KEARNEY – Mayra Lara gets emotional when talking about her parents, Lorenzo and Flora Perez, and the sacrifices they made for their family.

“Being the oldest, I grew up seeing my parents struggle financially,” said Mayra, one of the couple’s five children.

Lorenzo and Flora never had the opportunity to attend college. In fact, neither made it past the sixth grade in their home country of Mexico, where it’s not uncommon for manual labor to replace classroom learning well before high school.

“They worked hard to help out their parents and help out their siblings,” Mayra said.

That didn’t change when they immigrated to the United States as young adults. Lorenzo made the move first, at age 18, and Flora followed after the couple married in 1990. They lived in Georgia, Oklahoma and Colorado before settling in Minatare, where all five kids were raised.

Although they both have steady jobs – in construction and housekeeping – the couple wanted something more for their kids. And they recognized education could make that happen.

“They always said education was super important and we all took that very seriously, from the moment we started kindergarten until we graduated from high school,” said Mayra, who went one step further by becoming the first member of her family to enroll in college.

She spent one year at Western Nebraska Community College, then transferred to the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where her boyfriend and future husband, Alfredo Lara, was studying construction management. Mayra received the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation Scholarship, which made the transition to UNK even easier.

“Honestly, if I didn’t have that scholarship, I was not going to go to Kearney,” she said. “There was no way in heck my parents could afford to pay for my school considering the fact that they had four other kids they had to support.”

In addition to the financial assistance, Mayra chose UNK because the location and size of the campus allowed her to have a true college experience while remaining close to her parents and siblings. She made lifelong friends through her involvement in the Lambda Theta Nu multicultural sorority.

“It’s like your family away from family,” Mayra said of UNK. “I met friends in college who were in our wedding. Even though they live in Omaha or live in other states, we still communicate.”

Mayra graduated from UNK in May 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish translation and interpretation and a minor in public health. She also earned a degree from the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing in Scottsbluff and currently works as a bilingual registered nurse. Alfredo graduated from UNK in December 2012 and works as a concrete specialist. The couple lives in Minatare with their daughters, ages 2 and 4, and they’re expecting a baby boy in December.

“I want my kids to grow up knowing how important education is,” Mayra said. “I don’t care what they want to do. I don’t care what they go to school for, as long as it’s something they truly enjoy.”

PAVING THE PATH TO SUCCESS

That message has already spread to other members of the Perez family. Miriam, Yovan and Juana Perez followed in their older sister’s footsteps by becoming Lopers and youngest sibling Jimena, an eighth grader at Minatare Public Schools, is already talking about attending UNK.

Miriam earned a degree in business administration from UNK in spring 2020 and now works as a personal banker. Yovan, a certified personal trainer, graduated in summer 2021 with a degree in exercise science. Juana is currently a junior studying psychology and Spanish translation and interpretation.

“My older siblings paved the way for me to come to UNK,” Juana said. “I felt comfortable coming here and my parents love the community of Kearney and really trust UNK to help make their children successful in many ways.”

The support UNK provides for first-generation students was another selling point. Juana is part of a campus committee focused on first-gen initiatives and she’s active in the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion (ODI).

“They just make you feel so welcome there and they expose you to a lot of things. It’s really easy to get involved and make connections,” she said of ODI. “That’s where I learned to take on leadership roles.”

Juana volunteers with the TeamMates Mentoring Program and serves as treasurer of UNK’s Spanish Club. She’s also an undergraduate assistant for the Thompson Scholars Learning Community, a network of students, staff and faculty that provides academic and social support, promotes campus engagement and offers professional development opportunities. It’s available to all recipients of the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation Scholarship.

“That learning community is like gold. They set you up for immediate success,” Juana said. “They help students develop a plan to learn and grow and they really support and care about you.”

With the Buffett Scholarship and a Diversity Service Scholarship through ODI, Juana will graduate debt-free in spring 2024. She plans to attend graduate school to become a bilingual mental health counselor.

“UNK proved to my parents that their American dream was for their children to make something of themselves,” Juana said. “Education is a core value in our family because getting a higher education will change our family for generations.”