First Generation Success Story: Dr. Daniel Pascoe Aguilar

Daniel Pascoe Aguilar, Ph.D., M.Div., Associate Provost for Immersive Learning & Career Design

  • Be Resilient.
  • Find a Back Door to an Opportunity. 
  • Be Empathetic.
  • Know that Drew needs you!

“Your resilience is your humanity. The only people who lose their humanity are those who believe they have the right to render another human being powerless.”
― Hannah Gadsby

I sat down with Dr. Daniel Pascoe Aguilar to find out about his life and how his journey to success was informed by being a First-Generation student.  He came to Drew in the fall of 2018 and with his energy, extraordinary vision, successful career services experience, and strong leadership skills, joined a leadership team of Drew administrators, faculty, and staff to spearhead the Launch initiative at Drew.  Launch is designed to facilitate a new generation of leaders’ identification of a purpose and their preparation for their careers and their contribution to the community and the world through a transferable skill-based curriculum, immersive experiences, a network of mentors, an integrated Launch website, and a course (Drew 110) that will start first year students on their journey to success.  He encourages all First-Generation students to take advantage of all of Launch’s resources to help them create purpose-driven lives, but he strongly believes that success is not real without kindness and inclusion.  Only the empathetic resilient leader can make the world a better place.

Where were you born and raised?

Mexico City, Mexico

Where were your parents born and raised?  

My mother was born in Mexico City and though my father was born in Mexico City, he was raised in in different states of México.







Do you have siblings?  What are they doing today?

I have an older brother who is a composer and orchestra conductor and another brother who is an administrator in a Missions organization.   Both are in Mexico City.

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

Yes, my parents talked quite a bit about college and offered tremendous support to my efforts.

Where did you go to high school? 

I had a scholarship to a recognized private school that included Kindergarten through 12th grade because my mom taught math at this school (Escuela Moderna Americana).  Unfortunately, I struggled academically and one year I was kicked out, but thankfully I was able to get back in. I had dyslexia but did not know it at the time nor was dyslexia regularly assessed/diagnosed in México at the time. I graduated in 1986.

How did you find your way to college having struggled in high school? Where did you go?

A vocational counselor came to our high school to talk about colleges in the U.S.  I noticed that all of my peers knew what university they were attending in the U.S.  Unfortunately, no one ever told me how my performance in high school would impact my chances to get accepted into competitive colleges. I wanted to go to college, but I knew I could not get into an American university because of my academic record.  It was a stressful time because no one talked to me about how to prepare for college.  Another concern was money. I was not sure my parents could afford college. Fortunately, I ended up at Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, a Mexican public university.  It only cost $6 a term for my entire 4-year undergraduate education and we figured out ways to cover the material and tool expenses of my Industrial Design degree.  My struggles with dyslexia in high school continued into college.  I felt insecure and my GPA was low, and I think most people did not think I would get very far with my limitations.

When did you learn that you had dyslexia?

I was not aware I was dyslexic until I was 40 years old.  I was working at a University and colleague came into my office to express how upset he was that his daughter had been diagnosed with dyslexia. Knowing that I was completing a Ph.D. in Education, he asked for my help so I began to read about it. I realized it described my own symptoms and struggles growing up. One of the books that confirmed my dyslexia was The Gift of Dyslexia.  I had struggled with it my whole life.

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

In México in the 80’s you were expected to enroll in college knowing your course of study. I always wanted to study music, but my parents were opposed to that idea so I thought I would like to study design and draw.  I investigated different majors and decided to pursue industrial design because I always liked creating models and prototypes.

Did you know what you intended to do with your major? What type of career you might pursue?

I knew an Industrial Designer designed anything with utility.  The paths that called my attention included the design of low-income housing furniture, sustainable packaging, and car parts.

What were your greatest challenges as an undergrad other than your dyslexia?

By the time I started college, I had already become heavily involved in church leadership and music. I was the president of a large young adult group (approximately 120 people), was composing and directing musicals for youth groups, and sang as a soloist and in a diversity of choirs. This consumed a significant portion of my week (20-30 hours a week) so balancing the time and focus demands of a non-residential college experience was challenging.

What surprised you the most about college?

I was surprised by how expensive it was to major in industrial design because it involved new tools and materials per term. Each trimester focused on a type of material so the needs changed by the period. Also, constantly come up with innovative designs was challenging.  Every assignment had to be a unique invention made with different materials, including ceramic, wood, fiber plastic, metal, etc.

Were you conscious that you were a First Gen student?

No, I never thought of my challenges that way.

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

My college was very affordable so my parents paid for it.

Did you find yourself socializing with other First Gens?

I was not aware that they were First-Gen students, but my assumption is that many of them were First-Gen.

Did you feel a sense of community?

I felt the strongest sense of community in my church.  This is where I developed and held leadership roles in ministry, music, and the arts.  I also had strong mentors in the church, including the minister of this community. UAM is not a residential college and I had so many other commitments that I usually attended classes and left campus right after.

Tell me about your decision to pursue a Master of Divinity.

