After becoming the first person in her family to graduate college, a daughter decided to dedicate her Harvard degree to the woman who risked everything in pursuit of a better life – her mother, an immigrant from Mexico.
The now 26-year-old, Nataly Morales Villa, was only 5 years old when she immigrated to the U.S from Mexico with her mother, Verónica.
As an elementary school student, the teacher often used the American pronunciation of her name, confusing the young girl. Despite correcting the teacher, she eventually integrated into the American dialect.
“Me being able to obtain an education became my definition of the American dream.” Nataly told Good Morning America. “Despite everything going on at home, my parents always encouraged me to study, and to take advantage of the opportunities of living in the United States.”
Nataly’s father struggled with alcoholism, so her mother took on the responsibility of being her sole guardian, all the while keeping a demanding job at a poultry plant.
“Due to limited circumstances, growing up in poverty, and also growing up in a society that didn’t encourage women to pursue an education,” said Nataly, “my mom only had the opportunity to pursue a middle-school education.”
So, as a first-generation college student, Nataly received her undergraduate degree from the University of North Georgia and then went on to graduate from Harvard with a master’s degree in education administration.
Nataly is aware that her mother did not have the same opportunities she did, and she fell within the 56 percentile of college students who had parents that did not complete a bachelor’s degree, according to the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators’ Center for First-generation Student Success.
She noted a lack of institutional support for students with diverse backgrounds, and while she found others who could help her within the community, it was still difficult to navigate the college application process.
Though the road was littered with adversity, Nataly wasn’t going to let anything stop her from the dream her mother risked everything to help her achieve.
So, as they stood on the steps of the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University, Nataly dressed her mother from head to toe with her graduation regalia as a way of saying thank you.
“I kept reflecting on how, ultimately, me being able to wear a masters graduation outfit was a result of just everything that my mom sacrificed,” Nataly said. “And if anything, she graduated with me.”
Because of her mother’s sacrifice so many years ago, Nataly now has dedicated her time to growing her own Spanish translation agency, as well as developing a project to provide graduation sashes, specially embroidered, by a community to students with LatinX backgrounds. A percentage of the sales will support the artisans’ children in their education.
Nataly postulates that education is the best tool to advance your community.
“I’m a firm believer that education is liberation,” she said. “One, as a first-generation college student, but also seeing that education is a way out of generational poverty, out of misogyny for women, and also the best way to build generational wealth.”
Watch the video of Nataly honoring her mother here.