First-Generation Success Story: Dr. Raúl Rosales

Dr. Raúl Rosales, C’99, Professor of Spanish at Drew University

  • Practice Self-Awareness. 
  • Be comfortable in your own skin.
  • Rise up to challenges. Give your all.
  • Know that you are not alone.

“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”
― Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

I sat down with Dr. Raúl Rosales to find out about his life and how his journey to success was informed by being the first in his family to attend college.  In his 2016 Keynote Address after receiving the Drew University President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching, Dr. Rosales spoke about his early days as a Drew student and his fears of being different and not fitting in.  Fortunately, the students, staff, and faculty of Drew helped him to embrace and celebrate his uniqueness as he explored his interests, passions, interdisciplinary education, and the freedom of campus life.  He recommends that students “dive deep” and give college their all, pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone.  Dr. Rosales also challenges students to do the hard work of getting to know and accepting themselves for who they are, and of learning to be comfortable in their own skin; he believes self-awareness is a key part of moving beyond one’s immediate circle, and of being able to play an engaged and active role in fighting some of the world’s major issues and injustices, including climate change, racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.  It is important for all students to see themselves as global citizens and know that they are not alone, but that we are all in this together.

Where were you born and raised? 

I was born in New York City to Cuban exile parents. We lived in Washington Heights, moved to Union City, NJ when I was about three years old, then moved to West New York, NJ when I was nine years old.  My parents worked very long hours, so both of my grandmothers played a big role in my upbringing.

Where were your parents born and raised and when and where did they emigrate to the U.S.?

My mother was born in Camaguey, in central Cuba, and my father was born on the southeastern side in Santiago de Cuba. My parents were high school sweethearts.  After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, my father was jailed as a political prisoner for five years.  After his release, my parents married in 1967 and had my older brother a year later.  They all left Cuba for Madrid, Spain in 1972 and lived there for two years, finally arriving in New York City in 1974.  I was born four years later. Although they had relatives in Miami (where most Cuban exiles resided), my parents remained in New York and then New Jersey. Throughout the next thirty years they worked primarily in retail, even owning small businesses for a period of time. Today they are both retired and live in Secaucus, NJ.

Do you have siblings? If so, what are they doing today?

My older brother lives in Secaucus, NJ. He works in IT.

 Did you parents encourage you to go to college?  If so, how did they encourage you?

My parents did not know much about college, neither about the application process nor about the experience, but they did recognize the value of education in achieving success; their general attitude was that they would help and support me in whatever I wanted to do.

Did you always know that higher education was in your future?

Yes, I knew ever since grammar school. Also, in my high school going to college was a given.

Were you a good student?

Yes, usually a straight A student.

Where did you go to high school?  How were your grades?   Were you involved in many extracurricular activities and if so what types of activities?

I went to St. Peters Prep in Jersey City, NJ.  I was a straight A student and developed many of my interests while there, particularly around languages and the humanities through AP courses.  I was more of an introvert but was a member of some academic clubs and the Spanish Honor Society.

 When did you know you wanted to go to college?  Where did you go? When did you graduate?

Very early on. In high school I developed a love of Spanish and eventually became passionate about the literature and cultures of the Spanish-speaking world.  When I was a junior in high school, Drew University’s Spanish Department held a Spanish Language Day competition where high schools brought their best students to compete by reading essays or reciting poetry.  I received an honorable mention in one of the essay categories.  I remember really liking the campus and vibe of Drew on that visit. Since I was not very familiar with the college process, only had some college counselors’ input, and was anxious about being too far away, I decided to go to college close to home.  I applied to Rutgers, NYU , Columbia, and Drew.  I was accepted into all except Columbia, but Drew was my first choice. At Drew I majored in Spanish, minored in English and Latin American Studies, and took a wide range of courses across different disciplines. I participated in study abroad programs to Greece and Spain, and wrote an honors thesis my senior year. I graduated Drew summa cum laude in 1999.

Did you know what you wanted to major in during your first year?

I did not know at first.  I initially thought I would be a Psychology major, but by the end of my first year realized that my passion was really with Spanish. I did know that I wanted to teach regardless of the field I majored in.

What were your greatest challenges as an undergrad?

The challenges of fitting in, the normal challenges of the college experience, but all compounded because I had no models letting me know what to expect. I was discovering everything on the spot.

What surprised you the most about college?

The freedom and flexibility of college, of having to make deliberate choices for the first time.

Were you conscious that you were a First Gen student? How did that manifest itself in the way you handled college?

It was not something discussed back then. My grades were always good and I never struggled academically, so I held on to this “good student” identity. But looking back at all the times when everything in college was new, the times when I realized my life experience was different than that of my peers, and all the anxiety associated with that – it’s clear I was having the issues of a first-generation college student.

Were your parents able to pay for your college or did you depend on scholarships, grants, and student loans?

My parents could pay only a certain amount per year, around $8,000 I think, but the rest was all through merit aid and student loans.

Did you find yourself socializing with other First Gens?  Did you have a sense of community?

My sense of community was found in the Spanish Department and my dorm mates. I don’t remember a lot of them being first generation.

Did you have a mentor(s) as an undergrad? If so, who were they and how did they assist, guide, or inspire you?

A long-time member of the Spanish Department, Dr. Elaine Bunn, was a great mentor. She saw my potential from the start, encouraged me to study abroad in Spain, and guided me though grad school applications. She was supportive in every way.

What could have made your experience as an undergrad better?

Fostering a better sense of community with a feeling that Drew was really home.  I also wish there had been a mechanism to draw me more to different events so that I wasn’t always hanging out with the same group of people.

When did you know you wanted to go to grad school?

