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GEAR UP WA | WWU | Full College Conversation

Full Length College Conversation with Celina, Susan, Beatriz, Zion


GEAR UP Washington's goal is to increase the number of students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary programs.  These college conversations were coordinated by Mt. Vernon's GEAR UP program.

Learn more about Beatriz (email:, Zion (Instagram: @ziongemechu), Celina (Instagram @celina_espinoza_) and Susan (Instagram: @suenailedit_) on the panelist page.


Celina Espinoza
Hometown: Burlington, Washington
High School: Burlington-Edison High School
Year In College: Class of '21
Major: Secondary Education w/endorsement in Physical Education & Health
Celina’s Places: Compass 2 Campus, MISO: Mixed Identity Student Organization, MEChA: Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx, Future Woodring Scholars (First year Interest Group), Ethnic Student Center
First Generation Student: Yes
Reach out to Celina on Instagram: @celina_espinoza_


Susan Duong
Lynnwood, Washington
High School: Mariner High School
College: Western Washington University
Year In School: Class of '21
Major: Special Education and Elementary Dual Endorsement
Susan’s Places: Compass 2 Campus, Family and community engaged teaching FACET
First Generation Student: Yes
Reach out to Susan on Instagram @suenailedit_ 


Beatriz Morales
Hometown: Brewster, Washington
High School: Pateros High School
College: Western Washington University
Year In School:
Class of '21
Major: Biology major with an emphasis in cell and molecular biology
Beatriz's Places: Compass 2 Campus, SACNAS, MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan), and PWA club (Professional Womens Association)
First-Generation: Yes
Reach out to Beatriz by email:


Zion Gemechu
Hometown: Bellevue, Washington
High School:
Newport High School
College: Western Washington University
Year In School:
Class of '22
Major: Psychology
Zion’s Places: Ethnic Student Center, Black Student Union, African Caribbean Club, Latinx Student Union, Compass to Campus, a range of other events
First Gen?: Yes
Reach out to Zion on Instagram: @ziongemechu


Links from College Conversation: 

Compass 2 Campus:
Family & Community Engaged Teaching (FACET):
Mixed Identity Student Organization:
Future Woodring Scholars:
Ethnic Student Center:
ESC Clubs:


Hashtag Directory:
#WhoIs #Highschool #background #firstgen #people #places #patience #diversity #Transition #communitycollege #transferstudent #transition  #identity #family #ADD #ADHD #learningdisability #collegeselection #collegeapplication #collegesearch #roommates #livingwithafriend #advice #FAFSA #publicresources #libraries #payingforcollege #financialaid #leadership #uncomfortable #WAFSA #undocumented #firstgen #askingforhelp #academics #academicstruggle #droppingaclass #badgrades #commuterstudent #livingoffcampus #uncomfortablemoment #compass2campus #dreamjob #highschooladvice

00:22 - Celina talks about Bellingham and the weather on campus. Susan talks about being born in Boston and moving to Lynwood, Washington, they lightly touch on the fact that she moved away to go to school. Harlan talks about how beautiful the campus is. 

2:34 - Zion talks about her High School self. She describes herself as an extrovert at heart and always curious. She loved meeting new people. She was very involved on campus especially with the Black Student Union at Newport HS. She says that her HS didn’t have many black students, she could probably count on one hand the number of minority students there were. So, the BSU really helped to have a place where she and fellow minority classmates found support whenever racist incidents would happen at school.  She says WWU is a predominantly white campus as well. Harlan briefly touches on the importance of finding people and places. Zion says she’s about an hour and a half from home. She mentions she lived on campus for the first quarter only for freshman year. #WhoIs #Highschool #background #firstgen #places #diversity 

5:19 - Beatriz describes her HS self as a bit reserved and shy. She went through school with the same people in the same building for her whole education. There were only 6 other mexican students so she was a minority but everyone in that town worked agricultural jobs so everyone worked similar jobs. She talks about working in housekeeping with her mom and occasionally helping with cherry picking as well. Harlan talks about conversations he has had with other agricultural workers and how dangerous the work is. She is a first gen student. She says she is 5 hours away from home when at school. She had a roommate who has been with her since high school. #WhoIs #Transition #Highschool #background #firstgen

