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News & Events

First-generation student spotlight: A conversation with Mariana Ray-Hernández

A young woman with tan skin and dark, curly hair in a ponytail. She wears a dark blue dress with a small gold necklace.

Story by Sofia More x’26, UW–Madison student studying Community & Nonprofit Leadership.

Mariana Ray-Hernández x’24 is a first-generation, Mexican American student pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Community & Nonprofit Leadership with a passion for youth empowerment, community engagement and education. She has a deep connection to the School of Human Ecology and its community, sharing, “We’re human ecologists for a reason: we’re people-people.” Read more about her experience and advice as a first-generation student in the following Q&A:

What brought you to the School of Human Ecology?

My family immigrated here in the ’90s from Puebla, Mexico. College was never really something that I thought I could do, but my family came here so I could have all the opportunities in the world.

Even though I am a senior, this is only my third semester at UW–Madison. I originally was at UW–Milwaukee, Washington County. The sense of community at the School of Human Ecology drew me here. The school is focused on pushing forward change in many different ways. But to me, the most important part is that when implementing change, people are still at the core of it. That mindset is different from other schools — you can’t find that really anywhere else.

What do you love about the School of Human Ecology?

The School of Human Ecology has a very special place in my heart. I was terrified coming in my junior year. And then immediately, in my first class, one girl sat at my table, and we have been friends ever since. UW–Madison is a big campus, and it can be difficult to find a community. But Human Ecology is a smaller school and is unique with its own sense of community so readily available. We’re human ecologists for a reason: we’re people-people. I have been shown so much love since I’ve been here.

A group of 6 students stand in a huddle with Chancellor Mnookin in the middle, all holding up the "W" with their hands.
Mariana (far left) and other students hold up the “W” with Chancellor Mnookin during her visit to the School of Human Ecology on Aug. 23, 2023.

Why did you choose to major in Community & Nonprofit Leadership?

I grew up in West Bend, Wisconsin. From 2020 to 2022 I worked at the Hispanic Youth Program at the Casa Guadalupe Education Center serving Hispanic and Latino families in the Washington County area. I have always known that no matter what, I wanted to do one thing: help people. That experience helped reaffirm my passion to aid communities hands-on. The executive director, and my mentor, Maria Gutierrez-Gurrola helped me find the Community & Nonprofit Leadership major, ultimately leading me to transfer to UW–Madison in the fall of 2022. This major and its courses, as well as the community here, help provide me with the privilege of a well-rounded education and network that I can then use to give back.

What has been your favorite class as a Community & Nonprofit Leadership student?

My favorite class so far is definitely the Philanthropy Lab. It was an amazing course. We were responsible for $50,000 that we reallocated as grants for different nonprofits. All of the classes are rooted in community-based learning, which connects us to resources outside of the school and helps build our portfolios and gain hands-on knowledge that directly impacts a community. The students here are eager and excited to get their hands dirty and get into the nitty-gritty of the work. It’s motivating to be surrounded by peers who have the same drive as you do. We’re literally applying what we learn as we’re learning it, and you can’t get that anywhere else. It’s unmatched.

A group of 10 students stand in a group holding a giant check reading fourteen thousand dollars given through the philanthropy lab.
Mariana (top left) and fellow students from her Philanthropy Lab course.

How have you been supported as a first-generation student?

I have the Badger Promise, which is the transfer-student equivalent of the Bucky Promise. I had no idea that I could qualify for this amazing financial support. As a first-generation student, I didn’t know about or understand how to navigate a lot of the systems in place that were meant to help me. However, the School of Human Ecology makes a great effort in letting us know how much support is available. They have amazing scholarships that you can apply for. There are some other first-generation students here that I have been able to find commonality with, which has been awesome because we’re used to figuring it out as we go. In addition, the McBurney Disability Resource Center has been a vital resource in navigating systems of support and adjusting to my new school.

What advice would you give to other first-generation students?

A lot of the time, because we are first-generation students, we don’t know where we’re supposed to fit in. It’s not always easy, and it is going to be a lot of work, but anything that you want to do — it’s possible. Put your mind to it, and don’t put too much pressure on yourself to fit into any box because there’s no box necessarily for us. If there’s no space for you in an area, make space and find a way to make room for yourself because you deserve to be in those rooms.

For the School of Human Ecology specifically, there are so many resources here. Anybody here can connect you with help. Just look for what you want, and you will find it. There’s always someone who can fill in the gaps for you here. You just have to ask.

What are your future goals after you graduate?

I plan on staying connected to the School of Human Ecology. My professors have supported me through so much. My dream is to have my own nonprofit organization. I am passionate about working with youth and families, especially first-generation and Black and brown youth who may be underprivileged and may not have the same resources that other people have. Overall, I want to give back to the community in any way.

Six students in red shirts stand in a line in front of a whiteboard.
Mariana (second to the right) and fellow School of Human Ecology Student Ambassadors at the New Student Welcome on Sep. 5, 2023.

Mariana’s experience is possible because of philanthropic support of the School of Human Ecology and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Gifts from generous alumni and donors help today’s students like Mariana succeed through experiential learning opportunities, scholarships, career advising and more.