Sofia Chen Ma (B'23) stands on the Healy steps outside Healy Hall in the weeks before her graduation from Georgetown.
Category: Student Experience

Title: Leaving Behind a Legacy for First-Generation College Students, and Her Brother

Sofia Chen Ma (B’23) graduated from the McDonough School of Business on May 20. For three of her four years at Georgetown, she served on the student board, most recently, as president of the Georgetown Scholars Program (GSP), a program for low-income, first-generation students. In this first-person narrative, she shares her path from Mexico to Georgetown, the legacy she leaves behind and the person who inspired her to take risks.

I visited Georgetown during Hoya Saxa Weekend in 2019. I was with other first-generation, low-income students, and a majority of us were seeing campus for the first time. Everyone was so excited.

When I entered the school, something clicked. I was like, this feels right. But I didn’t allow myself to say that until I saw my financial aid package. I didn’t want to hold onto hope.

At the end of the weekend, I went to the financial aid office. The financial aid counselor turned her monitor around and pointed to a number. She said, ‘This is your financial aid.’ The number was insane. I had never seen that much money in my life. I took a breath and held back tears. I had been bottling up four years of worries and tensions and aspirations into that one moment.

I left the office and stood outside Healy, knowing I had a full ride and would be spending my next four years here. I called my mom, crying on the phone.

I said, ‘Hey mom, I think I’m coming to the school and am going to major in business.’  She said, ‘See, I told you that four years ago.’ 

I hate when my mom’s right. But she was right.

Sofia Chen Ma (B'23) holds her cell phone and stares up at the stone steps of Healy Hall.


Chen Ma grew up in a small town in Sonora, Mexico, near the west coast of Mexico. Her mother had immigrated there from China to help her family open a chain of Chinese restaurants. Chen Ma’s father soon followed.

When I was growing up, I had a lot of connections to business without really knowing it. My family immigrated to Mexico to open Chinese restaurants in town. I was always around people who owned restaurants or had their own side hustles.

When we first relocated, we lived in employee housing less than a block from the restaurant; we could see the restaurant from our place.

My life could have looked parallel to a lot of my cousins who still live around the restaurants. But my mom’s always taken risks. She was willing to be different than the norm, and that’s how I ended up here.

When I was 13, I moved to Brooklyn, New York, for middle school. My mom stayed in Mexico. She sacrificed being with her family for us to pursue an education. She had to be comfortable saying, ‘Let’s take a gamble. You’re moving here, and I’m staying here. I’m still going to do my best to be your mom.’ 

A lot of times I would think, I have to make her sacrifice worth it – and be able to afford it. I knew my parents had put aside their dreams for me to pursue mine. 


Chen Ma applied and was accepted to the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown in 2019. She spoke three languages and planned to leverage her international background and upbringing in restaurants by studying international business.

I had applied to the business school with my background of having an international perspective and coming from a family who owned restaurants, which can sound glamorous, but it was very humble beginnings.

My first semester, we went on a site visit to Deloitte’s headquarters across the bridge [from Georgetown]. Everyone was wearing suits. I didn’t have enough money for a suit or professional clothes. I just had a button-up shirt and nice pants. I was like, what is Deloitte? What are the ‘big three’ consulting firms?

It was a stark reality hearing people talk about things that seemed normal to them that were new to me. I knew I was behind the curve. I started trying to mold myself into what I thought I needed to be.

Sofia Chen Ma (B'23) pictured at a GSP event her first year in 2019.
Chen Ma pictured at a GSP event her first year in 2019.

That semester, I took a class that was led by professors who were once first-generation, low-income college students called Mastering the Hidden Curriculum. It was an environment where we would just go in and talk about the things we experienced day-to-day. For me, being able to vocalize what I was experiencing and listening to other people vocalize a lot of my issues was eye-opening. For the first time in the classroom, I felt seen.

The class and the Georgetown Scholars Program (GSP) helped me realize that I could remove myself from the path I was trying to follow and still be OK. I didn’t need to pretend to be someone I wasn’t. I went home [for Christmas break] and returned with a new perspective.


Chen Ma became involved in GSP, a program that supports low-income and first-generation college students throughout their four years, including offering the Mastering the Hidden Curriculum course. She visited the GSP office every day before class her first year. Her sophomore year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, she joined GSP’s student advisory board and hosted events and programming to build community among scholars.

My first year on the board, I tried to create a virtual community even though we were all remote. Being there for each other, especially during COVID-19 and the struggles we were facing, was very reassuring. Like, the world’s falling apart, but we’re still together.

That’s something I value a lot about GSP: We try to be there for each other.

I wouldn’t have been myself if GSP hadn’t pushed me to take the Mastering the Hidden Curriculum course, to apply for grants, to apply for things I didn’t know I needed. Through the program, I was given all these pillars of support because people before me thought about what I would’ve needed.

I felt the pull to do that for others.


Chen Ma (B'23) leans against the stone wall of Healy Hall, near where the Georgetown Scholars Program office will be located.

While at Georgetown, Chen Ma interned at a private equity firm, financial service companies and at Georgetown’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation. She wanted to make the financial services industry more equitable and inclusive. 

Her junior year, she got her biggest challenge of college yet: GSP’s office in Healy was moved to the Leavey Center. Following engagement with student leaders, the university committed to moving the program back to Healy, and the university is in the process of creating a bigger space for GSP.

We wanted our space back [in Healy] because we want future generations to look back and say, people before us cared about our experience. We mattered then, and we continue to matter.

When I was advocating for the space, I knew I would never get to experience it because I would have already graduated and construction was happening. But my brother would.

When my brother opened his [Georgetown acceptance] letter, the first thing I thought was, he’ll get to experience the space I fought for. It was a moment of realization that a lot of times when you do things, it’s to leave a little grain of salt for other people to enjoy. I feel the same way about the people who founded GSP 19 years ago.

My brother will get to enjoy the space and build community in a very physical, iconic location at Georgetown, because, years ago, we advocated for that. It was worth it.


Sofia Chen Ma (B'23) wears a graduation cap and laughs with her brother, an incoming first year.
Chen Ma (B’23) laughs with her brother, David, an incoming first year, before her graduation on May 20. Photo by Elman Studio.

On May 20, Chen Ma graduated from the McDonough School of Business. Her mother, father and brother attended the ceremony, and her grandmother watched live from China. After the ceremony, Chen Ma sat down with her mother and a Georgetown reporter.

My mom said she was really emotional, really proud. She had this feeling like, we made it as a family. She’s grateful to God for giving me the courage to do things. It made her realize that the challenges she went through were worth it.

It was worth it. 


The night before she graduated, Chen Ma gave a speech at the GSP graduation. She ended her speech with this line.

“To my family – including my brother, David, who is joining Georgetown’s Class of 2027: 

Muchas gracias por haber estado conmigo y por siempre haber creido en mi futuro. Y para todos los familiares que nos acompañan hoy también, muchas felicidades. Si se pudo. 

Thank you very much for being with me and for always believing in my future. And to all the relatives who are with us today, too, congratulations. Yes we did it.”