California State University, Fresno
First Generation Stories



Setting Your Priorities

Filomena Fagundes
Information Technology Services

I was born in a small village on the island of Terceira, Azores.  The Archipelago of the Azores consists of nine volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 1,500 km off the coast of Portugal.  My family immigrated to the United States in the late 1960’s due to economic necessity.  I never thought we were poor and couldn’t understand my parent’s reasoning for leaving their country and moving to a foreign land. After traveling in a plane for over 20 hours, we arrived at the San Francisco airport with no one waiting for us; we arrived at the wrong gate and were delayed several hours. None of us knew a word of English and we couldn’t find anyone at the airport that spoke Portuguese.

What began as a goal to get promoted ended up as a self-fulfillment goal. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it; be a mom, work full-time and attend school full-time. 

Both my parents attended only four years of elementary school yet they immediately enrolled us in school in the U.S. I had finished my primary education in the Azores, but the only subject I could do in the American school was math, since I didn’t need to speak English to complete the work. The first two months were difficult and it got worse when I was bused to another school further away from our house. I was constantly teased and bullied and it was difficult to make friends. Each day I would come home and beg my parents not to make me return to school.  I eventually met a teacher who encouraged me and helped me learn English.  He was always available and made every attempt to introduce me to other children. After six months, I had learned enough English to translate for my parents and assist them. 

Both my parents started working as soon as we arrived in the U.S. They had to work two jobs to pay the debt they had left in the Azores, pay for their monthly expenses and save money for a return visit to the Azores. My parents taught us a great work ethic: work hard, show up to work on time, and be honest. Back then, a lot of the immigrant children were leaving school to help out at home, but my parents insisted that we finish high school. 

At age14, I started working during the summer. My father took my sisters and me to the fields to pick onions, tomatoes, or strawberries. Whatever was available, we would pick. It was back-breaking, hard work. One summer my mother insisted that we all experience what it was like to work in a cannery. I got hired at the age of 16 at one of the local canneries and worked on the sorting line, 8-14 hours per day. The work was difficult, but I liked receiving a paycheck. So I decided to work full-time for one year after high school with the intention of enrolling in college the following year.

The year after graduating from high school, while still working at the cannery, my high school Spanish teacher advised me to apply at a local office. I had some great, supportive teachers throughout my early education; teachers who were dedicated, hard working, and who really cared about the success of their students. My new office job offered me a variety of tasks that allowed me to put into practice what I had learned in high school, and I found I enjoyed working with the public. 

After almost 20 years in the same job though, I noticed I was being passed up for promotions, so in 1984 I decided to return to school. By this time I was a single parent. I needed to attend college while working full-time. I enrolled at the community college and took one class at a time. It was not the quickest way; however, I still wanted to have time to spend with my son. I was living with my parents and they helped me with my son, but they thought I didn’t need to go to college since I had a good-paying job.     

Working, raising a child, studying and getting good grades was tough. But after a few years, when I transferred to San Jose State University; the stress and anxiety increased.  The commute from Gilroy was a killer [this was before the freeway was expanded], classes were more difficult, and class size was much larger than previously.  I would leave home at 6:00 in the morning, attend classes from 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., and then drive back to my office and work until 7:00 p.m.  What began as a goal to get promoted ended up as a self-fulfillment goal. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it; be a mom, work full-time and attend school full-time. 

I finally graduated from San Jose State University in 1993 with a B.S. in Management at the age of 34. Taking this route to earning a college degree was demanding and stressful. For this reason I advise my nieces, nephews and anyone who will listen, to make their education a priority. “Everything else,” I tell them, “will come later.”       

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