Alumnus Kathy Au at Behr Paint CompanyWhen Kathy Au ’21 (human resources) was growing up in Los Angeles, her parents strongly encouraged her to be a role model to her younger siblings by earning a high school diploma and then going on to college to get a bachelor’s degree.

Both of her parents were born in Vietnam and immigrated to China before finally settling down in the United States with the hope of providing a better life for themselves and their children. Neither of her parents had attained a high school diploma, much less a higher education.

“I am grateful to have both a high school and college education. There were many times that I wanted to give up and dive right in to the job market, but I didn’t want to let my parents down,” says Au. “During my senior year of high school, I had no thoughts of going to college because I wanted to support my family financially. But they told me to try college for a year and see how it goes.”

Meeting the Challenges of the First-Generation Experience

College has been a life-changing experience for Au, and she encourages fellow first-generation students to earn their degrees but to also find time to take a break and get support while on the journey.

“I was constantly terrified of failing and not being able to live up to my parents’ dream of being the oldest and going to college,” she says. “I rarely saw my parents ask for help or take a break. My parents worked 12 hours per day six days a week. For me to personally take a break and mentally revive myself or seek support made me feel that I was failing them.”

Utilizing Cal State Fullerton’s Student Health Center, Writing Center and academic advisors, Au found the support she needed and charted a path to earn a business degree with a concentration in human resources.

The support she received, as well as the career focus at Cal State Fullerton, were pivotal factors in maximizing her Titan experience.

“Fullerton provided a lot for me. The university really helps you succeed in the job market, and they encourage you to get internships,” says Au. “I grew up in a low-income community. I’d hear of students getting accepted into UCs or Ivy Leagues. Fullerton was not at the top of my list. But after I toured it, I knew this was the school I wanted to go to. It was small enough that I could walk from one building to another without having to worry about being late or needing a huge gap in between classes.”

Involvement in the coed business fraternity Delta Sigma Pi, which Au joined in her sophomore year upon declaring a business concentration, was the apex of her CSUF experience.

“It helped me push through business classes, apply to different internships and job opportunities, and attend various business conferences. If I didn’t join a student organization, I would not be where I am today,” says Au. “I felt like a first-timer to business in general, and the organization made me passionate about business and human resources.”

Kathy Au'21 on the campus of Cal State Fullerton in cap and gown

Kathy Au ’21 celebrates her graduation at Cal State Fullerton

Pursuing a Human Resources Career at Behr Paint

After graduating high school, Au took a brief summer internship, specializing in benefits, with the corporate office of Forever 21 in 2016. Finding a connection with people and helping others, she discovered that human resources fit her interests and passion.

Today, Au works as a human resources coordinator at Behr Paint Company. She’s been with the Santa Ana-based paint manufacturer for nearly three years.

“I started off as a temporary employee, eventually was offered a permanent part-time role, and then upon finishing with my bachelor’s, was offered a full-time position,” she says. “Their company culture is really like no other. I always feel welcome coming to work. I love my team. They encourage me to learn more. If I have too much on my plate, they offer to help. I feel that’s rare for a lot of companies, since most are more focused on sales and not focused on employee health. I truly love Behr and honestly could not think of a better company to work for or start off at. They just really want to help their employees find the right role.”

Looking ahead, Au plans to stay with Behr at least two more years, move up to a specialist role and then use her knowledge of human resources to dive deeper into compliance or employer relations.

Long term, Los Angeles nonprofits are on Au’s mind as a career goal.

Au also looks forward to traveling to Asia with her parents and siblings to explore their family roots.

Making the Most of Your College Experience

While most Cal State Fullerton business students aren’t the first in their families to go to high school, the majority are the first to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

Au has this advice for maximizing the college experience: “There can be a lot of pressure as a first-generation student, but we should realize that many of our peers are also the first in their families to earn a degree. Make the most of your time in college, and don’t be afraid to take some time to reflect. Your happiness is what matters most.”