10:35 - Celina talks about her HS self. She tried to hide the fact that she didn’t fit in with a particular group. She sort of floated along with everyone. She really threw herself into sports and put a lot of effort into that. Her dad got deported before she got into HS. She said a lot of people bullied her saying things like “it was your fault.” She said that affected her willingness to make friends. She is still struggling with the deportation of her father and hasn’t really coped or gotten over it. He was told he couldn’t return to the US even legally for 11 years. She goes once or twice a year to visit him. She suppressed her feelings until junior year of HS. Her high school English teacher helped her process her feelings. She talks about having a period where she felt that she had to “act as white as possible” she lost her Spanish, she forced that part of her out of her brain. Her breakthrough was that she realized she’s both of these cultures, she doesn’t have to choose just one. She talks about some of the clubs where she found connection with other students of a similar cultural background. #WhoIs #highschool #background #firstgen #identity #family 

18:49 - Susan talks about her HS self. She says she was a very talkative, class clown, center of attention kind of student. She always got her work done but she would always find a way to talk to somebody. She got in trouble for being so talkative and distracting other students even though she was good academically. She got along with most of her teachers. She likes to make people laugh. #highschool #WhoIs #background

21:45 - Beatriz talks about her path to college. Her parents have been her biggest motivators. They always encouraged her to achieve more than she thought she could. When it came to support at school, her friends were helpful but she says she didn’t really have any teachers that were particularly supportive or encouraging to push for college. Beatriz went to community college first. Zion touches on the “running start” program which allowed her to earn college credit and get general education credits out of the way.  She talks about touring the University of Washington and feeling it wasn’t the place for her. She’s thankful she went to community college first because she saved money, had smaller class sizes and let her dip her toe into the college setting. After community college she was able to go to WWU. She only applied to one school. She remembers sitting with her advisor and thinking about what she wanted to major in. She always liked Biology. She heard of all the research they do at the University of Washington but she didn’t have the proper math requirements finished. Her advisor told her about WWU, she had never heard of it before. She talks about her plans after college. She wants to do some research and figure out what to focus on for a career in biology. She talks about how she still doubts herself to this day occasionally but she keeps going for it. #communitycollege #transferstudent #collegesearch #transition

30:15 - Susan talks about her journey to college. WWU was the only university she had applied to. She had a very strong feeling that it was the place she belonged. She doesn’t really have regrets but wonders what out of state would have felt like. She thinks it was the best situation for her though, being close to home and within Washington. She remembers applying for University of Washington, and feeling like even if she got accepted, she probably wouldn’t go. She knew she wanted to start fresh and distance herself from her high school personality. She wanted a change of pace.There were also grant programs in her high school that helped her earn money (about 20,000) that she would have lost if she went out of state. #collegesearch #collegeapplication #collegeselection 

35:50 - Celina talks about her path to WWU. College was always in her mind because she always wanted to be a teacher. She was inspired by one of her teachers, Ms. Acosta, to be a teacher. She really looked out for her family and even brought food and soap and things to Celina’s house when she found out her family was struggling. She ran into her at a gas station recently and talked for a long time. Celina still has her email and says she’ll reach out to her again. WWU wasn’t her #1 choice. She wanted to go to Skagit and then transfer. But in senior year of HS she got nominated for a scholarship “Champions of Diversity” you pick your top 3 schools. She just put down Skagit and then western as her #2. She ended up getting the WWU scholarship money and that upset her original plan but she went with it. She commutes to school by riding the bus 40 minutes, she doesn't mind it since she can do her readings on the bus. She kind of wishes she had tried moving up to Bellingham just to see what it’s like. She doesn’t regret anything though. #rolemodel #supportive #teachers #charity #actsofkindness #highschool #people

41:50 - Harlan asks if anyone else lived on campus and Susan said she did and had a good experience. Harlan talks about how being an RA is a great way to live on campus for free/low cost. 

43:00 - Zion talks about her path to college. She is the youngest and talks about being very independent, having to read and translate government documents at a very young age. She felt the pressure to go to college, her parents would say if she wanted a better life she would have to go to college. Academics were pushed on her to the point of being her identity. Her dad tried to steer her in the pre-med direction so that’s what she thought she wanted to do but she realized it was her dad’s dream and not her dream. She found psychology was her real interest. She originally wanted to go to UW but she didn’t get enough money from them. She got some money from WWU. She made a pros and cons list over which school to go to. She figured she’d have the chance to be more independent at WWU and she wouldn’t have to stay home and share a room with her brother. She didn’t even tour WWU, she just knew she had to take that opportunity especially since they were giving her money. She had a romanticized idea of what college would be like but she was shocked at how quiet it was when she arrived. She said she had a tough time starting out because of seasonal depression and not knowing anyone so she spent a lot of time alone, which was taxing as an introvert so she didn’t like being there in the beginning. She made the choice to put herself out there and attended events geared toward students of color and met people. #firstgen #firstgeneration #academics #mentalhealth #collegeselection #collegesearch #collegeapplication #WWU #WesternWashingtonUniversity 

