As the first in his family to attend college, Conner Whitten knows all too well the challenges faced by first-generation students.
For Conner, those challenges not only included helping his parents understand the often complex, painstaking process of earning a degree, but also his decision to continue pursuing higher education beyond a bachelor’s.
In fact, it was only a few years ago that Conner’s father figured his son had it made when he was promoted from busser to bartender at a sports bar and grill at Pechanga Resort and Casino.
“My dad was so happy when I was a bartender,” Conner said. “He said, ‘This is great. You’re set.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, but …’
“I just felt like there was more.”
Today, Conner is just a few months away from crossing the commencement stage at Cal State San Marcos, the proud recipient of a bachelor’s in psychology. He will continue his education in the fall when he begins a Ph.D. program in behavioral neuroscience.
The journey is about more than fulfilling his own dreams. It’s about creating opportunity for other American Indian children.
“He very much pays it forward to other students, just talking about how he got there and how he can help them,” said Kimberly D’Anna-Hernandez, a CSUSM psychology professor and one of Conner’s mentors. “He’s really dedicated to outreach.”
Conner is from the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians and has lived on the Pechanga reservation since moving to Southern California from Spokane, Wash., when he was 13. His family relocated in part to help care for his grandfather, who suffers from short-term memory loss due to a brain injury sustained in a car accident.
After graduating from high school, Conner spent his days in class at Palomar College and his nights and weekends working as a busser at Pechanga. While his eventual promotion to bartender meant more money to help his family, it came at the expense of his schoolwork.
“It was tough to juggle it,” he said. “I didn’t have the best grades. I didn’t know what I wanted to be or what I wanted to do.”
Conner’s grades hit a low point when he learned that his father had glioma, a tumor on the brain. Fortunately, the tumor was benign, and seeing the neurological issues that plagued his father and grandfather inspired Conner to pursue neuroscience.
Being able to focus on his studies has helped him raise his grade-point average to 3.9. He has already been accepted to doctoral programs at West Virginia University and the University of Tennessee, and he has an interview lined up at Georgia State later this month. OP: BREAKING NEWS: TENNESSEE WINS!!!!
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