First-generation students make up 60 percent of AWC college population

A majority of the students at Arizona Western College are the first members of their families to have gone to college. First-generation students make up over 60 percent of the population at AWC, and a number of faculty and staff members are first-generation too.

One of those faculty members is Yaneli Pasillas-Miller, an English adjunct instructor and Student Success Center tutor at the AWC Parker Learning Center. She also teaches English classes at Parker Alternative High School. Yaneli recently shared her journey to higher education with those that attended AWC’s 3rd Annual First-Generation Celebration on Nov. 6, along with several other staff and student speakers.

If it weren’t for financial aid resources and student programs like KEYS, Yaneli wouldn’t be where she is today, about to receive her master’s degree in English Literature from Northern Arizona University. The perseverance of her mother was also an inspiration in her pursuit of higher education.

Growing up, Yaneli’s mother worked two jobs to provide for her family. While she didn’t have the opportunity to attend college herself due to financial reasons, she still hoped that her five daughters would aspire to pursue careers that would help them be successful in life. For this reason, Yaneli decided, along with her sisters, that they would be the first in their family to acquire a college degree. Yaneli adopted her mother’s mindset of being a hard worker and a lifelong learner, and that approach helped her tackle the challenges she faced in pursuit of her degrees.

The first daunting hurdle they had to overcome was figuring out a way to pay for college.

“Even though our single mother was working two jobs, it was barely enough to help us sustain a living. Though she would have liked to, she was not able to help us pay for college. As a result of our financial situation, we had to find resources that could help us obtain our dreams,” said Yaneli.

After applying for FAFSA, she received a full Pell Grant to pay for college, which meant her educational future was secure, but financial strains still continued at home. Yaneli had to be intentional and diligent about managing her schedule as she went to school full-time while also working seven days a week. And since she didn’t have a car, she took the bus to school and spent many hours on campus studying and completing homework in between classes.

“When my last class finished in the afternoon, I would take the bus to my work where I served as hostess evenings and nights. On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, I usually worked from 9 am to 9 pm to help obtain more hours since I refused to give up school time for work. I took as many hours as I could so I could earn more money to help pay bills. Sometimes I did not have transportation after work, so I had to walk a mile to get home. After 18 hours of working between my schooling and my job, it was physically and mentally exhausting. When I got home, I made sure to study, complete homework, and squeeze in a few hours of sleep before I completed the processes all over again the next day,” Yaneli said.

“I did not complain about my situation, because I knew that one day, I would have a career that would help my family and I avoid these financial burdens. I also made sure that I never missed school, no matter how tired I was during the day. It was an intense first year of college, but thankfully, my circumstances grew better at the end of my freshman year by joining the AWC KEYS program.”

While a part of KEYS, Yaneli flourished by making the most of the resources that were available to her. She was offered a paid tutoring position, which allowed her to quit her hostess job. And in taking the position, she was able to experience college more fully by having an opportunity to be involved in clubs, meet life-long friends, participate in events, visit university campuses, and discover her passion.

“Through tutoring at the KEYS Program, I realized that I wanted to pursue a career as an English professor. I was glad that I had a clear goal for a future career,” she said.

Yaneli reached a major milestone in her family when she graduated from the AWC Yuma Campus in 2012 with an Associate of Arts degree in English. She took her education a step further by going on to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Grand Canyon University, which she earned in 2014. She was able to pay for the baccalaureate program by receiving financial aid, scholarships, and loans, and by also taking a tutoring job on campus, but being away from home presented her with a new set of challenges. She still didn’t have a car, so she had to ask friends for rides to the store and back home to Yuma for holidays, and she didn’t have a cell phone either, so she had to borrow her roommate’s phone if she wanted to call home.

“Not being able to see my family every day was perhaps the hardest part about being away at college,” she said. “It was not an easy journey, but I knew I was working hard to provide for my family and for myself one day. I worked tirelessly to obtain excellent grades and pursue my goals for this reason. Nothing was going to stop me from being successful, because I knew one day I would have a career and overcome these financial struggles.”

Now, she’s teaching high school and college English classes as well as tutoring, and using her platform to tell her story and share with her students that nothing can stop them from going to college and reaching their goals. She gives her younger sisters that same speech too, because she wants them to attain their desired careers. In gaining her own degrees, she’s been able to work at jobs that she loves, while also helping her family become more financially stable.

“Ultimately, I hope that my younger sisters, as well as my students, will learn from my experiences, use their resources wisely, and never give up on their dreams,” said Yaneli.

“I could not have done it without all the amazing resources that helped me to get to where I am in life today. I am incredibly grateful for those opportunities as well as all the supportive people who believed in me and motivated me every step of the way. Without a doubt, I will continue to pursue my goals while helping others learn that they, too, can pursue a college career no matter the circumstance.”

Yaneli is set to earn her master’s degree from NAU in December.

Public pro development workshops lined up at AWC

Arizona Western College has a variety of professional development workshops available for the public to take advantage of.

AWC La Paz Workforce Development provides training for individuals and businesses in a classroom setting, online, or delivered to your worksite to enhance opportunities for success. Courses focus on topics such as exceptional customer service, email and telephone etiquette, time management, fundamentals of effective supervision, public speaking, stress management, and business communications – just to name a few.

In addition to offering standard courses, training can also be customized to meet the needs of a specific department, company, or industry.

Contact the AWC Parker Learning Center at (928) 669-2214 or the AWC Quartzsite Learning Center at (928) 927-8299 to learn more. Workforce Education is a program of non-credit, fee-based courses and activities designed to serve individuals with educational goals that do not require college credit.

Workshop schedule:

Emotional Intelligence Workshop, Nov. 12, 10 to 11 a.m. at the Parker Learning Center, 1109 Geronimo Avenue

Resume Building, Nov. 13, 3 to 4 p.m., at the Quartzsite Learning Center, 695 N. Kofa Avenue at Quail

Cover Letters, Nov. 13, 4 to 5 p.m., at the Quartzsite Learning Center

Interview Skills, Nov. 13, 5 to 6 p.m., at the Quartzsite Learning Center

Start Your Own Business, Nov. 20, 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. at the Quartzsite Learning Center

Start Your Own Business, Nov. 20, 2 to 4 p.m. at the Parker Learning Center

Multi-generational workshop, Jan. 29, 9 to 11 a.m. at the Parker Learning Center


  1. Yanelli rocks! We had a course at NAU together and she is a shining example of why we need Arizona Western College. I’m also a first generation college grad and got my AA degree from AWC in 2012, my B.S. degree in 2016, and my Masters in English in 2019. You go, Yanelli!

  2. Fantastic article!
    I, too, am First Generation college.
    Thank you, AWC, for all you do in our communities in La Paz County.

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