a group of college students holding up a proud first gen sign
Story Made in the CSU

CSU Celebrates First-Generation Students

Alisia Ruble

Meet a few inspiring first-generation college graduates of the CSU who are paying it forward.

a group of college students holding up a proud first gen sign

Courtesy of Whitney Howard/CSU Channel Islands​


Making the decision to pursue higher education, especially when you're the first in your family to do so, can be daunting. Without experienced family members to look to for guidance, students can feel as though they have to forge a path alone. “Do I belong here?" “Who can answer my list of questions?"

At the CSU, nearly one-third of undergraduate​s are the first in their family to attend college. The CSU provides a multitude of resources and avenues of support for these students, including the Educational Opportunity ProgramSummer Bridge and peer mentoring. And many CSUs have gained national recognition for their commitment to advancing outcomes of first-gen college students.

CSU Chancellor Mildred García herself is a first-generation college graduate, and she understands the unique challenges first-gen students face. Dr. García was raised in New York City by her parents, who migrated from Puerto Rico, and though they lacked much of the knowledge required to navigate higher education, they placed a great deal of importance on it.

Her parents reminded her often that, “The only inheritance a poor family can leave its children is a good education."

In honor of National First-Generation College Celebration Day, we highlight just a few of the outstanding graduates of the CSU who accepted the challenge and transformed from first-generation students to remarkable leaders who pay it forward. Meet them.

Luke Wood, Ph.D. ​


President, Sacramento State University
B.A. Black History and ​Politics, Sacramento State ​​​​

Luke Wood credits Sacramento State, and the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), with putting him on the path to success—a path that led him right back home earlier this year to serve as his alma mater's ninth president.

“It's about investing back in the community that invested in me," Wood said. “I know what Sac State is capable of doing. I was a Black male, former foster child, first-generation college student who struggled with food insecurity and housing insecurity, and I was able to graduate because of the incredible people and systems of support that were in place."

Wood earned a bachelor's degree in Black history and politics and a master's degree in Higher Education Leadership in Student Affairs from Sacramento State before attending Arizona State University, where he earned a master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction in Early Childhood Education and a doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies.

Wood joined San Diego State as a faculty member in 2011, where he also served as co-director of the Comm​unity College Equity Assessment Lab (CCEAL)—a research and practice center aimed at reducing equity gaps between students of color and their peers—and as vice president for Student Affairs and Campus Diversity, among other roles. In 2017, he became the first Black faculty member named a distinguished professor at San Diego State.

An author of 16 books and more than 180 publications, Wood's research focuses on racial inequality issues in education, particularly community colleges. He also studies the overexposure of suspensions for​ boys and students of color in PK-12 schools.

Read more about Luke Wood​​ in the Sacramento State newsroom.​​

Amanda Quintero, Ph.D. 


Special Assistant to the President, CSUN
B.A. Global Studies, CSU Monterey Bay

As the daughter of immigrants from Mexico, Amanda Quintero ​understands the challenges many first-generation, historically undeserved students face because she lived them. The university world was unfamiliar to her family, and she faced resistance as she pursued multiple degrees. 

But once she began her higher education journey, Quintero thrived. She earned a bachelor's degree in global studies from CSU​ Monterey Bay, a master's degree in public policy and administration from Cal State Long Beach and a doctorate in education from Claremont Graduate University. 

Quintero has spent her career working to make higher education an attainable goal for students of all backgrounds with a focus on providing the families of first-generation students with “college knowledge" and creating whole-family outreach programming that invites families to campus to create a sense of belonging.

“It's about welcoming the family to be part of the entire experience, not just on the first day, and not just on the last day, but all those opportunities in between," Quintero said.

Prior to joining CSUN as special assistant to the president for inclusive excellence, Quintero served as the associate vice provost for Student Success and Equity Initiatives at CSU Channel Islands. There she secured nearly $30 million in external funds to lead equity-centered institutional change initiatives and helped the university earn recognition in 2010 as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI).

At CSUN, Quintero also serves as equity innovation officer for the Global HSI Equity Innovation Hub, where she works to transform HSIs throughout the CSU and nation in order to increase student success. The hub recently awarded nearly $2 million to 17 finalists to support their efforts to inspire the next generation of creators and innovators to pursue high-demand careers in STEM and the creative and tech industries.

Read more about Amanda Quintero in the CSUN newsroom.

Luis Dominguez


Systems Engineer, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
B.S. Mechanical​​ Engineering, Cal Poly Pomona 

Luis Dominguez grew up in South Central Los Angeles roughly twenty miles from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), but it wasn't until his third year attending Cal Poly Pomona that he even heard of the lab. What began as an internship turned into a dream job, one that also provides him with a platform for inspiring future generations of kids like him.

