‘I’m so excited to further my education’: First-gen student ready for CSU

Dina Zito hugs her mom, Marisol, following graduation from high school earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Dina Zito

Dina Zito of Fort Lupton spent part of the summer learning more about her family’s ties to the sugar beet industry in Colorado. She was part of Applied Community Sustainability, a course aimed at first-generation Bridge Scholars entering Colorado State University.

In a typical summer, the Bridge Scholars Program provides an on-campus experience for students, primarily those whose parents did not go to college and who come from underrepresented backgrounds. This year the course was taught remotely, with speakers, students and CSU instructor Paul Cawood Hellmund joining in from around northern Colorado. Hellmund is with the School of Global Environmental Sustainability.

Zito was one of six students who worked on projects through the Museo de las Tres Colonias in north Fort Collins. The nonprofit museum provides a living history highlighting Latino community life and working conditions in the sugar beet industry in northern Colorado.

Zito said she learned real-life skills in the class, including how to conduct an oral history. The students produced video podcasts examining food and food security, and the role of Latino workers in what was once the major industry in the region.

While interviewing her mother, Marisol Zito, Dina learned that she started working in the sugar beet fields when she was only 9 years old. Marisol traveled to Colorado with family members from a border town in Texas, picking up others on the way. She was paid as little as 10 cents per row of beets for pulling weeds. A row could be as long as one mile.

“I can’t imagine making 10 cents and barely making a profit,” said Zito.

Most of the money her mother earned went to her family and the working conditions were often extreme. She worked long days in hot temperatures. Marisol remembers the family cooked their meals by placing them on the roof of the blazing hot car.

Despite hearing about these hardships, Zito said she loved learning about how this work brought family together. “They even talk about that now,” she said. “Hearing these oral histories is a good way to bring back memories.”

the importance of education

While in high school, Zito spent summers working as a lifeguard. She was a three-sport athlete, playing volleyball, basketball and soccer.

Marisol stressed the importance of education during the interview with her daughter, who said her mother has been her number-one  supporter.

When Marisol discovered that first-graders weren’t given homework, Dina recalled, she went to the school and talked with the teacher about it.

“She values education so much,” she said.

Her older brother, Angelo, graduated from CSU in 2017 with a degree in chemical and biological engineering. He now works in the oil fields in Wyoming.

“My mom has said that everything can be taken away from you at one point in your life,” Dina said. “But your education can never be taken away. Personally, my background was a little bumpy. I will always say I was blessed to have a mom that pushed me in my education.”

an interest in complex topics

From a young age, Zito said she fell in love with the complexities of science and math. She will major in mechanical engineering at CSU because she appreciates the hands-on aspect of the work. Zito attended summer camps at CSU that helped her figure out what she wanted to study.

As a proud first-generation student, Zito said she’d like to give everyone in that position a pat on the back.

“It’s difficult and it’s crazy to see we have the grit and motivation to get through it,” she said. “I know the experiences I’m making right now are something great that I can pass on to my family.”

“It’s difficult and it’s crazy to see we have the grit and motivation to get through it. I know the experiences I’m making right now are something great that I can pass on to my family.”

— Dina Zito

What is she most looking forward to as she starts school this year? Zito said she’s happy to be closer, proximity-wise, to her sister, Karina, a junior studying chemical and biological engineering.

“When I was in high school I always dreamed about college,” she said. “That was my main priority and goal. I’m not just talking about it; I’m actually doing it. I’m so excited to further my education and knowledge. I am ready to be on the next stage to success and reach the goal I always wanted.”

Zito is the recipient of a First Generation Award and a Partnership Award for attending an Alliance school. She also received two engineering scholarships and has awards from United Power and PTA Colorado.

Ten public high schools in Colorado were chosen by CSU to be Alliance schools. Each of the schools sign a yearly Memorandum of Understanding outlining the principles and agreement for collaboration between the school and the university.

advice for new students

Zito would like to tell her fellow CSU first-years to look forward.

“They should focus mainly on having confidence that they can succeed in college,” she said. “There are no odds against them. No matter how hard your childhood or past was, you’ve got to let it go and continue with your future. I’m an optimistic person who likes to encourage others. I wish people would take opportunities.”

Hellmund said that Zito brought another dimension to the summer course by interviewing family members who knew the sugar beet industry firsthand.

“That helped us all appreciate the tremendous contributions – and sacrifices – of Latinos in that industry and the economic development of Colorado,” he said.

“In a time when more and more Americans are sincerely trying to improve racial and ethnic relationships, Dina’s stories and those of her classmates can’t help but bring greater understanding of the rich diversity and contributions of entire groups of people who have often been overlooked,” he added.

Learn more

Watch Dina Zito’s video interview with her mother and the rest of her episode of the 2020 Youth-to-Youth Podcast at col.st/mBSxW.