KEARNEY – Higher education has always been important to Laura Ibarra Arreguin.

It’s one of her “biggest dreams.”

“I grew up seeing my parents working hard every day and night, never giving up, to provide better opportunities for me. For this reason, I developed an eagerness to make them feel proud and make them realize their sacrifices were not in vain,” the University of Nebraska at Kearney student said.

Ibarra Arreguin and her family moved from El Moral, Guanajuato, Mexico, to Garden City, Kansas, when she was 12. Her parents, Abacu Arreguin and Jose Ibarra, both found jobs at a local meatpacking plant and she started her American education as a fifth grader.

“It was kind of hard for me because I had to get used to a whole different life,” Ibarra Arreguin said. “I didn’t know any English, so it was really hard for me to communicate with other people around me.”

The challenges continued as she got older. English language learners don’t always have the same opportunities as other students, she said, especially when it comes to college exposure and preparation.

Although her parents supported her decision to pursue higher education, they didn’t know anything about the application process, financial aid and other important areas. Her three older siblings never attended college either, so Ibarra Arreguin had to figure all of that out on her own.

“Being a first-generation student coming from an immigrant family is a privilege to me because I have the opportunity to live experiences that have not been provided to my family before,” she said. “But at the same time, it involves having nobody in your family to help you navigate through college. Therefore, sometimes I feel confused, overwhelmed and stressed and there are times when I question my potential and want to give up.”

As a future educator, she can make sure other students don’t feel the same way.

“My main goal is to be in a classroom where I can create a safe and welcoming environment for students who come to the United States not knowing the language or the culture,” she said. “I want to make them feel welcome and give them a place where they can be themselves. I remember when I first came to the United States, it was really hard for me to get used to being in the classroom, and I want to make that experience better and easier for them.”

TRUE TRAILBLAZER

Ibarra Arreguin found that kind of environment at UNK, where she’s a senior studying elementary education with an English as a second language endorsement and math minor.

She first connected with the university through the Nebraska Cultural Unity Conference, an annual event hosted by UNK’s Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) that brings students from underrepresented backgrounds together to learn about higher education and leadership while networking with peers from across the region. Ibarra Arreguin attended the conference during high school and as a student at Garden City Community College.

“Through those experiences, I was able to see that here at UNK I would be able to find a place where I can belong and be myself,” she said. “I knew that if I was struggling or had a problem, there were people who would be there to support me.”

One of those people is Luis Olivas, interim director of ODI. He describes Ibarra Arreguin as “extremely caring and friendly,” someone who brings a positive attitude everywhere she goes.

“Being a transfer student has not slowed Laura’s zeal for participation on campus. She is involved in various student organizations, because she has made it her mission to enrich her knowledge of diverse communities and populations so she can better serve them when she is a teacher,” Olivas said.

Since her arrival in fall 2020, Ibarra Arreguin has been active with the Hispanic Student Association, Global Student Association and PRISM, an organization that supports and educates people about the LGBTQIA+ community. She received the Maestros del Futuro: Bilingual Educators Scholarship, an ODI award that covers the cost of room and board.

As a teacher education student, Ibarra Arreguin gains hands-on experience in the classroom and professional skills through partnerships with local elementary schools that help prepare her for the career.

“The support that I’ve received here at UNK has been amazing,” she said. “From my classmates, professors, tutors and mentors, they’ve always been there for me no matter what and they push me to do things I never imagined I was capable of doing. It’s pretty amazing what they do for you here at UNK. It’s like having your own family.”

Several members of her UNK family were on hand Wednesday when Ibarra Arreguin received the Trailblazer Award presented to an outstanding first-generation student. She was recognized during the annual First-Gen Day celebration on campus.

“I cannot think of a person who deserves this award more than Laura,” Olivas said. “She is leading the way as a trailblazer, defying the odds first-gen students face without forgetting those whose shoulders she stands on to be successful.”

A dean’s list student, Ibarra Arreguin is on track to graduate in December 2023, then she hopes to work in Garden City or another diverse community so she can make an impact in the school system there and help students like her reach their full potential.

“My college degree is not just a degree, it is a reflection of my and my parents’ sacrifices, hard work, dedication and dreams,” she said. “By pursuing a higher education, I am setting the path for future generations in my family to follow, allowing them to understand that it is possible to make your dreams come true.”