First Gen. Spotlight: Gonzalez

Nov. 8 marks First Generation Day, as part of the University of Florida’s First-Generation college students’ weeklong celebration. This was selected as the date for the annual National First-Generation College Celebration to honor the anniversary of the signing of the Higher Education Act of 1965. The Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure & Environment (ESSIE) worked on a series of interviews for a few first-generation students.

Fabiana Janeth Gonzalez, environmental Engineering junior

Could you tell us a bit about your background and what inspired you to pursue a degree in your field of engineering?
Growing up as an Argentine-American in Miami, FL, I saw first-hand the emerging threats of climate change to coastal cities due to increasing sea level rise, storm surges, and flooding intensities. I always was fond and appreciative of the natural beauty South Florida provided such as their beaches, natural parks, and wetlands. So, when I learned that climate change and other external increasing pressures are imposing a threat to our natural environments and livelihood, I felt a sense of urgency for my hometown and became involved in environmental activism all throughout high school. That is when I knew that I wanted to serve in projects related to environmental mitigation, protection and conservation. Hence, I chose Environmental Engineering as my major!

As a first-generation college student, what challenges did you face when entering higher education, and how did you overcome them?
As a first-generation college student, one of the main challenges I faced was feeling unprepared for higher education. I often felt like students with college-educated parents—especially parents educated in the United States—had a better sense of idea of the resources available to them, such as internships, research opportunities, and networking opportunities. Therefore, searching for job opportunities and surmising about potential career prospects generated a lot of anxiety and dread. I would often think I would never be able to get a job after I graduate because I did not know the “right” people. But because my family did not have the educational background related to my career, I decided to take advantage of the resources the University of Florida and especially, Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars, provided for students like me! I attended several internship preparation workshops by the Society of Hispanic Engineers, resume building sessions by the Society of Environmental Engineers, and the Career Showcase that hosts hundreds of engineering companies. These events and opportunities allowed me to familiarize myself with the engineering industry and American work culture. I now feel much more prepared when it comes to searching for engineering internships for the summer term and potential career aspects!

What achievements, research or projects are you most proud of during your academic journey?
I am proud of being part of Engineers without Borders (EWB) Peru Design Team—a student organization whose mission is to empower communities to meet basic human needs to solve the world’s most pressing challenges through engineering projects. EWB has brought me a sense of community amongst other fellow engineers that share the same values and concerns as me. It has allowed me to share different perspectives and give back to the local community in Peru emphasizing human-centered design which has allowed me to grow as a future practicing environmental engineer. I am also proud of being able to study abroad in Japan over the summer term to improve my Japanese proficiency. This was a feat to accomplish because it involved an immense amount of planning ahead since freshmen year. Being able to live in Japan as a resident for several months was a literal dream come true and it made all my hard work pay off! Studying abroad is definitely something I encourage every student to do despite their background because it is doable and a life-changing experience!

Could you share any advice or words of encouragement for other first-generation students considering a path in engineering?
Something I wish someone told me when I was a freshman in college is to not be discouraged by your lack of knowledge in certain areas because the University of Florida does a wonderful job serving their first-gen students. UF truly cares about the success of all of their students, especially students like us who are immigrants and/or first-gen! There are so many opportunities & resources available to students in every field for every interest and concern imaginable. At first, the abundance of resources was overwhelming, but after a few semesters you will be confident in your ability as a prospective engineer! Trust! Also, do not be afraid to really put yourself out there and out of your comfort zone. College is an amazing opportunity where we can meet such a diverse group of people and try new things that you couldn’t have before. So definitely take advantage of your time here because these are our last remaining years where we are asked to simply think and reflect on ideas and possibilities!

How has being a first-generation student shaped your perspective and approach to your studies and career?
Being a first-generation student has made me much more determined, passionate and intentional as a student. Despite being the first in family to pursue higher education, my family has supported my goals unconditionally which motivated me to deliberately pursue environmental engineering with a purpose. I believe that it has made me much more appreciative of having the opportunity to pursue a bachelor’s degree when my parents did not have the opportunity. I think it is easy to take education for granted but being first-generation reminds you of the privilege and opportunities associated with higher education.

How do you envision your future in the field of engineering? What are your career goals?
In the future, I envision myself working for an environmental engineering firm after graduation in order to apply engineering theory into the real-world. My areas of interest within the field of environmental engineering are environmental remediation and atmospheric pollution treatment. I hope to work for a firm that practices the same values as me such as sustainability, human-centered design, and diversity. In my late career, I hope to work for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in mitigating contaminated waste sites and atmospheric contamination. For me, making an impact is the most important aspect of a successful and happy career—no matter how small.