Paw'd Defiance

Be the First

April 02, 2019 Amanda Figueroa, Director of Student Transition Programs, and Yanira Pacheco Ortiz, First Generation Student Initiatives Coordinator. Season 1 Episode 2
Paw'd Defiance
Be the First
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Paw'd Defiance
Be the First
Apr 02, 2019 Season 1 Episode 2
Amanda Figueroa, Director of Student Transition Programs, and Yanira Pacheco Ortiz, First Generation Student Initiatives Coordinator.

Amanda Figueroa, Director of Student Transition Programs, and Yanira Pacheco Ortiz, First Generation Student Initiatives Coordinator, talk about what it means to be a first-generation college student. Figueroa and Pacheco Ortiz relay their experiences as first-generation students and discuss ways in which universities can support students who are the first in their families to attend college.

Show Notes Transcript

Amanda Figueroa, Director of Student Transition Programs, and Yanira Pacheco Ortiz, First Generation Student Initiatives Coordinator, talk about what it means to be a first-generation college student. Figueroa and Pacheco Ortiz relay their experiences as first-generation students and discuss ways in which universities can support students who are the first in their families to attend college.

Amanda:

It's not sufficient to just earn that degree. There's a whole set of cultural family capital that goes with making that degree mean something.

Music:

[Intro Music]

Maria:

From UW Tacoma, this is Paw'd Defiance.

Music:

[Intro music]

Maria:

Welcome to Paw'd Defiance, where we don't lecture , but we do educate. Today we're talking about first generation students with UW Tacoma Director of Student Transitions Amanda Figueroa, and Yanira Pacheco , First Generation Student Initiative Coordinator. So what's your role for the university? What do you do?

Yanira:

My position is brand new. I started in January. Students, faculty and staff at University of Washington Tacoma advocated for and created this position, which the title is First Generation Student Initiatives Coordinator. So my responsibility is to develop curriculum programming that will help advance the academic goals of our first generation students. But it's not only developing programming, it's also to serve as an advocate for students, faculty, and staff who are first generation. I also serve as an advisor for students to help them achieve their academic and professional goals, and serve as a resource for faculty and staff. For example, I can provide them with data of the latest trends a nd issues pertaining to first generation students. And personally I hope I can s erve a s a role model, and also as a student at the same time.

Maria:

Thank you. What about you Amanda?

Amanda:

So as director of Student Transition Programs, I say that we work "K to Gray" to support big dreams. So that means that all of our work in Student Transitions is anchored in career. So knowing what success looks like for students after they graduate with a college degree. And then also new student programs. So orientation, and then pack advisors who act as student leaders and orientation guides, and then pre college outreach. So we have a position that focuses specifically on helping all of our community understand, what are post secondary pathways, and how do they identify right fit pathways for themselves.

Maria:

That is great work that you guys are doing. So the topic for today is first generation students. The first thing I want to ask is: what is first gen? What is first gen to you?

Yanira:

The way we're defining it right now on campus is that a first generation student is a student that is the first in their family to attend college, and hopefully graduate from college. For me, being a first generation student means being a role model. I was the first one in my household to attend college. There were three kids in my household. My father was in the military and my mom was trying to complete an associate's degree , which is interesting because she was able to complete it while I was doing my undergraduate program. She's a super woman. I love her. So, for me it means to be a role model, but at the same time to be able to pay it forward to those who were able to help me achieve what I have been able to achieve.

Amanda:

Yeah. That's great. I resonate with a lot of what you just shared. I'm also a first gen student, I was the first in my family to go to college. My dad had some technical training when he was discharged from the army, and actually went to Bates here in Tacoma. And then he moved to Chicago. When my family came back to Tacoma, my mom went from being a stay at home mom to going to Bates and earning an accounting or bookkeeping certificate. So for me, being first gen is also navigating, and not only paying it forward, but making sure that that information gets back to my family. So actually my husband just started his college career last fall a t Tacoma Community College. Shout out to the Titans. And so it's been really fun to just continue to have those conversations in my house, and with my nephew. And, I think a big part of being first gen is that you navigate and then you figure out how to widen those pathways and reduce barriers.

