First-Generation Week: Mena Castro

Immigrant parents inspire and motivate first-generation daughter to overcome challenges

Mena smiles in courtyard.

When Mena Castro is asked what led her to get a degree as a first-generation student, she says there was never any question, it was always something she was going to do. With parents who immigrated to the U.S. and worked hard to provide for their family, Mena knew she had to continue their legacy by working diligently in college.

She recalls, before COVID, her father had his own successful construction company, something he loved doing. “He showed me anything was possible, and I wanted to pursue something like he did. My parents weren’t forceful, but they always encouraged me to pursue my dreams.” Growing up, this support motivated Mena to dream big, thinking of a new career to pursue all the time. Eventually, she decided to be a doctor but then learned from her own experience in health care that nursing would give her more time with patients.

Determined to find out if nursing was the right career path, Mena got her Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)  license during her senior year of high school and started working almost immediately at University of Missouri Health Care in the neurology unit. She says it was a humbling look into nursing and she felt honored to have the opportunity. Now, she works in the ER at Capital Region Hospital in Jefferson City, enjoying the hands-on experience.

Mena’s work as a CNA confirmed that she was just beginning her nursing journey. She knew that the next step was to apply to colleges and scholarships, and she found herself relying on her high school teachers for guidance. Even now, during her third year at Mizzou, they continue to be supportive. Mena’s mother is also a great source of motivation for her. According to Mena, “She really pushed me not to pity myself as a first-generation student. If I let myself feel bad for the opportunities I missed, I would only get comfortable with feeling bad and miss more opportunities.”

Now that Mena is in her first semester of the clinical program at the Sinclair School of Nursing (SSON), she’s found another support system in SSON faculty. Specifically, Christyl Barnes has made a big impact on her nursing school experience. Mena describes the instructor’s personality as unique, something that she rarely encounters in person. Barnes has a teaching style that can be described as “tough love”, and when Mena has doubtful moments, Barnes reminds her of her capabilities and gives comforting words of wisdom. Barnes is impressed by Mena’s dedication to the program and says, “She’s a hard worker, and her infectious energy is something to admire. The bonds she has created with her patients and clinical group are amazing.”

Mena practices taking pulse on simulation manikin.
Mena practices taking a simulation manikin’s pulse.

Mena, despite all her accomplishments, still finds that she compares herself to her peers. This is a common reality of many first-generation students, but she stresses the importance of embracing your journey because no one else’s is the same and everyone has their own hardships. Ultimately, Mena knows she’s here for a reason and reminds herself she’s meant to be a Mizzou Nurse.

Mena Castro’s story is one of hard work, resilience and a supportive community. As a first-generation student, she faced numerous challenges but was able to overcome them with the help of her family, teachers and instructors. Her journey towards becoming a nurse reflects her ambition and willingness to take on challenges. Although Mena still has three semesters left until graduation, there’s no doubt that she will make an exceptional Mizzou Nurse.

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