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Mother and daughter defy odds to graduate together as first-generation college students

Mom Delmy Lemus left USC more than a decade ago; daughter Leslie convinced her to return, and showed her the ropes

Among the nearly 17,000 students receiving USC degrees Friday will be an unlikely mother-daughter pair: Delmy and Leslie Lemus, who will mark the end to a long journey filled with seemingly unsurmountable obstacles. The mother and daughter will graduate with bachelor’s of science and master’s of education degrees, respectively.

Delmy immigrated to the United States from El Salvador with only a third-grade education after living on the streets back home. Years later, as a young single mother years later, Delmy embarked on her journey to become a nurse by enrolling in Los Angeles Trade Tech College. Eventually, Delmy transferred to the USC Nursing Program in 2001. Her daughter Leslie, who was only 10 years old at the time, had already assumed the role of caregiver to her younger brother years prior. After only two semesters, Delmy was forced to drop out of the nursing program due to health and personal issues.

My children are like the motor to a car. I need them next to me to keep going.

Delmy Lemus

“My children are like the motor to a car. I need them next to me to keep going,” said Delmy, a health promotion and disease prevention bachelor’s of science candidate.

What may have seemed like a setback only served to strengthen both women’s motivation. Delmy worked as a housekeeper and elder caregiver, while Leslie completed her undergraduate degree at the University of California, San Diego despite anxiety over having moving away from home.

Leslie grew up in the USC neighborhood and studied at Foshay Learning Center while taking on an active leadership role in her struggling household. Aside from concerning herself with student life, Leslie was often preoccupied with her mother’s struggles — which included keeping food on the table.

After enrolling at USC as a graduate student, Leslie convinced her mom to return to USC to finish what she had started many years ago. Delmy returned to USC in 2014 with a different major. The pair would often connect on campus and be spotted together studying, walking to class or having lunch.

I needed to help my mom realize her dreams.

Leslie Lemus

“I needed to help my mom realize her dreams,” said Leslie, a post-secondary administration and student affairs master’s of education candidate.

Drawing from her own experiences as a college student and knowledge gleaned from her major, Leslie served as both tutor and adviser to Delmy on her new journey. Through Leslie, Delmy learned to take advantage of available resources like the writing lab, tutoring opportunities and how to leverage relationships with professors and educational advisors.

“I was so touched by Delmy’s story that I made it my goal to make sure she graduated,” said Kairos G. Llobrera, student services adviser in the provost’s office. “She overcame extraordinary obstacles on her personal journey to graduation. Her success is truly a testament to her hard work, resilience and determination.”

Looking toward the future

Like most college graduates, Delmy and Leslie are exploring their career options. Delmy will likely leave her job as a phlebotomist at the local hospital where she works the graveyard shift to pursue a career in medical research. Leslie plans to continue her work in student affairs at USC where she can continue to focus on student development, and make a positive impact on future first-generation college students.

“I’m much more aware of the resources available to me as a graduate student, and I want to share that knowledge with other first-generation students as part of my future work. I was in their shoes once and didn’t have anyone to encourage me in the manner I’ve experienced at USC,” said Leslie.

Access makes a difference

Of the undergraduates at USC, 15 percent (approximately 3,000 students) are the first in their families to attend college. USC enrolls more underrepresented minority undergraduates than most private research universities in the country.

USC recently hosted the first-ever First-Generation College Student Summit: Path to Success which provided students with best practices to better navigate the college experience armed with tools to alleviate stress and confusion. Delmy and Leslie were among the estimated 350 students in attendance along with key faculty, staff and alumni. Topics of discussion included challenges and research relevant to that unique student group along with personal experiences. bove all, the summit allowed students to come together and celebrate successes while connecting as a community.

Inspired by the 2015 Ivy-League First-Generation College Conference, the summit was created in response to a university-wide commitment to better serve first-generation college students. George Sanchez, vice dean for diversity and strategic initiatives at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, brought together a task force composed of USC administrators, professors and representatives, many whom were also first-generation college students, to create the event.

The Summit emphasized USC’s continued commitment to providing first-generation students with access through financial aid, mentoring relationships and diverse organizations to expand opportunities for success.


Additional information on program resources can be found on the USC Dornsife website.

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Mother and daughter defy odds to graduate together as first-generation college students

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