Breaking Barriers as a First-Generation College Student

Felipe Lopez Sustaita is the current Executive Director of the Hispanic/Latino Commission of Michigan for the State of Michigan under the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA). 

My experience applying to college:
I grew up a proud migrant farm worker. Year round I traveled to Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, and Michigan and
worked along with my family since I was four years old until I started college in 2001. I picked oranges, grapefruit, onions, strawberries, asparagus, squash, blueberries, peaches, raspberries, pears, tomatoes, peppers, and apples. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I would end up going to college. My mind was conditioned to believe that I would be working in the fields for the rest of my life. Growing up, words and books meant nothing to me.

However, my sister Mayra applied and got accepted to Michigan State University (MSU) thanks to our mentor Mr. Rudy Hernandez, current Lansing Community College Professor. At the time, Mr. Hernandez worked as a recruiter for MSU, and he happened to do a presentation at a migrant school on a summer night event. That encounter with him changed our lives. Mayra got accepted, and my parents gave me no option but to follow her footsteps so that I could be with her. I had a 13 on my ACT, I graduated high school in three years, and I couldn’t really read and write, but Mr. Hernandez helped me obtain admissions in 2001. Now I ask Mr. Hernandez what he was thinking by taking a chance on us. I still don’t know, but I am glad that he did. To be honest, I don’t remember ever applying to college; I think my sister Mayra must have helped, but the rest is history. I earned a doctorate degree right before turning 30 years old. I am thankful to God, my parents, brothers, sisters, Mr. Hernandez, Mayra, my wife Danielle, my four sons, my Band of Brothers, and all the people who have supported me through my journey.  

My college experience and how it connects to the work I'm doing today:
College was difficult, as it was not easy when I had to start school late and leave early because my family had to follow the crops. I missed a lot of school assignments, plus I did not like school, and never really took school seriously. When I came to MSU in 2001, I had to work harder than anyone on campus to catch up academically. I slept in the library at night, worked and attended school during the day. I was used to physical work but not the mental work. My motivation was knowing that my brothers and sisters were out there working in the cold, while I was living a good life in college. I felt guilty, but I worked hard. Failing was not an option, and I had made up my mind that I would do everything in my power to survive. I took it a semester at a time.

My experiences are directly connected to the work that I do now. I am charged with advising the governor, legislature and the various state departments about the needs of the Hispanic/Latino Community. Education plays a pivotal role in the efforts we take on. For example, last year MCAN partnered with us to hold our second annual Statewide Hispanic/Latino Graduation. Over 300 people attended our event where we recognized over 73 college graduates who were earning associates to Ph.D.’s. Our office has also engaged in fundraising for scholarships, and organized backpack drives to help young students start thinking about college. 


Author: Felipe Lopez Sustaita, Executive Director of the Hispanic/Latino Commission of Michigan 
Posted: Oct. 15, 2018

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