Two Student Leaders Attend White House Celebration for First-Gen College Students

Angelina Vertiz and Justin Cancel at the White House
Angelina Vertiz and Justin Cancel

Two Rutgers-Newark students joined peers from across the U.S. at a White House event celebrating National First Generation College Day, which honors those who are the first in their families to attend college.

Angelina Vertiz, a third-year student who is majoring in Social Work, and Justin Cancel, a fourth-year student at Rutgers Business School, were chosen because of their roles as campus leaders. At the event, they met officials from the Department of Education  and networked with other first generation students. 

Hosted by the  White House Office of Public Engagement, the invitation was a chance for attendees to learn about federal resources available to them through the American Rescue Plan, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the Inflation Reduction Act, according to a White House spokeswoman. The students also attended a panel discussion of first generation White House administration staffers and got tips on applying for internships.

“It felt very comforting being in a room full of first generation students. We were able to relate a lot to each other and the challenges we face. To see staff in their positions now was very motivating for me,” said Vertiz, who became a  Rutgers Future Scholar in 7th grade. 

Vertiz is student in the BOLD Women’s Leadership Network at Rutgers-Newark and involved in the Educational Opportunity Fund, Chi Alpha Epsilon. She is the President of the Social Work Student Organization and a Scarlet Ambassador, introducing prospective students–including many who are first generation–to the RU-N campus and the application process.

Cancel, who is majoring in finance, said he was  grateful for the White House invitation because of the excitement it brought to his family.

“Everything I do, I do for my family and especially my mom,’’ said Cancel, a marketing major who serves as the chapter president of the professional organization La Unidad Latina, Lambda Upsilon Lambda Fraternity, Inc, at both Rutgers and NJIT. He is also treasurer for the Interfraternal and Sorority Council, overseeing transactions for multicultural Greek organizations, and a marketing committee member for the Association for Latino Professionals of America.

Cancel, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, grew up in Passaic, the son of a single mom.“ She moved to New Jersey and had to fend for herself while raising us. She would work nights, take us to school, sleep until it was time to pick us up from school, and then go back to work,’’ he said.

Vertiz’s parents came to the U.S. from Peru and worked hard to support the family during difficult times. Before moving to Piscataway, Vertiz lived in Queen where family was close-knit.

They often took in extended family, also immigrants.“My mom spent a lot of time trying to get people out of detention centers,’’ she said.

Both Cancel and Vertiz said they were always encouraged  to get a college degree, a dream their mothers couldn’t pursue because language barriers made it difficult. Although their families have been very supportive, Vertiz and Cancel had to navigate higher education on their own without the benefit of their parents’ knowledge.There are some aspects of the college experience their families don’t understand.

“They’ve always been grounded in school being dedicated to grades,’’ said Vertiz. “They  weren’t aware of the value of making connections and being involved. They didn’t understand how important that was. They’d  say, ‘But what does this have to do with your grades?’ But they’re starting to understand.’’

Said Cancel, “Your family has no idea how things are run through universities. You don’t have support in terms of wisdom and how things should be done.”

But as first generation students, Vertiz and Cancel also believe they have many strengths.
“We’ve been trained from young ages to be independent to grow up faster,” said Vertiz. “Part of that is our cultural background.”

There are also great rewards, said Cancel.

“There’s a feeling of empowerment. You know you’re doing something your family has never done. It pushes me to do things that you know will benefit not just myself but my them,’’ he said.

Cancel and Vertiz said they were grateful to Jennifer Bucalo, Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives at RU-N, and Executive Vice-Chancellor Sherri-Ann Butterfield, who lead BOLD, for arranging the White House invitation for them.