by Marilyn Roca Enriquez in

 Photo courtesy of Thatiana Diaz

Photo courtesy of Thatiana Diaz

When 22-year-old Thatiana Diaz was named Miss New York USA 2015 in January, it wasn’t her first crowning moment. A child of Dominican immigrants raised in Queens, NY, Diaz graduated with honors from Pace University in 2014 with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies—becoming the first in her family to earn a college degree.

“My parents came from the Dominican Republic and weren’t able to attend college,” Diaz said in an online video. “So I was the first to attend and trust me when I say it wasn’t easy, and it was very overwhelming. I didn’t know anything until sophomore year.”

Diaz explained that she didn’t have knowledge about important college-related information like course changes, advisers or even changing majors. “I thought I was stuck with my major for the rest of my life,” Diaz said. “But thankfully listening and learning from others especially my peers and advisers I was able to graduate from Pace University within four years and also graduate Magna Cum Laude.”

 Photo courtesy of Thatiana Diaz

Photo courtesy of Thatiana Diaz

In addition to graduating in the top of her class, Diaz was also a features editor for the Pace Press and interned for Latina Magazine, Vogue, Seventeen, Sony and Wilhelmina. A strong proponent for equal education opportunities for all children, Diaz has worked with The Dream Project, a non-profit dedicated to helping children in the Dominican Republic, and has helped to collect and deliver school supplies to students in need.

Beyond her work with the earlier grade levels, Diaz hopes to empower other young people
who don’t have a family history of higher education or easy access to support services to help them reach their education goals. She is currently writing a series of selfhelp books for first-generation American university students and has selected the Center for Student Opportunity (CSO) and CSO’s I’m First! campaign as her “charity of choice.” Since its inception in 2005, CSO has created tools and resources to help first-generation college students and their supporters including parents, counselors and mentors on the road to and through college.

“I know how important it was to graduate for me and my family because my parents didn’t get that opportunity,” Diaz said in one of her online videos on the I’m First! website. “So they always encouraged the importance of education to me and my brother everyday.

 Photo courtesy of Thatiana Diaz

Photo courtesy of Thatiana Diaz

But I’m not here to talk about myself. I’m here to tell you guys about the Center for Student Opportunity.”

Based in Bethesda, Maryland, CSO is a national nonprofit that empowers first-generation college students on the path to and through college. In addition to operating, CSO also publishes the "I’m First! Guide to College" and maintains partnerships with colleges and universities across the country to strengthen and build awareness of their campus efforts supporting first-generation college students.

As a national spokesperson for CSO, Diaz has been encouraging other first-generation college students and graduates to share their personal stories on as part of a growing video campaign aimed at inspiring future first-generation college students. Dressed in her Miss New York USA 2015 crown and a light blue t-shirt bearing the I’m First! logo, Diaz’s online videos touched both on her personal experiences going to college as well as the work of CSO
and specifically spoke about the I’m First! Scholarship.

“CSO’s I’m First! Scholarship provides four-year renewable scholarships for up to $8,000 for
students who are first in their family to graduate and are committed to helping expand education opportunities for future first-gens,” Diaz said. “Also, the I’m First! Scholarship recipients get the unique opportunity to blog for the website where they have the chance to talk about their journey through college and offer advice how to make it to and through college.”

In addition to her video, Diaz has been actively helping raise money for the I’m First! Scholarship, which is given each year to up to 10 graduating high school students, and also visits schools and youth-serving organizations where she speaks about the importance
of education.

“Thatiana epitomizes why it’s so special being a first-generation college student,” CSO’s Executive Director Matt Rubinoff said. “With perseverance, hard work and asking for help, she beat the odds to make it to and through college and is a shining example to others that they can too.”

“It wasn’t easy,” Diaz said about college in one of her online videos aimed at other first-generation students. “But sooner or later I realized I wasn’t alone and neither are you. You too can graduate. You can wish it, and you can accomplish it. So wish it, dream it, do it and be first!”