Kaitlyn Contreras '20First in her family, finding her place

The daughter of a single mom who worked two jobs to support her family, Kaitlyn Contreras was determined to attend college.

“I knew I wanted to go to college; I just didn’t know how,” she says. “But I followed the advice of my grandmother. She never went to school and never learned to read or write, but she taught me to always ask questions.”

As an eighth-grader, Kaitlyn began asking questions, seeking a more challenging high school than the one in her neighborhood.

What Kaitlyn couldn’t know then was that asking questions would open the door to unique opportunities.

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My grandmother taught me – always ask questions.

- Kaitlyn Contreras

“I knew I wanted to go to college, I just didn't know how.”

In ninth grade, Kaitlyn joined SMU’s Upward Bound college access program, a national program to help first generation students follow the steps to attend college.

She explored all her options – including joining the girls’ wrestling team for a potential athletic scholarship. But she also concentrated on achieving good grades, and listened when she heard of a unique SMU scholarship just for students at her high school.

Kaitlyn set her sights on the scholarship. After interviewing with SMU benefactor Nancy Dedman '50, Kaitlyn received the Robert H. Dedman North Dallas High School Scholarship.

“If you start to doubt yourself, find reinforcements”

Now a senior health and society major and honor roll student, Kaitlyn is preparing to take the medical school entrance exam. But she’s the first to say it hasn’t always been easy.

Her college pre-med classes have been much more challenging than high school classes.

She found mentors in support staff with SMU’s Engaged Learning and McNair Scholars programs, as well as faculty members and other students who reminded her she was more than capable of being a successful student at SMU.

“The human rights program helped me tie what I was learning in class to the outside world.”

Kaitlyn’s decision to minor in human rights led her to faculty mentors and a close-knit community.

“We tell our students from Day One that they are a family,” says Rick Halperin, director of SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program. “We encourage them to use our offices to study, relax and socialize.”

Thanks to a human rights scholarship, Kaitlyn traveled outside the United States for the first time to study abroad in Israel.

“My family – my heart and soul”

Kaitlyn’s greatest support team is her family – her mother,  younger siblings and extended family. Weekends are reserved for family meals, worship and soccer games at the park.

“I always tell my brothers and my sister to study hard,” she says.


I’ve learned it’s OK to be afraid and to use that as a motivation. I definitely believe I can be a doctor.

- Kaitlyn Contreras

Get Kaitlyn's full story – and watch her advice for first-generation students:

Finding Your Place