Published: May 3, 2016
Emmanuel Melgoza Alfaro

It was a long journey from the tiny Mexican town of Tlazazalca Michoacan to Boulder for Emmanuel Melgoza Alfaro. And an equally long distance, culturally, to become his family’s first high school and college graduate. On Saturday, Alfaro will complete this journey when he graduates from CU-Boulder with a degree in ethnic studies.

“I think for a lot of first-generation college students, we hold a big responsibility,” said Alfaro, whose minor is in technology, arts and media (TAM). “When we graduate from college, we get a double degree—in our major and in life. Because you have to help out at home, especially if your parents don’t speak English. I feel like I had to grow up fast.”

Alfaro immigrated to the United States in 2000 when he was seven and learned to speak English by watching PBS programs on TV and listening to the radio. While in grade school and still learning English, Alfaro did his best to help his Spanish-speaking parents with financial documents and filling out paperwork.

Growing up in Westminster, Colorado, Alfaro dreamed of going to college, but he knew his parents would not be financially able to help him reach that goal. 

In high school, Alfaro participated in the International Baccalaureate program, where students are encouraged to go to college. He earned as much money as he could by working as a short-order cook and doing construction jobs on weekends. With the help of grants and scholarships, he was able to attend CU-Boulder. He continued working during college in the university’s Center for Community, Ethnic Studies Department and Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement.

The Ethnic Studies Department became a comforting place for Alfaro, where he could interact with students of similar backgrounds. He also found camaraderie by participating in student groups such as the Cultural Events Board and MEChA, an organization that concentrates on political, social, educational and cultural issues of underrepresented communities.

Through the Study Abroad program, Alfaro had the opportunity to travel to Cuba and Nicaragua. Using the skills he learned in the TAM program, he conducted an independent language study project working with an African-Nicaraguan community. The villagers speak both Spanish, English and their indigenous language that is starting to be lost. Alfaro created an educational audiobook for the community to help re-establish the community’s indigenous language. For his TAM capstone project, Alfaro put the audiobook on a website and translated it into Spanish.

“Ethnic studies taught me to be a critical thinker, while TAM taught me how to help communities through technology,” said Alfaro. “I had this wonderful opportunity and privilege of getting an education, so I want to give back.”

The opportunities Alfaro has received instilled in him a sense of responsibility to his family and his community. His post-graduation plans are to get a job in the technology industry with an eye on creating a hacker space for Latino students, much like the BTU Lab in ATLAS at CU-Boulder.

“What drives me is my family and the hard work of my dad that’s reflected on his hands, my brother, and the hard work my mom has done to keep us together,” said Alfaro. “They’re proud of me. For them to see me graduate and receive that piece of paper represents not only my future, but also my past. My diploma is not just mine, but also my family’s.”