Yael Rojo didn’t come to WashU to earn a degree. Really, the degree in economics he will complete this spring is just a means to an end. For him, the goal is to send his parents home to Mexico, a place they left as young people in pursuit of a more economically fruitful future.
“The challenges my parents faced were more than anything I’ve experienced,” explained Rojo. “They came over when they were teenagers to work to send money back to Mexico to support their families. Ever since I was little, that was the most important thing drilled into my head – that I don’t have to go through what they went through; they already made that sacrifice for me so that I can go to school and get a college education.”
Born and raised in Edmond, Okla., Rojo mostly grew up around other folks like him who were firmly grounded in their Mexican heritage, traditions, and expectations.
“At times, I felt like I didn’t belong at WashU, like I was an imposter,” he said. “Back home, a lot of people like me follow in their parents’ footsteps because it’s what’s available to them – go get a job and start earning money right after high school. I know it’s the case that a lot of families like mine can’t prioritize a college education. Most of my friends who are back home didn’t go to college, or if they did, they stayed close to home. The fact I’m putting off earning a stable income until after an elite college education, well, that’s not common.”
But what makes him uncommon in his hometown is what led him to find a rich and welcoming community at WashU.
“No matter who you are, you can find a community at WashU,” he said. “Initially, I was afraid I wouldn’t find a Latino organization to be part of, but I was wrong.”
Rojo, now in his fourth year, participates in numerous intramural sports and is also part of the Taylor Family Center for Student Success, TRiO Student Support Services Program, the Association of Latin American Students (ALAS), RUF WashU, and is president of Alpha Psi Lambda, a gender-inclusive Latino interest fraternity, just to name a few. His involvement in these organizations has not only connected him with other students with backgrounds like his, but it has emersed him in a culture of service, helping organizations in St. Louis and worldwide.
“We’ve done so many projects through Alpha Psi Lambda,” he said. “From packaging food at local food banks to helping organize clothing drives to working with artisans in Guatemala and Nicaragua; when you get 27 people dedicating themselves to something, a lot of good work can get done in a short amount of time.”
While he may be setting a new standard in his family, post-high school, there is no doubt his Mexican heritage influences the person he’s become while at WashU.
“There’s a work ethic that’s been instilled in me that is rooted in a place of disadvantage,” he said. “So, me and my brothers, we’ve been taught to work hard. You know the stereotype of the Hispanic dad being kind-of tough, showing little emotion? Well, that is kind-of my dad, but his way of showing love was to teach us to work. So it is a massive accomplishment for my parents to have three kids in college.”
Rojo said that his parents have been fully supportive of him and his brothers, even though they are in uncharted territory as parents of first-generation college students.
“Mom is a housekeeper and dad works for granite countertop company,” he said. “So what I am doing is very new to them, and they have been surprisingly progressive and exceptionally supportive in every aspect.”
As he looks back on his time at WashU, Rojo does have a piece of advice for students who might struggle with the transition from home to college life.
“Get involved,” he said. “The best way to feel like you belong is to join a group or club. There is something for everyone – whatever you’re interested in – and know we’re looking for you; we want to be part of your community too.”