The American dream story has been told so many times from so many perspectives over the decades that it’s almost become culturally trite. Yet the individual stories remain inspirational. They are what keep immigrant parents striving to provide a better life for their children — and keep children believing that such a life truly is attainable.
Nobody knows this better than Ingrid Perez.
The daughter of immigrants from a small town in south central Mexico, Perez is one of 562 first-generation college students attending the William F. Harrah College of Hospitality, while it's estimated that about 50% of UNLV students will be the first in their family to get a degree.
No doubt, a great many have a backstory similar to Perez’s.
“My parents came to the United States specifically to give me, and eventually my younger siblings, better opportunities,” says Perez, a sophomore in the Hospitality College. “So from a young age, they encouraged me to do well in school, knowing that would help me succeed further in life.”
She certainly looks to be well on her way.
Despite having to navigate all the challenges that come with being a first-year college student — and a few additional ones that come with being first-gen — Perez finished her freshman year with a 4.0 grade-point average. This after graduating from Northwest Career and Technical Academy, a magnet high school that Perez chose to attend for two primary reasons: The pre-college-preparatory scholastic rigor and the hospitality program that was offered.
No, it wasn’t a no-brainer decision because she was raised in the "Hospitality Capital of the World." In fact, Perez initially opted for Northwest because of its teacher education program. But when she saw there was a hospitality component, she did some quick online research and switched gears.
“It immediately seemed very interesting, and I especially liked that a career in hospitality involved a lot of talking to people,” Perez says. “So I decided to go that direction, figuring if it didn’t work for me, I could pursue a teaching degree in college.”
It didn’t take long for Perez to affirm that she made the right call. And once she did, she set her sights on her hometown university. “UNLV was 100 percent my only choice,” she says. “It was the only college I applied to.”
When her application was approved, it was cause for celebration — not just for her but also several close friends who also happened to get accepted to UNLV as first-gen students. “It was meaningful for all of us because we were taking that first step together,” Perez says. “But my family — especially my siblings — were extremely excited for me that I was getting the chance to continue my education.”
Although she was able to get a bit of a jump-start on her university studies in high school, Perez — like most first-gen college students — had to overcome a fairly steep learning curve in the months leading up to college, as well as during her initial days on campus.
Enter Kaila Seidler. A fellow UNLV Hospitality College student, Seidler was (and remains) a volunteer with the university’s Peer Mentor Program. One of the mentees with whom Seidler was paired: Perez.
“When I started, it was difficult for me to find guidance from adults and staff, because I felt embarrassed that I had so many questions that I didn’t know the answers to,” Perez says. “Since my parents didn’t attend college, I didn’t know anything about the whole college process.
“So it was nice to be able to go to Kaila with any questions I had, knowing she wasn’t going to judge me. And since she was closer to me in age, it didn’t feel as awkward or are as formal as it would have if had I sought out professors or staff members.”
The Peer Mentor Program experience had such a positive impact on Perez she decided to pay it forward by signing up to be a mentor prior to the start of the 2022-23 academic year. During the fall semester, she has taken 30 freshmen under her wing, several of whom are first-generation.
It’s a role that befits her personality.
“I’ve always tried to be a role model for my three younger siblings,” she says. “I also worked for a time at the preschool here on campus, so it’s just naturally the kind of thing I lean into. I expect that to continue as a professional.”
Speaking of her next life phase, Perez doesn’t yet have a set-in-stone career path. While she chose human resources as her hospitality concentration, she hasn’t taken any HR courses. “One of the blessings of hospitality is that there are so many different options. At the same time, having so many options can make things overwhelming,” she says. “I’m excited to dip my toes into HR, and if I enjoy it as much as I hope I will, I’ll continue down that road. If not, I’ll pivot and find something else I’m passionate about.”
For Perez, that last part is particularly important. Yes, she’s balancing a plate that looks like it’s constantly overflowing — in addition to her academic responsibilities, she is in between part-time jobs and is active in multiple student organizations, including the National Society of Minorities in Hospitality. And yes, she acknowledges life occasionally gets difficult and stressful.
But Perez insists that it’s all personally rewarding.
“Everything that I choose to do is something I genuinely enjoy doing,” she says. “That definitely helps keep me motivated. Because I know that the end of it, I’m going to be proud of everything that I accomplish.”
And no matter what those accomplishments end up being, and no matter where they might take her, Perez will always remain grateful to her family support her pursuit of the American dream.
“The high school I went to was not near my house at all. My parents could’ve told me, ‘You can’t go there because it’s too far away.’ But they didn’t,” she says. “That high school introduced me to hospitality and what a career in that field could look like.
“So as I look back, I’m proud of all the things I have done on my own, but I’m also thankful for all the people who helped me get to this point. Because this definitely has not been a solo journey.”
A story worth telling, indeed.