify as being the first members of their family to attend college.

First-generation college students bring a uniquely diverse set of experiences into their practices, and this in turn enriches the life of SAIC’s classrooms and studios. Below, meet some of our own first-generation community members and learn how their college experiences have shaped who they are today.

A black-and-white portrait of a person with shoulder-length, brown hair stares at the camera. Their left arm is propped up. They are wearing a jean jacket and striped sweater underneath.

Image courtesy of Alex Bortell

Image courtesy of Alex Bortell

Alex Bortell

Alex Bortell (BFA 2024) is a Chicago-based multidisciplinary artist and writer from Detroit, Michigan. They are captivated by the body as a landscape of intangible experience. Their current work synthesizes text with sculptural forms through poetics, paint, fibers, and so forth. Bortell intends to pursue arts education and history in graduate school, with a continuing focus on the written form.

Why was attending college important to you?

As someone raised in a non-traditional, working-class family, I had always viewed college as my escape route. Pursuing my education was a way to build a fulfilling life for myself and discover new opportunities. Higher education was never an option for those who came before me, and I was determined to prove that I could attend college despite my circumstances.

What made you want to attend college?

As a scholar and an artist, I have always had a deep love of learning and an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Academic accomplishment has been synonymous with personal achievement throughout my life and is something I take great pride in. College was where I could gain access to fields of interest while further exploring and developing my ideas and passions.

How have you felt supported by SAIC?

The faculty members at SAIC have been an invaluable source of support since my first year. They clearly care about my growth and success and are consistently insightful and challenging. On-campus employment has also played a major role, as it has provided me the opportunity to forge connections across various departments and industries and develop a network of resources and mentors.

A black-and-white portrait of a person with dark, shoulder-length curly hair. They have some facial hair and are staring at the camera. They're wearing a black shirt. Some buildings are featured in the background of the image.

Image courtesy of william cordova

Image courtesy of william cordova

william cordova

william cordova (BFA 1996) is an interdisciplinary cultural practitioner. His work addresses the metaphysics of space and time and how objects and perception change when we move around in space. cordova, the first in his family to obtain a bachelor’s degree, has exhibited in the US, Latin America, Europe, and Asia. He is co-curator of the Greenwood Art Project, an initiative of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre Centennial Commission, and the 2020 Prism Art Fair, a nonprofit project focused on African Diaspora artists. He is the founder of the Miami AIM Biennial and is a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient.

Why was graduating from a four-year college important to you?

My mother always said college isn't for everyone. In her youth, she received a scholarship to study dentistry at the Universidad de San Marcos in Lima, Peru. Unavoidable life obstacles prompted her to drop out. Time passed, she married and started a family, and 23 years later we moved to the US and my mom found a way to raise us, learn a second language, and return to school. She received an associate's degree in accounting/nutrition at Miami Dade College (MDC). 

My mother is my life example. Her discipline, focus, and sacrifice influenced and shaped my very being. She would tell me to pursue what makes you happy, but be committed to it. 

I was not a very good student in high school, but I followed my mother’s example and went to MDC. My GPA was .94 and I was unhappy, but then I realized what my mom had been saying all along. Pursue what makes you happy. I changed my major to fine arts, and this decision illuminated the rest of my days and led me to SAIC. But achieving happiness is not always easy. It takes sacrifice, confidence, and support to pursue it, especially when one has limited economic resources. I must admit, graduating from college was not the most important part of my experience. It was studying, researching, problem solving, and the friendships and challenges that made it an important part of my life.

What advice would you give to current first-generation college students?

I can share an opinion: advice is what one makes of it. 

I realized pursuing anything in life, even happiness, has a cost. For me, pursuing the arts included hard work, obstacles, and sacrifices, but this would have been true if I had chosen any other career or direction. Life can be a labyrinth in which we are constantly finding our way through.

Why did you decide to continue your education and pursue a graduate degree?

Like my mother, I enjoyed the challenges and self-discovery brought upon through studying. The intensity and focus in any environment is something we both excel in. Public libraries, bookstores, and lectures in undergrad and grad school (Yale University) are wonderful tools. Studying also allows one to reflect a great deal. Reflecting prompts new perspectives, alters perception. The degree itself was not a means to an end for me. It was the process of learning that has kept me engaged. It is a euphoric and transcending experience.  

Today, I mentor students, artists, and young folks as well as maintain a rigorous studio practice.

A portrait of a person with short blond hair and black rectangular glasses smiling at the camera. They are wearing a dark green button down with a black shirt under it.

Image courtesy of Josh Becker

Image courtesy of Josh Becker

Josh Becker, Associate Director of Registration

Josh Becker is the associate director of registration in the Registration and Records office. He has worked at SAIC since 2013 in the Enrollment Services and Student Affairs offices. He received his bachelor’s degree in liberal arts in 2013 and his master’s degree in higher education administration in 2020.

How did college help your career?

College taught me to ask hard questions of myself and helped me determine the path I wanted to take—and maybe more importantly, helped me define the ones I didn't want to take.

What’s something that's unique to the first-generation college experience?

The lack of institutional experience at home. Not having parents or close family members who had navigated these systems (college admissions, enrollment, etc.) meant I had to seek that information elsewhere, and oftentimes I didn't even know I was missing things until well after the fact (if at all).

What advice would you give to current first-generation college students?

Ask lots of questions and pay attention to what others are doing, even if it isn't what you end up choosing to do. Doing so gives yourself access to situations you may not see coming otherwise.

A portrait of a person smiling at the camera. They have dark brown chin-length hair and are wearing a silver top with a long silver necklace, silver hoop earrings, and a silver bracelet. They are leaning against the side of a building. The background is blurred.

Image courtesy of Christina Gómez

Image courtesy of Christina Gómez

Christina Gómez, Professor, Liberal Arts

Christina Gómez is a sociologist focusing on immigration, discrimination, and inequality issues. An award-winning teacher and scholar, her research has explored the experiences of Latinx students in higher education, skin color discrimination, and undocumented students. Most recently, she has examined how children’s books portray Latinx communities and multicultural families. She received her bachelor’s and master of business administration degrees from the University of Chicago and a doctorate from Harvard University.

Why was graduating from college important to you?

As a first-generation student, higher education was such an adventure for me. I loved college—taking classes, attending lectures, and joining student groups. I understood what a privilege and opportunity it was to have the time and resources (I received a generous scholarship) to pursue my education, and I took advantage of it in every way.

How did college help your career and creative practice?

It opened pathways that I did not know existed. I met fellow students, faculty, alums, and visitors to the university who were asking interesting questions. The experience allowed me to see myself in a very different way and to imagine my life in new spaces.

What advice would you give to current first-generation college students?
Get out of your comfort zone—put yourself in uncomfortable situations. Listen and learn. Think about graduate and professional school. If possible, travel; participate in US-based and international study abroad. Seek out a diverse set of mentors—professional and academic—who will support and champion your dreams. Apply for everything; not everything will come your way, and you will receive some rejections along the way, but keep at it. Success is about deliberate persistence—and some luck. Volunteer. Exercise. Rest. Build strong friendships. Take care of your mental health. ■

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