By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – It’s hard to believe now, but Estefano Paez once considered himself an introvert.
That was when he first arrived at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. A lot has changed since then.
“Now, people would definitely say I’m more of an extrovert,” Paez said, “but that’s because of all the things I’ve been involved in. Even when I was afraid, people kind of pushed me to take on these roles, and that’s helped me become a better leader.”
The Columbus native encourages other first-generation college students to follow the same path.
“Even if you’re scared, it’s definitely in your best interest and it will help you in the long run if you just try to get involved,” he said, “because you’ll meet the right people and you’ll be able to grow as an individual.”
On Wednesday, Paez was honored for his contributions to campus and the country during UNK’s annual First-Gen Day celebration. He received the First-Gen Trailblazer Award recognizing an outstanding first-generation student.
Ashley Olivas, a senior adviser in TRIO Student Support Services at UNK, described him as “the epitome of first-generation success.”
“He is a trailblazer not only for other students but also for his family,” she stated in her nomination. “He works over 40 hours each week in addition to being a full-time student and is the first to raise his hand when someone needs help. His selflessness, discipline, dedication and compassion are a few characteristics that shine through in everything he does.”
Paez is a junior studying business administration with minors in entrepreneurship and marketing/management. He also serves as a wheeled vehicle mechanic in the Nebraska Army National Guard and works at Menards and the Office for Intercultural Engagement and Leadership on campus.
Even with all of those obligations, he still finds time to be involved in organizations such as the Hispanic Student Association, Global Student Association and First-Gen Lopers. He’s also served as a resident assistant on campus and was part of the Residence Hall Association and Community Council.
His other nominator, Luis Olivas, director of the Office for Intercultural Engagement and Leadership, called him an “exceptional individual” with an inspiring story of resilience and dedication.
“As a first-generation college student, Estefano has overcome numerous challenges to pursue his academic goals. He has demonstrated unwavering perseverance and a strong work ethic throughout his educational journey. This, in itself, is a significant accomplishment, but what truly sets Estefano apart is his service as an enlisted service member,” Luis Olivas wrote.
“His dedication to academic success, paired with his military background, has positioned him as a role model and source of inspiration for his fellow students. He actively participates in service member awareness projects and campus intercultural programming and has become an advocate for the needs of his peers who share the unique experience of being both service members and first-generation college students. Estefano’s commitment to education, his community and his fellow service members is truly commendable. He exemplifies the qualities and values that this award aims to celebrate.”
Paez was both surprised and honored to receive the award.
“It really means a lot,” he said, “and it shows that if you work hard, you’ll be recognized.”
He also thanked faculty and staff in the Office for Intercultural Engagement and Leadership, TRIO and College of Business and Technology for their assistance along the way.
“All of those people have really contributed to my success and guided me to where I am today, so I really do appreciate them,” Paez said.
FRIEND OF FIRST-GEN AWARD
Emily Bahr received the Friend of First-Gen Award during Wednesday’s event. This award recognizes a faculty or staff member who goes above and beyond to support first-gen students.
As assistant director of the UNK Learning Commons, Bahr provides academic support in a collaborative learning environment that fosters confidence, independence and student success.
She played a lead role in planning and implementing the First-Gen Trailblazer Academy, which provides another level of support for first-generation students as they transition to college. In August, 20 students participated in a weeklong “practice run” that allowed them to connect with campus resources, experience classes and develop relationships before the fall semester started.
“She is the reason why I feel safe and accepted here at UNK,” one student wrote. “Emily is the nicest staff member that I have talked to, and if I ever need something she is the person I go to.”
Coinciding with the National First-Generation College Celebration and the Nov. 8 anniversary of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the UNK event brings students, staff and faculty together to celebrate first-gen successes and continue building that community on campus. The event included a photo booth, games, prizes and free food and T-shirts. It was sponsored by UNK’s First Generation Leadership Team and First-Gen Lopers student organization, with support from UNK Campus Recreation and UNK Dining.