First-generation student seized grad school opportunity


When Lily Guillen started her college education, she started from square one.

One story she likes to tell is that when she started her first semester at Monmouth College in Illinois, a friend asked her if she’d gotten her textbooks. She said she hadn’t received them yet. It was then that her friend told her that she had to purchase the books.

“I didn't know I had to buy books,” she said.

Lily, a graduate student in studio art, is one of thousands of first-generation students at Wichita State University. She will be taking over the university’s Instagram account on Wednesday, Nov. 4, to share her experiences as a first-gen student.

“It's been quite an adventure,” she said. “It’s been a little easier to navigate through my grad program, because I learned a lot about how things work in undergrad. It was a challenge learning how things work, but I've had peers and professors who’ve supported me through my undergrad and grad years.”

It was Lily’s undergraduate professors who urged her to apply for the Master of Fine Arts program at Wichita State.

“They saw that I had the potential to do it, and they talked to me about all the opportunities for grad school,” she said. “I enjoyed the work from Wichita State’s professors, and I really wanted to work with professors whose work inspired me.”

Lily’s family immigrated to the United States when she was 2 years old. She said growing up in a Mexican American family has been a strong influence on her academic choices.

“Being Mexican has impacted the type of research and artwork that I make,” Lily said. “It's also drawn me to want to look for more Mexican role models in academia and the art world, which has been a little difficult since I live in the United States, but it has also been rewarding to know they are there, even if it seems like they might be a little more hidden.”

She said she finds support in her family.

“My parents are proud of me,” she said. “But at the same time, they might not always understand the magnitude of some of the things I get to do or accomplish. My older sister is the only one besides me that has a bachelor’s degree in my family, so it's nice that we had this support between each other.

Lily plans to graduate in May 2021. After that, she wants to expand the business she started when she was a teenager, Lilybee Photography.

“I really would like to continue to be an entrepreneur. I have been freelancing in photography since I was 16 shooting weddings. That's something I absolutely love, and so I would really like to expand my business after I graduate as well as continue making art,” she said.

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