Maria:

So now going back to what first gen is, what are some of your experiences being in college? Because we oftentimes say, well, I'm a first generation student, but we don't really think about our experiences during college. What was that like for you?

Yanira:

In my household, there was not an option. I was the oldest and the only female in my household. And the instructions given to me were either you go to college or you enlist in the military. My dream was to become a marine biologist. The challenge was that to do this I would have to move out of my household, which was a challenge. And it also meant that I would probably have to pay more for it, which I couldn't afford at that point. So I remember many of my counselors and even family members suggesting, "listen, one of your main concerns is how information is disseminated, who has access to information, and how they use this information. Have you considered studying mass communications, or even public relations? Have you even considered that?" And to be very honest, I never thought about that. I never thought that that was even a field that I could be part of. Some of my counselors in high school provided me with some information on it, and suggested that I do that. Not only that, it would allow me to stay at home and then commute to campus, and actually go to a campus that I could afford. And that's what I did. I registered at the University of Puerto Rico, and, this is a land grant institution, and part of their mission is to make sure they make it affordable for students to attend college. I registered there and I was able to do my program, and get a bachelor's degree in mass communications with facilitation and public relations. But for my father was difficult for him to accept that his daughter was going to college. Um, to understand the process of what it meant for me to study in college. An example of that was I remember what I was at home. I would study until very late at night, and even til the morning, and my dad will come in the middle of the night and turn the lights off. And I will tell him "Dad, I'm studying, and I need to finish this." And he says, "No, you are wasting electricity. So you need to go to sleep." So it was difficult because I couldn't challenge him.

Maria:

Yeah . Those are challenges I have too, like little small things like, I need some time to study.

Yanira:

Absolutely. And to explain to him what it meant. Why did I have to stay up late to study? That it was not just one course, how many hours I needed to work. And I myself was trying to learn what it meant for me. Those were some of the examples of things that I had to do. I didn't have transportation. I was dependent on public transportation, therefore things like group meetings, it was difficult for me to go because most of them were off campus. Also, I had four jobs to supplement my income.

Maria:

Wow.

Yanira:

Yes.

Maria:

That's a lot.

Yanira:

And you know that when you work so many hours, that takes away from studying at the same time.

Maria:

So it's like, where do I balance it?

Yanira:

Right. So those were some of the challenges that I worked with, but we were able to manage with some mentoring and help, and all the time with the support of my family. My family was supportive. They knew that I needed to complete this journey and it was my responsibility to do so.

Maria:

Yeah. Thanks for sharing that. I would like to hear from Amanda, what were your challenges?

Amanda:

I was really fortunate in high school in that I went to a lot of advanced classes, but my parents didn't know how to go to college and there were lots of family things that were happening in my life at that time. And so when I graduated from high school, I got a job right away and then saw all my friends go off to college. And then I was working doing customer service for a garbage disposal company, one of many jobs that I would hold before I finished college. And then about a year and a half after that I was like, "gosh, I am really living hand to mouth. I want to go to school, I want to find out what this is about. And so I started going to school at night at Green River community college, and got my AA there. And the whole time, I was really interested in science, but I didn't know anybody who was a scientist. And some of my major concerns as I was graduating high school were like, how am I going to have health insurance? Like, I gotta pay my bills, I got to care for myself. So I had some great mentors. I did some volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium, and met some great mentors there. And they encouraged me to go into the sciences, and I had a family conversation with my mom and dad and said, "I don't know how to get a job in this field, but I know I'm really passionate about it." And they supported me and said, "Let's do it." So I went down to Oregon State for a year for a program, which was canceled about 10 weeks before the program was supposed to start because of a budget crisis down in Oregon, and then I came back up to Seattle, and actually finished and got my Bachelor's degree from UW Seattle, only attending there three quarters. So I kind of have some similar pathways where I didn't really know where I was supposed to go. I didn't know that you could attend field courses at other universities as a student at one university. And so a lot of similar challenges. And then I went on to graduate school. So I graduated with a degree in biology and then was networking my butt off because I was so worried about having a job, and landing a job. Right. Because my family is like, "Yes, we support you in going into science," So like, I have to get a job when I leave.