48:03 - Zion talks more about that initial shock of college being different from the movies and how mental health wasn’t taken very seriously by her parents. She says she has ADD and ADHD which her parents didn’t believe she had even when she was diagnosed as a child. She felt like she had to change things and break out of her slump. She started feeling guilty about feeling so bad, realizing this could have been someone else’s opportunity to go to school, and her parents came to this country to give her a better life so she should take advantage of it. She talks about learning to ask for help and reaching out to people as something she had to get better at in order to grow. 

#Mentalhealth #learningdisability #studentresources #firstgen #firstgeneration #ADD #ADHD

50:30 - Zion talks about how she was able to work through her bad first start at school and what kept her from leaving, as many students do. She talks about how being a leader and helping other people is her way to feel better. She wanted to push through and work towards a better future. #leadership #uncomfortable

52:30 - Everyone talks about compass 2 campus and how they met as friends. Susan talks about starting as a mentor and then learning about job opportunities.
#compass2campus #peermentor 

54:02 - Harlan talks with Susan about if it’s a good idea to be roommates with a best friend. She says that they are no longer roommates but they are still good friends. She agrees that you probably shouldn’t live with a best friend. Things change a lot in college, you’re doing completely different assignments for different classes and you don’t have the same teachers. Harlan talks about the “divide and conquer” strategy. #roommates #livingwithafriend #advice

52:36 Susan talks more about how she got involved with compass 2 campus. She saw a sign on a table and signed up for the course. She took the 5 credit course. You go to class for 10 weeks and mentor for 7 weeks. Heavy focus on social justice. Harlan highlights the importance of places. #compass2campus #places 

57:24 - Harlan asks everyone about money and how they pay for college. Celina says most of her money came from when she did the FAFSA. She talks about the difficulty of doing the FAFSA, getting her mom involved to help fill it out. She talks about GEAR UP staff helping her to set up.
#FAFSA #payingforcollege #gearup #financialaid

59:15 - Zion says that public libraries are also sometimes helpful when it comes to things like the FAFSA. She encourages people to use google and watch videos on youtube to figure out how to fill things out. #FAFSA #publicresources #libraries #payingforcollege #financialaid

1:00:00 - Beatriz also filled out her FAFSA. She talks about how nervous she was dealing with sensitive documents and being confused by the instructions on the form. #FAFSA #financialaid 

1:02:21 - Celina mentions the WAFSA and that her friends filled that out, for people who are undocumented. #WAFSA #undocumented #firstgen

1:04:20 - Harlan asks about places and explains what they are. Celina quickly mentions she was involved with compass 2 campus, MISO, MECHA, FIG (first year interest group) #places #studentorgs #makingfriends

1:05:19 - Harlan confirms that all the panelists are open to answering questions from listeners. 

1:05:45 - Zion talks about her places. The multi-cultural center, a lot of the cultural clubs mentioned are held in that space. You can study, hang out, talk to people. The library is a great place, you can meet other people working on similar projects as you. Miller Hall is a place where you can get coffee and study. #places #studentorgs #makingfriends

1:07:07 - Beatriz talks about her places. Compass 2 campus, and she got a job on campus for orientation for new incoming freshmen. She also joined MECHA and the biology club. #places #studentorgs #makingfriends

1:08:25 - Susan mentions her places. Compass 2 campus, family and community engaged teaching, #places #studentorgs #makingfriend

1:09:00 - Harlan details a bit more of what compass 2 campus does. Susan mentions they do after school programs and recommends them because she found them as so fun. They take campus tours and it gives young students an idea of the options out there for them. They host dinners for students. They do work but also have fun.  #compass2campus

1:11:14 - Harlan asks about academics and struggles. Beatriz says that the quarter after transferring to WWU was probably the hardest quarter for her. The pace was much different and she had to really change her routine. She took a 300 level class and the professor taught in a way that was very different from her learning style. It was a lecture based class and the final grade was based on just a few exams. She got a 59% on her first exam. She felt pretty bad and doubted herself. The 2nd exam didn’t go well either. She heard about withdrawing from a class and getting a W. It took her a long time to realize she needed to do that. She had to realize that she wasn’t giving up, she just had to put her mental health in front. It would help her pass her other classes. She went to an advisor and he saw how upset she was about having to pull out of that class. He pulled up his own transcript and showed her that even he got an F and a W on his own. Him taking the time to show her made a difference. She went up to the teacher of that class and she was very encouraging and helpful and understanding.
#askingforhelp #academics #academicstruggle #droppingaclass #badgrades #mentalhealth

