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From Struggle to Success

First-generation students share their university journey

Their treks to and through college were like a late-night hike up the Organ Mountains: rocky, initially intimidating and not without stumbles.

But as they reflect on their journeys, these first-generation college students with ties to NMSU all focus less on their challenges and more on handing a lantern to future students facing that climb.

Gaylene Fasenko likes to tell students about the 3% she got on a biochemistry exam.

“I tell them so that they can see I still made it,” Fasenko says. “Another reason is so they know to seek help.”

Fasenko, a professor who developed NMSU’s Companion Animal Program, is also currently Faculty Senate chair.   

Fasenko, then a Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University, sought assistance from the course professor who co-authored the textbook. This made it daunting to go see him. 

“When I got an A-minus in the course, Dr. Horton walked across campus to congratulate me,” Fasenko says. “It’s those types of mentors in my life that have led me to want to help students succeed.”

The first mentor was Fasenko’s mother, who always encouraged her to pursue education.

“Mom was a huge advocate; she knew having an education was power,” Fasenko says. 

One reason Fasenko feels at home at NMSU: She wants to empower and support NMSU’s large population of first-gen students approximately one in three.

“I always tell people that I’m never going to be a Nobel Prize winner but maybe I can help one student at a time, and hopefully they will help pay it forward by mentoring the next generation,” Fasenko says.

As a child, Eli Valdez ’81 discovered his love of learning.

Valdez, who returned to NMSU recently for a second career, recalls telling his siblings he was going to NMSU. It was a difficult time due to a divorce.

“But I came, committed because I knew it was going to impact my future and the future of my family,” he says.

Despite not knowing how to pay tuition or how to navigate the system, Valdez earned a degree and got a job in Houston. He offered to help his brothers. One accepted, so Valdez paid his tuition in Texas.

Now as a degree audit specialist, Valdez helps turn course catalogs into digital degree programs students can use to maximize their time and money. He serves on the first-gen committee and is always encouraging.

“We say, ‘Know that you are an innovator for your community,’” Valdez says. “’And you are an entrepreneur for your family. Because of you, your family will transform. I’m the evidence of that.’” 

“I am living a dream once forgotten,” says Jim Wiseman, an NMSU student studying secondary education with minors in history and geography.

He’d always wanted to go to college, but was in his 30s when his path presented that opportunity. It was exciting but jarring, too.

“I was a lot older than my peers in some classes,” says Wiseman, who expects to graduate in 2025. “The work was a little harder than expected, but once I got the hang of things and some tutoring, I was able to surpass my own expectations.”

Now, he’s hoping to pass a piece of this long-awaited experience to his son.

“It was important to me that my son see anything was possible with hard work; when I enrolled at NMSU my son was old enough to witness the benefit of going to a university,” he says.

Lisa Whitmore’s children were her reason for enrolling at NMSU. When Whitmore ’06 ’09 ’19 thought of improving their lives, her self-doubt and worry about the challenges of a visual developmental disorder faded.

Pretty soon, she was doing it for herself too. As a little girl in the Pueblo of Laguna, she went to school in nearby San Fidel and felt classroom confidence—something she rediscovered at NMSU Grants. It propelled her to three degrees: an associate, bachelor’s and master’s, all in business.

Now, Whitmore works as an academic adviser there and is motived by her students.

“My experience has shaped me into an empathic adviser who will be your biggest cheerleader,” says Whitmore, who pushes students to release their fears. “I genuinely want my students to succeed; when they do, I want them to take pride in their accomplishments.”


Gaylene Fasenko



Eli Valdez



Jim Wiseman