First-gen biology grad finds community at West campus

In December, Melissa Zarate-Garcia received a bachelor’s degree in biology from ASU's New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.


Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2022 graduates.

First-generation graduate Melissa Zarate-Garcia always felt drawn to Arizona State University’s West campus.

“I live about 10 minutes away from the West campus, so it's in the neighborhood. It felt kind of like a natural choice to stay within my little neighborhood,” said Zarate-Garcia, who uses both she/her and they/them pronouns (this article will use she/her for consistency).

Prior to coming to ASU’s West campus, Zarate-Garcia received an associate degree from Glendale Community College. She always enjoyed science, but it wasn’t until college that she realized biology, specifically genetics, was her true passion.

“Science was very natural to me. Doing more hands-on stuff in college made me realize this is for sure what I want to do my whole life,” she said. “I took a lot of genetics and cell biology classes and I discovered that that's something I really want to do. Right now, everybody is very focused on their health and they want to make sure that their children don't have bad genes, like cancer. I’d like to get deeper into gene mapping because there's so much research as there is, but I think there's so much more that can be done.”

In addition to studying biology at ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, Zarate-Garcia also became very involved on campus, serving in a number of roles including as the West campus Programming and Activities Board coordinator for spirit, pride and tradition. In this role she helped to create and plan cultural events that embody ASU traditions.

In December, Zarate-Garcia received a bachelor’s degree in biology. Here, she shares more about her experiences at ASU and what’s next for her.

Question: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

Answer: Professor Ken Sweat. I think he is really amazing. He's super knowledgeable and passionate about all types of plants. I took Plants and Civilization with him. This wasn’t the first time I took a class on plants, but his class was so much more than just the way plants work; it was also the way they work alongside humans and civilization. We learned a lot about fungus and how it affects plants and plants as a food source for humans.

Q: What’s something you learned while at New College — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: What really surprised me was how passionate my professors were in the classroom. It's very obvious that they all love what they do, and that passion really rubs off on the students. I was pleasantly surprised that I got lucky enough to get the professors that I did. I had a lot of professors that knew me by name. Coming in, I thought it would be easy to get lost in the shuffle. But if you just take the time to stay back five minutes or so after class to really connect with your professors, that's all it really takes.

Q: Did you experience any obstacles along your way? If yes, how did you overcome them?

A: Since I was a first-generation transfer student, I feel like I was a little lost at first. I didn't know what was available to me resource-wise. I didn't have many friends. It was hard to go into a classroom and not see a single familiar face. I was very disinterested because I didn't have a support system. But my ASU 101 class and my advisor pushed me to seek out a support system at the university. I started seeing posters around campus for different events, and I thought it seemed really fun. So I started going to more events and meeting new people.

Q: What message or advice would you share for future first-year students?

A: Get involved. It's difficult trying to go about this alone. So finding people that you relate to that have the same interests as you is really beneficial in a college career. The West campus is especially tight-knit, so once you join one club, that club usually has connections or they have people in other clubs. So that is an easy way to branch out. By doing this I feel like I’ve also gained mentors who have been where we were and they can totally relate to what we might be going through. …There is something out there for everyone. Even if there's not — find a friend and then go make your own club. Getting involved has just opened up so many doors for me.

Q: What does this accomplishment mean to you as a first-generation college graduate?

A: It means a lot. My parents immigrated here from Mexico, and they came from nothing, basically. So for them to give me this amazing opportunity to go to school and give me the ability to be a part of something bigger — it's really meaningful to them and to me. My sister and I are graduating at the same time. So it's a really big deal because nobody else has graduated from a university in our family.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I think I am going to go back to school. I want to work in the lab, but I lack the experience, so I want to go back to school to kind of get more lab experience. I think a certificate would help in addition to my degree. So my plan is to go back to school and then try to find a job after that.

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