1:16:10 - Susan chimes in saying how important it is to be transparent with your professors and ask for help. She highlights that there are tutoring labs, and that TAs can help you. She also talks about talking with her advisor about how to craft her schedule. She advises students to take advantage of that and make their schedule to match their preference and routine. #advice #gettinghelp #advisor #academics

1:17:54 - Zion chimes in with other resources like the student health center and disability center, so if you have learning disabilities or mental health issues you can get accommodation for that. You can get time extensions on tests, test outside of classes etc. #Mentalhealth #learningdisability #testmods #studentresources #firstgen #firstgeneration #ADD #ADHD #gettinghelp 

1:19:48 - Celina talks about commuting and gives advice on how to make a life on campus. She says she is a planner. It takes time to figure out the bus route, on a  day you don’t have class to figure out where the bus takes you. Busses are free with student ID. She would identify days where she could stay late to go to clubs since the busses normally had the last route around 6. She recommends talking to people on the commuter bus too. #commuterstudent #livingoffcampus #gettinginvolved #studentorgs #advice #places #people

1:24:25 - Susan talks about her most uncomfortable experience. She talks about dealing with teachers from Lyndon where she would mentor with Compass 2 Campus. It is a very conservative town, she said she experienced some uncomfortable moments being, as she says, “a brown asian girl”  and had an incident with a teacher there. #uncomfortablemoment 

1:26:40 - Celina talks about her most uncomfortable experience. She talks about generally feeling out of place when she arrived at WWU. She was suddenly in 400 person classes and feeling like she didn’t belong. She mentions Dr. V who was a director at Compass 2 Campus. He was very nice and welcoming and through Compass 2 Campus she found her friends.  #uncomfortablemoment #compass2campus #transition

1:27:51 - Beatriz talks about another uncomfortable experience. When she first went up to Western Washington she didn’t know anything about bellingham. She didn’t know her way around at all. She and her roommate decided to find an apartment close to campus. She spent 20 minutes taking the long way uphill into class and she was a minute late. She had to squeeze into a middle seat in this lecture hall. Very embarrassing first day. #uncomfortablemoment #embarassing

1:31:50 - Harlan asks what everyone’s dream job is. Zion says she just wants to know that she’s helping people. Celina says she wants to make a difference as well. She would really like to be a superintendent. Susan says she would like to be a principal, it would be great to do that for her former school. Her school district was very diverse. #dreamjob

1:35:18 - Harlan asks for advice to your HS self. Beatriz says don’t measure your worth just by the successes you have. Acknowledge your failures and how you get back up and keep going. Go for every opportunity even if you fail it’s okay. Susan says she would advise herself to “take your time” She is in her 4th year but not graduating yet because her program is a long one. Don’t worry about being compared to others, take time to worry about yourself. Enjoy it and be present. Celina would tell herself to stop comparing herself to others. Just take care of yourself. #highschooladvice

1:40:24 - Harlan asks Celina about GEAR UP since she was a participant. It gave her a lot of opportunities, she was allowed to tour a lot of campuses around the state because GEAR UP paid for it. They have a lot of trips to conventions too. They help with the FAFSA, show you how to write a resume and apply to scholarships. #gearup #FAFSA #collegesearch

1:42:00 - Zion says your GPA does not determine your potential, nor does it determine your worth. That class that you failed is just in that moment. Take the opportunity to grow. Stretch outside of your comfort zone and try new things. #badgrades #academicstruggle #advice

1:44:18 Harlan reaffirms that everyone is open to listeners reaching out to panelists.



New York Times bestselling author Harlan Cohen talks with current and recent students about life in college.  For more videos visit BeforeCollegeTV on YouTube.  For more information about Harlan Cohen visit him online at: or follow him on social media: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Tik Tok | LinkedIn | Snapchat (helpmeharlan).

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed by panelists and participants are their own and are in no way endorsed, officially affiliated, or representative of the institution, Harlan Cohen, or BeforeCollegeTV.  All views expressed on panelists social media are not endorsed or affiliated with Harlan Cohen and BeforeCollegeTV.  Students views, opinions, and advice are their own. ALWAYS contact official representatives to verify and validate any information provided