You can’t be what you can’t see … or can you?

I’m a first-generation Mexican immigrant and came to the U.S. with my family in pursuit of the American dream in 2001. I’ve battled a chronic immunodeficiency disease since birth and survived cancer in 2016. I’m a firm believer that education has generational and equalizing power, and I wish I would have seen more people that look like me in the field. 

Diego Verdugo '12
Diego Verdugo ’12

It was a culture shock when I landed in Iowa with no return ticket, two days early, with my suitcase, a backpack full of frozen tamales, and $60 in my pocket for a taxi. When move-in day arrived, I didn’t expect to have one of the saddest days of my life. As my peers were being dropped off by their families, I was alone, 1,500+ miles away from home. I cried myself to sleep that night and many more. Every morning I woke up, I asked God to give me the strength I needed to continue. 

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With time, my college life got easier and more enjoyable. I became a student leader and took advantage of every opportunity I could to grow. I was fortunate to receive the support I needed from the faculty, staff, classmates, and my fraternity brothers to not only survive but to thrive. 

One morning during my senior year, as I stepped out of the shower, I got a call from a recruiter at Principal offering me a position to join their leadership development program at the company headquarters. My life flashed before my eyes: leaving Mexico, every doctor and hospital visit, every late-night shift at Subway, every financial difficulty my family faced, became worth it. I ended up running down the hall in a towel in joy. I wasn’t just offered a formal job offer, I was getting an opportunity of a lifetime, a shot at changing the course of history for generations. 

From Cornell College’s 2017 Commencement: I did it for them.
From Cornell College’s 2017 Commencement: I did it for them.

Thirteen years later, I’m still with Principal and back in Arizona. I share a life with a woman I love, and I’m a father to the most loving, smart, silly, sassy, and kind little girl that I know. 

I’ve been a first many times, but I know I won’t be the last. I encourage any first-generation student from a Latin@ home to keep fighting, be patient, trust the timing of your life, and work hard to accomplish your goals. I can promise you one thing: the best is yet to come. 

Verdugo’s success was the focus of a 2014 presidential white paper on serving first-generation students.