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First Generation Scholar Feels at Home at A&M-Galveston    

November 8, 2019

Natalie Lerma is a first-generation scholar and Texas A&M University at Galveston Offshore and Coastal Systems Engineering student involved in a number of on-campus programs, including the F1RST Program supporting other first-generation college students.

By Andréa Bolt

Since 2014, Texas A&M University at Galveston has graduated nearly 1200 known first generation scholars and Natalie Lerma is soon to be one of them.
Perhaps it’s the decent weather or the small fishing and shrimping boats chugging across Galveston Bay, because despite a heavy course load, scholarship requirements and extensive volunteering responsibilities; Lerma is smiling. Her cause for happiness is deep and she says it likely stems in large part from gratitude from being a first-generation scholar.
“Sometimes it is hard to relate to other students. The things you struggle with, they can’t understand,” she explains. “It’s not just school. You have your family, your finances. You have to be able to balance it all but also need to excel in school. I get up at 4:30 a.m. to get here from Houston and when I get home I see my family for a moment before I go to bed exhausted.” 
Lerma’s gratitude at her opportunity energizes her. She feels that the trial of managing several critical priorities while being the best student she can has given her an intangible edge. “I’m becoming a great multitasker,” she laughs. 
There’s a sense of purpose that comes through as she describes the responsibility of being a role model for her younger cousins. “Hopefully by the time they’re getting ready to go to school, they’ll have a good example to follow,” she says. Her family is certainly proud of her, but Lerma is doing plenty for herself.
Always keen on mathematics, she was drawn to the prospect of engineering. Given A&M -Galveston’s marine focus, Lerma’s major is Offshore and Coastal Systems Engineering, but she’s a naturally inquisitive person. Anytime a class has sounded interesting to her, she has tried to take it. This has led her to pursue two minors, one in mathematics and the other in maritime administration. 
A full course load, however, is not enough for someone making the most of her opportunity.  Lerma is also a member of the Undergraduate Research Scholars program (UGRS), where she is getting to work on advanced research projects directly with professors. Her particular project has her working closely with Dr. Ayil Anis, an associate professor in the Department of Marine Sciences.
Lerma assists Anis in the organization and analyzation of various data that has been collected concerning oceanic surface temperatures. The project is looking specifically at heat fluxes at the sea surface. The goal of the project is to be able to formulate several mathematical equations that can be used to account for fluctuations in oceanic surface temperatures.
“I’m only allowed to work on one research project per year, so I’m hoping that we can get this done and I can explore another project next year,” says Lerma. She acknowledges how this might seem overly ambitious, but she’s excited about all the opportunities that being at a school like A&M-Galveston has presented her and she’s determined to make the most of it.
That doesn’t mean that she is solely concerned about her own success, though. When seeking a job on campus, Lerma could have chosen between a higher-paying Student Instructor (SI) position or working at the newly-established F1RST Program.

“The F1RST Program was established at TAMUG in 2017 and Natalie was a peer mentor during the first year of the program and was a valuable partner in getting it off the ground,” said Associate Director of Siebel Learning Center Lisa Stewart.
The F1RST Program serves first generation students by providing them a four-year scholarship and a comprehensive support community. Participants are all housed together as a Living Learning Community in their first year and are together in a weekly Learning Community course throughout their time at A&M-Galveston.
Currently there are 59 students in the F1RST Program and the first student will be graduating from the program next month, a full year-and-a-half early.
For Lerma, the choice to be a part of the program was easy. She was tasked with guiding first generation students in their transition into university life and helped them navigate a myriad of priorities.
“You see a lot of confused students who maybe don’t know what opportunities the school has.  Their parents are working all the time to make this dream a reality, so they can’t help in the adjustment,” says Lerma. “Working for the F1RST Program is something with a lot of intrinsic value.”
With everything on her plate, it would be understandable if Lerma was simply looking forward to being the first in her family to graduate from college, but she wants more.

A degree in ocean engineering could her land a job at a number of high-paying organizations following graduation. That’s not for Lerma, though. “I’m what some people would call a ‘green engineer,’” says Lerma. “I have a moral disposition that means I can’t work in an industry that I don’t believe in.” 
With classes and professors that have really engaged her, Lerma has been inspired to pursue graduate school. Due to this interest and her success in school thus far, Lerma was made a Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) scholar. LSAMP, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is geared toward giving minority students with a determination to get into graduate school a generous financial boost, provided the student meets certain research and academic requirements.
Given her track record so far, Lerma will have options about where she will attend graduate school. “I love this school so much,” she says. “There are things here people take for granted. It’s incredible that I can go see a professor in their office without waiting in line. Their doors are open and they’re here to help.”
Lerma describes almost a home away from home. “There’s a community here. People make time for each other, and you actually get to know them. It’s special.”


Media contact:
Andréa Bolt
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