Intergenerational dreams

First-generation college student Débora Paez Perez found the right major later in her college career. See how her calling is also fulfilling a lifelong dream of her immigrant mother.

debora headshot

April 26, 2023
Contact: Deidra Ashley,

For Débora Paez Perez, there is no closer bond than the one she shares with her mother, Janet.

When Paez Perez was 8 years old, she and her mom immigrated to the United States from Cuba. In search of a brighter future, they left behind everything they knew and faced the unknown.

In a new country, with a new language and with no family nearby, the pair relied on one another more than ever before — their relationship strengthened by the hardships they faced.

They eventually landed in Kansas City, Missouri, and planted roots in their new Midwestern community.

Nearly 10 years later, as Paez Perez approached her final years in high school, she and her mother knew the inevitable was coming: Paez Perez would leave home to attend college.

“Growing up, there was never a question of whether I was going to go to college,” Paez Perez said. “My family made sacrifices for me to be in the U.S., and we all lived through the repercussions of Mom and I immigrating. Pursuing a higher education was always the expectation. I just had to find the right school to go to.”

Paez Perez and her mom once again prepared for the unknown.

Débora Paez Perez (right) and her mom, Janet (left), photographed in front of their home in Cuba.
Débora Paez Perez (right) and her mom, Janet (left), photographed in front of their home in Cuba.
“Mizzou chose me”

As she searched for her college home, Paez Perez said she tried to balance academic offerings, distance from home and attendance cost. She applied to a handful of universities and waited to see what the future would bring.

“I’m the first person in my family to attend college,” she said. “Because of that, I had no idea what to expect when I started looking for school. I wasn’t sure where to go or even what I wanted to do. Lucky for me, Mizzou chose me.”

Paez Perez was selected for the University of Missouri’s KC Scholars Program, which falls under the Center for Academic Success and Excellence (CASE) umbrella. KC Scholars are guaranted a full ride and mentorship, among other perks. With the financial burden of attending college lessened, and a potential academic home just a few hours away from her mom, Paez Perez decided to become a Tiger.

A dream for two

With the big decision of where to go to school out of the way, Paez Perez moved onto the next big choice: which major she’d choose. “The possibilities seemed endless,” she said.

Despite having lived through many moments of uncertainty in her life, Paez Perez knew one thing for sure: She would use her degree to help people.

Paez Perez explored a handful of majors, but it wasn’t until she took a job working at University Hospital that she found her true calling. “As a sophomore, I started working with nurses doing research. I quickly realized these people have my dream job.”

At the end of her junior year, Paez Perez changed her major to nursing. In addition to defining nursing as “her calling,” selecting a nursing major was perhaps one of the greatest homages to her mother Paez Perez could have made.

“My mom wanted to be a nurse in Cuba, but she gave up her dream for me,” Paez Perez said. “The government would have paid for her education and even given her a job, but we wouldn’t have been able to immigrate if she had done that. I get to live out that dream for both of us now.”

As Paez Perez finishes her first semester of nursing, and she said it’s one of the greatest decisions she’s made. “The Sinclair School of Nursing has some of the best instructors I’ve had during my time at Mizzou,” she said. “They’re passionate about their jobs and each of us as students. They make me comfortable. They make me confident. And they never let me forget that I was chosen to wear these black scrubs — there’s a lot of pride in that.”

Advocating for others

Paez Perez said she wouldn’t be at Mizzou if it wasn’t for CASE and the KC Scholars Program. “They helped me get here, helped me navigate college, and, most importantly, get into nursing school,” she said. “I can’t imagine having gone anywhere else.”

Once she finishes nursing school, Paez Perez said she hopes to return to the Kansas City area to be closer to her mom again. She’d like to get a job in a hospital where she can advocate for those with marginalized identities and ensure everyone has equal access to health care.

“I feel like I’m needed in the nursing space,” Paez Perez said. “I want my patients to see themselves through me, and Mizzou is helping me learn how to advocate for patients and improve their lives. I can’t wait to live out my — and my mother’s — dream.”

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