Karen Molina

Worth The Commute

From first-generation college student to world traveler: Karen Molina’s SDSU education helped change the trajectory of her life—and her family’s.

By Karen Molina (’17)
(As told to Lisa Haney)

June 15, 2020


I moved to the United States from Mexico when I was 10 with my mom and four younger siblings. It was a huge culture shock because I was already older and didn’t speak any English. And although San Diego is just across the border from Tijuana, they’re two different worlds.

My mom was a single mother working minimum wage jobs, which means we struggled a lot financially during my childhood. Our family living situation was always uncertain and at one point during high school, we returned to live in Mexico, which meant crossing the border every day to get to school. It was my junior year—by far the most important year for getting into college. It was tough waking up at 3 a.m. to cross the border, get homework done and attend cross-country practice after school. But this difficult time shaped who I am and I was determined to get into college.

SDSU was my top choice and when I got in, I was really happy. I qualified for full financial aid and since I could live at home and commute, it was within my reach. I got into SDSU’s EOP BEST Summer Bridge program before my freshman year. This program prepared me for my transition into college as a commuter student.

As Summer Bridge came to an end, I received a letter from Student Life & Leadership saying that I was selected to be part of the Commuter Life program in the fall. The program connected me with other commuter students through classes, volunteer work and study groups. Being part of the Commuter Life program made me feel like I belonged and helped me find my place within SDSU.

Commuting to SDSU was a big challenge as I didn’t have a car. I took a combination of buses and trolleys to campus, and it was up to a two-hour commute each way. I would usually stay on campus the entire day—studying at the library, joining clubs and organizations and just trying to find ways to get involved. I also worked on campus—first in Cuicacalli dining hall my freshman year and later as a Commuter Life program mentor and tutor—to pay for my expenses and help out at home too. 

One of my goals—and why I was working so hard in college—was so that I could have a career and we’d be financially stable.

I was looking for internships my sophomore year and stumbled upon INROADS, a national program that pairs students with paid internships. I applied and got a finance internship with Chevron in the Bay Area. The company paid all my living expenses as well as a very competitive salary.

"The first thing I did when I got my big-girl paycheck was send money home. It was a really big accomplishment for me."

Chevron offered me another internship after my junior year and then a spot in their Finance Development Program following graduation. The 18-month program exposed me to different sectors of the company and allowed me to have a great start to my professional career as a Financial Analyst. During my time on the program, I had assignments in the Bay Area, Lagos, Nigeria and Houston. Having a career with Chevron has allowed me to travel the world, be financially independent and accomplish many of my goals.

I was the first one to go to college, first one to move out, first one to get a real job—so it was kind of neat paving the way for my siblings and being able to help my family. I was even able to give a big chunk of money to one of my sisters to help her buy a car for her commute to college.

Currently I am living in the Los Angeles area working at the Chevron El Segundo Refinery as a Financial Analyst. It’s great being financially independent and having a career that I can grow. I have disposable income to travel, save and build my life, but also to help my mom and my siblings—that’s one of the biggest things that I’m thankful for.

Banner photograph by Sandy Huffaker

Karen Molina at the Great Wall of China

Karen Molina at the Great Wall of China.

Karen Molina at the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Karen Molina in Pisa, Italy in March 2019.

“I love to travel. I studied abroad in Hong Kong during my junior year. From there, I got to travel to a lot of countries in Asia.”

—Karen Molina

Karen Molina at the White Temple in Thailand

Karen Molina at the White Temple in Thailand.

Karen Molina with an elephant

Karen Molina with an elephant in Thailand.