First-generation students and their mentors honored

Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, PhD, the first in his family to attend college, spoke at event honoring first-generation medical and graduate students and their mentors.

- By Tracie White

Alvaro Amorin, who immigrated to the United States from Peru and was the first in his family to go to college, completed the medical school’s yearlong First Generation Mentorship Program.
Steve Fisch

As the first in his family to attend college, Alvaro Amorin was forced to tackle many challenges on his own. His parents, who immigrated to the United States from Peru when he was 12, didn’t have the experience needed to help answer his many questions about college, starting with how to apply.

“I wasn’t really going to go to college,” said Amorin, now a second-year medical student at Stanford. “My parents didn’t know anything about enrolling.”

“I didn’t know what the SATs were,” said his friend and fellow second-year medical student Hector Martinez, also the first in his family to attend college.

Amorin and Martinez, who took part in the medical school’s First Generation Mentorship Program, were among the mentees and mentors honored at the end of the yearlong program at a ceremony Sept. 11 in the Arrillaga Alumni Center.

Designed to pair first-generation medical students and graduate students in the biosciences with mentors who were themselves once first-generation medical or graduate students, the program paired 18 students this past year. Their mentors included faculty, alumni and biotechnology executives. The program defines first-generation students as those who are first in their families to go to college or graduate school, or those who were the first in their families to be born in the United States.

In its just-completed second year, the program not only matched mentors and mentees, it added seminars on such topics as “social belonging” and the “imposter syndrome” — a common feeling among students at elite universities that someone made a mistake letting them in, and they really don’t belong. The mentees also benefitted from connecting with mentors in different fields through various events, including a panel discussion.

Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne speaks Sept. 11 at a ceremony for mentors and mentees in the First Generation Mentorship Program.    
Steve Fisch

“This program helps the Stanford Medicine first-year students approach their graduate school journey with the support of a community of alumni, faculty and staff partners,” said Mijiza Sanchez, EdD, associate dean for medical student affairs and founding director of the program.

The program was initially funded in 2016 with seed money from Stanford Associates, an organization of Stanford alumni.

“I’m first-gen, and I know from my own experiences when you don’t have someone who has gone through college there for guidance, it’s hard to navigate, especially at a place like Stanford,” Sanchez said. “My parents are immigrants from the West Indies. I didn’t have a road map laid out for me. But I have had many extraordinary mentors who helped me direct my path.”

Tessier-Lavigne was first-generation student

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, PhD, president of Stanford University, spoke to the program’s mentors and mentees, telling the story of his own challenges as the first in his family to attend college.

“My parents didn’t go to college. My father didn’t graduate from high school,” said Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist, former biotechnology executive and Rhodes Scholar.

Born in Canada, Tessier-Lavigne attended McGill University as an undergraduate. He said mentorship played a key role in his college success. His parents, who were in the military and moved the family from the province of Ontario to London and Brussels, always supported his desire to go to college, but they couldn’t advise him on how to achieve his goals, he said.

“Most of us want to turn to our parents for advice,” he said. Which he did. He asked his parents myriad questions about college, like seeking advice on what major to choose, but they just didn’t have the experience to answer.

“Mostly what they said was, ‘I’m sure you’ll make the right decision,’” he said. “They couldn’t tell me things like, ‘Maybe you should get an internship in the summer.’

“For me, I always wanted to be a scientist,” he continued. “As an undergraduate, I didn’t know what it would entail to become a scientist. I had never met a scientist before I went to college.”

Instead of luck, a program

Much of his success in connecting with great mentors was based on luck, he said.

Mijiza Sanchez, founding director of the First Generation Mentorship Program, speaks at the ceremony, which was held at the Arrillaga Alumni Center.
Steve Fisch

“I’m thrilled we have a program like this at Stanford,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to rely on luck.”

At the end of the evening, students peppered the university president with questions and spoke a bit about how this one-year program helped them. One of the mentees, Rich Trimble, now a second-year medical student, got up to the podium to thank his mentor Robert Harrington, MD, professor and chair of medicine, for his mentorship throughout the year.

“It was really hard getting through the first year of medical school,” Trimble said. “It feels really good to be supported.”

For Amorin, this past year’s mentorship will help him navigate his future career, he said.

“I’m interested in neurosurgery,” said Amorin, who after high school found academic success at community college. As a medical student, he faces a whole new range of questions about his future, and his mentor — Natalia Gomez-Ospina, MD, PhD, an instructor in pediatrics and medical genetics, who was born and raised in Columbia — has been there for him, he said.

“She’s helped advise me on things like whether it’s feasible to do a PhD on top of my MD,” he said. “She’s been through it. She knows what it’s like.”

The program, which is sponsored by the Office of Medical Student Affairs, the Office of Graduate Education and the Stanford Medicine Alumni Association, begins a new academic year in October, pairing new first-generation students with mentors.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit

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