Learning how to learn: A first-generation student’s path to engineering

Danelle Lazcano

Danelle Lazcano and students measure the flow of a river at the Native American STEM Camp in summer 2015. 

Some of us still wince at the idea of taking calculus, but what about having to take it three times? That’s the perseverance it took for Danelle Lazcano, a sophomore mechanical engineering student, to gain the rigorous prerequisites for engineering at Colorado State University.

Inspired by Alliance Summer STEM Institute, a summer program she participated in during her sophomore year of high school, Lazcano decided she wanted to study wind energy. But, in order to gain minimum requirements for CSU engineering, she had some catching up to do.

“I didn’t realize you needed to know stuff before you know stuff,” said Lazcano, a native of Commerce City, Colorado, describing the barrier to college entry as a first-generation student. Luckily, a high school counselor recognized Lazcano’s passion for learning and helped get her on the right academic path. Lazcano attended Front Range Community College while still in high school to get needed math and science experience. Calculus was a particular struggle, but she made it through.

Getting prerequisites was only the beginning; college costs money, so she needed to figure out how to pay for it. She didn’t know anything about going to college, as no one in her family had done it before her.

Learning how to learn

To address how to pay for college, Lazcano’s high school counselor recommended she apply for the Daniels Scholarship Program; Lazcano became a Daniels Scholar in the fall of 2014. And to learn more about the college experience, and how to be a college student, Lazcano did some research. “If you have never, ever learned about college and what it’s going to be like, you have to find a way to learn,” she said.

Lazcano’s method: asking other students about their experiences. In her words, she’s had to “learn how to learn, and figure out what everybody else already knows.” And while studying for exams and doing homework, she’s found it helpful to stick with people who truly want to understand how the work is done, not just get the right answers.

Getting the hang of being a college student

Now two years into her degree in mechanical engineering, Lazcano has adapted to college life. She’s leveraging TILT resources, study groups, office hours and review sessions. And she’s determined to inspire others toward higher education by visiting students at her former high school, and volunteering at three STEM camps this past summer.

Some day, Lazcano wants to make a legendary impact in wind energy, and she feels it’ll be of her own volition to make it happen.

“If you’re struggling now, it’s up to you to make it better. Be your own positivity and motivation; you should be the only one who is pushing yourself to be great, because nobody can do it for you.”