Programs and activities: Membership Director, National Student Speech Language Hearing Association; Project MALES Student Worker, University Leadership Network; Student Clinician, Lang Stuttering Institute
Shortly after arriving to UT Austin by way of Fort Worth, Texas, Zulema Juarez joined the First-Gen Longhorns program, which connects students with academic resources and a wide support network of alumni, staff, faculty and friends. While wrapping up their senior year, Juarez has been giving back to their fellow first-gen students by serving as an ambassador and mentor of the program.
Juarez—and many other First-Gen Longhorns graduates—will be honored at this year’s virtual graduation celebration on Wednesday, May 20. Go to this website for more information.
What excites you about the field of speech pathology?
Through clinical observations, interning at Austin Speech Labs, and as a student clinician at the Lang Stuttering Institute (LSI), I witnessed how speech-language therapy has impacted the lives of individuals. My field empowers people to express their ideas and desires. Communication is a process—being heard, understood, and respected. I am excited to be a part of this mission.
What is the greatest benefit of the First-Gen Longhorns program?
The best thing about the program is their willingness to help students succeed by providing resources and guidance. Through those resources, I was able to get connected with several role models who encouraged me to apply for graduate school. I never felt heard or believed in, and the amount of support I received from first-gen representatives has been a life-changing experience.
What was the biggest challenge you faced as a first-gen college student? How did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge was navigating college without any knowledge of how it worked. For my major, you have to apply for graduate school before practicing as a speech-language pathologist (SLP). I did not know that I had to take certain classes for my degree or that I needed to start building my resume or prepare for the GRE. I didn’t even know what “GRE” meant and I felt like I was the only one who struggled as a first-gen student. I was afraid of asking for help because most of my professors were white and I felt like they wouldn’t understand.
How else did you get support from the First-Gen Longhorns program during some rocky patches?
My first year of college, I was performing poorly in one class and it was impacting my mental health. I visited a professor during his office hours and asked him a question regarding the class material. His only response was, “Are you from the Valley?” Me: “No, why?” Professor: “I can tell that you are Mexican and they don’t teach you what you need to know for college.” I left his office feeling a mixture of hurt and anger. I talked to [First-Gen Longhorns Senior Programs Manager] Mike Gutierrez, who encouraged me to report him, and he gave me the resources I needed. I was too scared to report him because I felt like I was alone; the students and the department loved him. I didn’t think that I would be heard or understood, so I didn’t report it. Luckily, he retired and I used those emotions as fuel to push through college as a first-gen student.
I overcame those challenges by being honest with myself and with the people around me. I used my experiences and identity as a first-gen student to tell my story. Who was I and what brought me to college? I am a first-gen student who is passionate about maintaining and improving people’s communication skills and their overall quality of life. I was honest with my professors and peers, and I asked for help when it was needed. I wasn’t going to let anyone make me feel ashamed for not knowing what “GRE” meant. I used my humor and story to help people understand where I come from and why I wanted to achieve my dreams. Most importantly, I asked for help.
Looking back at some of your fondest UT memories, do any professors stand out in your mind?
“I got the opportunity to have one of the best professors in the department, [Communication Sciences and Disorders Instructor] Natalie Czimskey, who cared enough to listen to my story and encouraged me to apply for graduate school. She was my mentor and guided me through all the opportunities I had post graduation. I finally had a professor who believed in my ability to succeed. Like Lady Gaga once said, “There can be 100 people in the room, and 99 don’t believe in you, and you just need one to believe in you.”
Where do you see yourself after graduation?
I hope to work as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) assistant during my year off to prepare to apply for graduate school. I see myself completing graduate school as a first-gen student. As a future clinician, I see myself working with people with aphasia and/or traumatic brain injuries. After several years in the field, I see myself becoming the president or vice president of the department and supporting first-gen students who wish to become SLP’s.
How have you been doing amid the COVID-19 crisis?
It has impacted my mental health, but luckily the Counseling and Mental Health Center has been helping me through this difficult time. I think it’s important to talk about how this has impacted people who struggle with their mental health. I have been finding new ways to cope and manage through this transition. I am now trying yoga, something I wouldn’t imagine myself doing.
Have you gained any new insights or perspectives during this challenging time?
I think it’s important to tell people how you feel, to love people hard and appreciate every moment with your loved ones. This difficult time has taught me that there’s so much more that I need to experience.
What advice would you give to incoming First-Gen Longhorns?
I would encourage them to find a mentor that holds a position that correlates to their field or wherever they would like to be. There are several resources available to students, but the best resource is a mentor who has a thorough understanding of the field. They will have the best advice for you. Finding that mentor is difficult because you have to be comfortable enough to share your thoughts and ask questions. But embrace your identity and share your story, because someone will hear and support you. It’s a crazy ride, but you are most definitely not alone.
What will you miss most about being on the UT campus?
I will most definitely miss the people. I will miss my CSD professors, Dr. Koul, Dr. Czimskey, and people at the LSI. I will miss the tower, the squirrels and the strangers at the PCL who watched my things while I went to the restroom. I will miss being around some of the best people who are here to change the world.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thank you for taking the time to share my experiences as a first-gen student. Do not let people discourage you—and keep moving forward. Pero ponte las pilas: Be proud of who you are.