“I never thought I'd help put two one-ton robots and a helicopter on Mars, but here I am having done that and looking to do a whole lot more," Dominguez said during an address to the CSU Board of Trustees​.

Dominguez is a first-generation college graduate and the proud son of immigrant parents who, he says, did their best to foster his curiosity but struggled to live within the confines of their household income.

While at Cal Poly Pomona, Dominguez participated in several clubs for Latinx students and flexed his entrepreneurial muscles, even running his own landscaping business. After graduating from CPP in 2009, he was hired full-time at JPL where he has worked on a number of important projects.

His latest mission for the national research facility involved his work on the Mars rover Perseverance. As the deputy electrical integration and test lead, Dominguez not only oversaw his team putting electrical equipment on the space craft, but he also was charged with making sure everything was working properly before takeoff. 

Today, Dominguez finds his greatest reward in talking to youth about what he does and encouraging them to work toward their dreams. 

“I like to do a lot of outreach," he said. “Even though JPL is an amazing job, you can sometimes lose sight of that. Once I go out and talk to kids and share my story about coming to JPL, I can tell it is inspiring them and that also inspires me."

Read more about Luis Dominguez in the Cal Poly Pomona newsroom.

Cathy Sandeen, Ph.D.​


President, Cal State East Bay
B.A. Speech Pathology, Cal Poly Humboldt  

Growing up, Cathy Sandeen noticed that many of the women in her family were unsatisfied with their traditional life of motherhood and homemaking. She only knew a few women who pursued an education beyond high school, but they inspired her to dream bigger.

"I felt these working women were more engaged in a broader world and, on reflection, I wanted that for myself," she said. "Fortunately, the Cal State system was booming at the time, it was very affordable and my high school counselors really encouraged and helped students apply to college."

Though she faced challenges as a first-generation college studentbefore the term was even coinedat what was then Humboldt State, she persevered and earned a bachelor's degree in speech pathology. She then went on to earn a master's degree in broadcast communication from San Francisco State, a master's degree in business administration from the University of California, Los Angeles and a doctorate in communication from the University of Utah.

"My degrees gave me confidence to step up and serve and showed me how an individual can have a positive impact," she said.

​Sandeen has spent much of her career working to ensure first-generation college students like herself have the resources necessary​ to pursue their goals. Prior to becoming president of Cal State East Bay in 2020, Sandeen served as chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage and chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and the University of Wisconsin-Extension, as well as held faculty and leadership positions at several universities across the country.

"I could not have anticipated this, but I have come full circle from where I started as a first-gen undergrad in the CSU," she said. "What I initially considered a disadvantage has turned into a tremendous advantage for me in serving others."

Read more about Cathy Sandeen in the Calstate.edu newsroom.

Star Rivera-Lacey, Ph.D.


Superintendent/President, Palomar College
B.A. Liberal Studies, CSU​ San Marcos 

Money was always tight for Star Rivera-Lacey as a child growing up in Oceanside. Her parents immigrated from El Salvador before she was born, and they always stressed the importance of a college degree to allow her to have a promising career and future. 

"My mom really wanted me to have aspirations and picked the highest thing in the sky," Rivera-Lacey said. “That's why she named me Star." ​

With her parents' encouragement, Rivera-Lacey cultivated a passion for learning from a young age. She saw how they worked to improve their English by taking ESL classes at Palomar. Sometimes they even took Rivera-Lacey with them. Little could they have imagined that, almost four decades later, she would return to lead that very college.

But Rivera-Lacey's path to becoming a higher education professional wasn't an easy one.  She experienced a lot of common struggles first-generation students face: confusion about credits, struggling to afford adequate transportation, balancing school and a full-time job. But she eventually found a home at CSUSM working on campus in a student support position that prepped her for her future career in academia.

After earning a bachelor's degree in liberal studies, Rivera-Lacey received a master's degree in counseling from San Diego State and a doctorate in education from Claremont Graduate University. She served in various student support roles in the California Community College system before being appointed the first Latina to serve as president of Palomar College in 2021.

Her advice to current and future college students: “There are going to be obstacles in the way, doors that close, but there's always a window that's open. If you just put one foot forward, the road will rise to meet. There are so many people who are in education that love what they do and believe in students. You'll find the help." ​

Read more about Star Rivera-Lacey in the CSU San Marcos newsroom.

Learn about resources for first-generation college students, including the Educational Opportunity Program and ​Summer Bridge.