I decided as an undergraduate student that I was not built to be a business or sales person.  After I graduated with a degree in Industrial Design, I thought I might pursue another undergraduate degree in psychology, but a mentor at my church encouraged me to pursue a Master of Divinity in the U.S.  I ended up at Palmer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.  It was a fantastic experience on many fronts. A seminary degree is paradigm shifting because you are challenging yourself philosophically and theologically every day.  It was difficult in one sense because I was coming from a church that was more traditional, and this seminary encouraged me to explore different traditions, but every day was both transformational and painful in the best way possible.  I was trying to fit into a new culture and had limited resources but I was fortunate to have a 75 percent scholarship.  I worked for the rest.  It was exciting to be in the U.S.

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

Resiliency.  I learned very early there is always a back door for whatever you want.  Main doors are not always accessible to you for a variety of reasons but you can always network your way or find another route to an opportunity.  This is very important for students to know.  If you understand how to network and learn how to find alternative paths, you can work your way to success.  Sari (my wife) had been accepted into a Ph.D. program in Instructional Design at Indiana University.  What she was studying caught my attention.  At the time, it was the number one program in the field with only 12 spots for over 120 applicants.  Though I was interested in applying, I felt it would be difficult to be accepted into such a competitive program with no directly related experience or education.  Therefore, while she started her program, I decided to work at Indiana University and take one non-matriculated class at a time.  I was working in career development and I connected my experience in career services to Instructional Design and was fortunate to write the best paper of the year.  The next year I applied for the Master’s program and was invited into the Ph.D. program.  When your prospects look slim for an opportunity, you have to be smart about it and try to find an alternative path to your goal.  You can connect to someone who works where you want to work, do an externship, or an internship, find someone who can open a door for you, or just be creative in your efforts.

How did you learn resiliency?

I had to be resilient because of my dyslexia. I always needed to find a new way of learning and doing things.  I more often than not had to circumvent the traditional system.  It felt like driving backwards.  I also had to be resilient as I figured out how to fit into the U.S. culture. One story that illustrates both my resilience, and my propensity to look for alternative solutions and back doors to success, happened when I was studying at the seminary in Pennsylvania.  My first Christmas studying in the U.S. I went back home to Mexico City. The US embassies in Mexico are not particularly friendly places – big warehouses, with chain-link walls and extreme temperatures inside as the day progresses. Your ability to get a visa is often dependent on the mood of the consuls.  I needed to get my re-entry visa approved to get back to school in the U.S.  I had all of my paperwork in order but the person I was relegated to, who had been yelling at everyone that day, rejected my visa and told me to come back 6 months later.  Fortunately, my resilient tendency to find alternative solutions propelled me to go back the very next day and luckily someone else processed my paperwork and approved my Visa.

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

I believe truly successful people possess a combination of resilience (that requires courage), and empathy.  By my definition, if success does not take into account the needs of others, it is not success.  I think you are successful if you lift everyone up, including yourself.

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

We need you!  Drew needs YOU to be a better institution. The community needs you to be a better society. To be better we need diversity, equity, and inclusion.  We need your contributions and your experiences, and on a bigger scale, we need your leadership.  There’s a problem when organizations have privilege at the top that focuses on protecting themselves.  If we diversify our leadership with empathetic resilience, it allows an organization to see the world in a different way, as more of a community.  We, as a society, need to see that we cannot create a better world without lifting each other.  Those who are least likely to be protectionist are those without privilege, those who are coming from behind.  We need YOU to be at the TOP of the chain.  We need YOU to make Drew’s Launch initiative better.  We cannot afford to not have you here or to not listen to your voice!  Hope resonates with you because you are not here by chance.  YOU are a key element to Drew’s success at all levels.  You should be at the driver’s seat.  YOU are Drew!  YOU are a crucial part of Launch.

Tell me about Launch and how it relates and can improve the lives of First-Generation students?

Launch is predicated on the very important focus of engaging students in the community and bringing the community and all its opportunities to our students.  That’s where the community’s immersive experiences, mentorships, and career or identity/affinity communities happen.  To me it’s very clear that the greatest challenge of the First-Generation community is resources – mainly financial resources.  Since their families did not go to college, many usually do not have a lot of money.  On the other end, they sometimes do not have direct access mentors in positions of privilege.  First-Gen students come to Drew often with a network vacuum.  Research and intuition indicate that this is highly challenging.  Networking is so important.  It’s a survival mechanism.  If you know how to network and you are stuck, you can find your way out.  Launch and its Communities are designed to develop networking infrastructure, and to develop equity for all students to further level the plane.  First-Gen students not only have access to the First-Generation Identity/Affinity Community, they have access to all Launch Communities, both the 10 Career and the 8 Identity/Affinity Communities.  All the Launch Communities are designed to help them find resources, mentors and opportunities that will fill any gaps and we just got started. We are looking for input from everyone to make these Communities more robust.

 Some fun questions:

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

Singing oratorio and opera.

What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?

Ministry.  Professor.  Singer.

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

Mont-Saint-Michel, a little island at night, an impressive rock during the day where Normandy and Britain meet.  There is a beautiful Abbey at the top and an 18- mile tide that comes in at night. I can’t wait to take my daughter one day.


Yasmin Acosta coordinates the Arts, Communications, & Languages Career Community and the First- Generation Identity/Affinity 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, and presents career development workshops. She also assists with the Student Employment program.  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) from Drew University, and is pursuing a Master of Education also at Drew.

Posted by Yasmin Acosta
Yasmin Acosta Launch Catalyst Yasmin Acosta