When Gerardo Noriega graduates from NAU–Yuma in spring 2022, he’ll be the first in his family to earn a college degree.
Gerardo Noriega is the first student to arrive for an afternoon Genetics course at NAU–Yuma. He slides into a seat and puts his laptop on the table. Noriega is just one semester away from graduating with a BS in Biological and Natural Resource Sciences—the first in his family to earn a college degree. Growing up, he never thought a bachelor’s degree would be an option for him. But he wanted to learn, so after high school, he enrolled in a community college near his home in El Centro, California. When he finished his general education courses after two-plus years at community college, he thought financial realities spelled the end of his educational career.
“I did think it was going to be super expensive,” he says. Then a friend told him about NAU–Yuma, where he could get a bachelor’s degree from a distinguished institution and have access to scholarships without having to move away from home.
“At NAU–Yuma, I could stay home and save money, ” he said. “Just commute here and there.” It’s an hour’s drive between his home in El Centro to NAU–Yuma, but to Noriega, it’s a price he’s happy to pay. This semester he makes the commute every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. In past semesters, it was every weekday.
It wasn’t an easy transition from community college to university. “In community college, they would always say like, ‘You guys have to put more effort into it because once you get to a university, it’s harder,’” he says. “And I think I didn’t really take that into consideration. So when I got here, I did kind of struggle.”
Because his classes were small—his Genetics class has seven students—and he knew all of his professors, he felt comfortable asking for help. And he got it.
“My professors were understanding. I could just go to office hours or set up an appointment and get help. It’s not like you’re on your own.”
He now has his sights set on a master’s degree. During his time at NAU–Yuma, he discovered he liked working in a lab and is interested in a master’s in biological science that will allow him to pursue that passion. But first: the NAU commencement ceremony. His proud parents can’t wait.
Noriega is the youngest of three children and part of a large extended family on both sides of the border. His brother works in construction, and his sister is a medical assistant. “It’s kind of on me to graduate from a university,” he says.
He’s setting an example for his younger cousins, who now have a role model to show them they have choices.
“I do have younger cousins, and I always tell them to consider college. I’ve been working in labor jobs. I’ve been working out in the fields. It’s an honorable job to do. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s hard work. But it’s also good to go to college to get a good job. My college experience has been positive. So I would recommend NAU to them.”
As the Genetics professor walks into the room, Noriega opens his laptop and gets back to work. He’s almost to the finish line; graduation is just a few months away.