I always knew. I wanted to teach at the college level, so I always saw going to grad school as a must.

 Did your parents encourage or help in that decision? Did anyone else?

My parents did not get involved but they did help with the financial piece.  I graduated Drew a year early and saved them a year of undergrad tuition which made it possible for them to help me pay for my unfinanced first year of grad school.

Where did you go to Grad School? Were you able to overcome the challenges you faced as an undergrad? Did you know you were going to pursue a Ph.D after your M.A.? 

I went to Columbia University. It was a great experience. I was still learning my way but I was much more confident. I had a wonderful mentor at Columbia, the great Gustavo Pérez Firmat.  I was accepted directly into the PH.D program, obtaining my Master’s degree there in 2000 (in Spanish) and completing my Ph.D (in Spanish) in 2007. My dissertation was titled: “Narrating Selves: Autobiographical Acts in Contemporary Cuban Diaspora Writing.”

What was your first teaching job?

I adjunct-ed for a few semesters at The New School before starting to teach at Drew University in 2004.

What is your area of research?

Autobiography and self-representation in all its modalities. Cuban and Cuban-American literature and culture.  I’ve also done a lot of work on questions of memory and post-memory. Perhaps because of my own life experience as a son of exile parents, I’m fascinated by how we remember or sometimes end up reinventing the memories of others.

 What do you believe is the secret or recipe for your success?

After I received the Distinguished Teaching Award in 2016 I gave a speech where I talked about how I was that little kid who would teach to my stuffed animals and give my parents hand-written tests I had created.  I was blessed that I knew what I wanted to do for a career.  I knew it would bring me joy.  I was never driven by money, but by repeatedly asking myself, what’s going to make me happy, where and how am I going to find the joy?   That is the secret to my success.

How did you learn resiliency?

I learned it through trial and error. When you grow up being the straight A kid, you think you’re perfect, which sets you up for a guaranteed downfall.  I learned you don’t have to be perfect, that there are times in life when it’s perfectly ok to just be good enough.   And that I, like everyone else, am a work in progress. Resiliency comes easier by being honest with yourself.

What do you think is the most important characteristic of a successful person?

You have to have full self-awareness and know who you are, the good and the not-so good. Own it.  You have to be absolutely comfortable in your own skin.  Exercise patience.  Rise up to challenges.  If you are battling yourself but do not know exactly what you’re battling, you’ll just end up frustrated and exhausted.

What advise could you give First Generation students who are just starting college?

Be aware of what you don’t know and accept what you don’t know, even if you have a problem or experience shame.  Figure out or identify what makes you insecure or anxious.  Once you know this, you can more effectively reach out to others. Sometimes when you think of college you forget the internal piece.  Always try to be aware of what you are feeling, not just what you are doing.  And, no matter how alone you think you are, you’re not.  Someone has walked in your footsteps before.

Some fun questions:

Do you have any hobbies or special interests you would like to share?

I can be a real beach bum when given the chance. I love to travel, specially on the high seas. I never get tired of The Golden Girls reruns. I try to practice mindfulness whenever I’m able to. And I love spoiling my fur baby, a Jack Russell-Doxie-Beagle mutt diva named Trixie Poo.

What do you like the most about teaching?

Making a difference in a student’s life.

What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?

Political journalist or analyst, a Steve Kornacki type.

If you could travel to anywhere in the world tomorrow where would it be?

The South Pacific….Tahiti, Fiji, an over-the-water bungalow in Bora Bora.

Favorite time of year?

Summer. I love the warm weather.

Any parting words?

Never stop asking questions. It’s the best way to engage with yourself, the world, and those around you. Without questions change is not possible.

Raúl Rosales Herrera earned his B.A. from Drew University, and this M.A., M.Phil, and Ph.D. from Columbia University. His research explores the intersection of autobiographical theory, self-representation, and memory discourses, including postmemory, in contemporary Latinx fiction and Cuban diasporic narrative. His publications have appeared in the journals Tinta, Hispania, Caribe, Camino Real, and Label Me Latina/o, and in the anthologies Language and Identity in Chicano/Latino Discourse, (LINCOM 2006), Fotogramas para la multiculturalidad: migraciones y alteridad en el cine español contemporáneo (Tirant lo Blanch, 2012), and Latinos and American Popular Culture (Praeger, 2013). His book Fictional First-Person Discourses in Cuban Diaspora Novels (Mellen Press) was released in 2012. A National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship recipient, he also chairs the subject area “Latin Americans and Latinos: Identity Issues and Cultural Stereotypes” for the Popular Culture Association. At Drew, he teaches a range of literature and cultural studies courses, including interdisciplinary seminars on Latinx Representation in Hollywood, Exile and Displacement in the Spanish-Speaking World, and Urban Cultural Movements in Latin America. He had led Drew study abroad programs in Spain, Argentina, The U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Martinique. A DrewFIRST mentor, he also serves as the faculty advisor to Ariel and to La Casa Latina. In 2016, he was awarded the Drew University Presidential Award for Distinguished Teaching, and in 2019 received the Drew University Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Social Justice. 


Yasmin Acosta coordinates the Arts, Communications, & Languages Career Community and the First-Generation Community. She also manages the Peer Career Coaching Program, counsels and advises students on career, job, and internship plans, critiques resumes, cover letters, CVs, and personal statements, presents career development workshops and spearheads student and alumni engagement through a “Spotlight” series. Prior to this position Yasmin was the Program Coordinator for Drew University’s Center for Holocaust/Genocide Study. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English and Psychology from Rutgers University, a Master’s degree in Arts & Letters (Literary Studies) and a Master of Education from Drew.

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