Maria:

And it's already a hard field to get into. So that's one of the challenges too. Like, especially for women in STEM and all that. It's very hard.

Amanda:

Yes. But then when I went on to go to graduate school, it was a step further outside of my family's wisdom. And so my parents actually did not support my decision to go to graduate school until a year after I started. In the sciences--And a lot of students don't know this--in a lot of fields in the sciences, they actually pay you to go to graduate school, and you can get research assistanceships, and teaching assistanceships . And so I had those lined up, and I was accepted, and my mom did not believe me that someone was going to pay me. Right. Because when you're working two, three jobs, you see your family, you see how hard they work to make it, and then you're like, "Yeah, mom , someone's going to pay me to look at fish gonads all day." And they're like, "You're making that up. How much are you in debt? What are you doing?"

Maria:

They see those things like who's gonna pay? Who's gonna watch that? And I'm like, mom, people would do that. They paid for those little things that sound a little bit ridiculous, but they do pay for it.

Amanda:

Absolutely.

Yanira:

And sometimes that makes you doubt yourself, and your process too.

Amanda:

Yes. And not that she didn't love me, but she had no knowledge of how do you navigate in these fields. And I had gotten great mentors who said, "if you want to grow, you need to go to graduate school." So I went and got my master's degree, and I'll never forget, I was so steeped in academia by that time that I was like, "I don't think I'm going to go to the ceremony, I'll be fine." But my mom was like, "no, you're going." And I will never forget graduating and seeing her come across the field with just... tears streaming down her face. And then I got this huge celebration basket from my family in Texas. It was, I mean...

Yanira:

Because they see all the effort that you put on it. And not just effort, but it's hard work. Usually you think of it as "just books," but no, it's a lot of hard work.

Music:

[ Transition music]

Speaker 3:

Hey everyone, it's Maria. I wanted to take a moment to talk about First Gen Fellows. The program provides support, not just to first gen students, but to all students at UW Tacoma. First Gen Fellows hosts a number of activities and workshops designed to help people successfully transition to college. In the past, the Fellows have hosted bonfires, career workshops, and stress relief sessions. If you want to know more about the program, visit the UW Tacoma website and type "First Gen Fellows" into the search bar.

Music:

[Transition music]

Maria:

I want to talk about what happened after college. What was it like after college? Because we do talk about applying to colleges and then once you're in college, but what happens after college? What was that like?

Yanira:

So as I was working towards the end of my undergraduate program I was noticing that I was scared. I was thinking, "Who's going to give me a job? Where am I going to find a job? Especially in media and communications, where, back home at least, I noticed that unless you were with the right groups and the right networks, it was very difficult to find a position, even an internship. Unfortunately, when I was in college, I didn't have a mentor. I didn't even know that I had an academic advisor who could help me in the process. I had to navigate everything through my peers to be very honest. They were the ones who helped me. I remember one counselor from another college, she had heard that I wanted to travel. And one of my peers, one of my friends actually introduced me to her, and she said, "Listen, have you heard about national student exchange?" And I said, "I have no idea, what does that mean?" And then my second question is, "How much is it?" And she said, "I think that we might be able to make it worth your while, and we might be able to help you to cover the costs, or maybe even get you partially funded. But I think you qualify: you want to learn more about areas in communications, you want to learn more about other places. I know right now you won't be able to do study abroad, but at least you can work in this program. You can actually travel to another university anywhere in the United States, including Hawaii or Guam, you can go take credits in your field and at the same time practice English." And I said , "I'm sold." And she said, "Plus you can go to Canada." And I said, "We're done, we're going to do this." She truly helped me in the process of finding funding and taking credits. I did it throughout the summer, I went to New York. I was at SUNY Oswego, and I was exposed to some faculty who told me, "you have certain talents that we would like to be able to connect with, and to connect you to a university." No one ever while I was in college told me that I had talents, that I had skills.

Maria:

Exactly, because it's more about like, what can you not do? What do you not know how to do? Instead of, like , what can you contribute?

Yanira:

It was more of a deficiency model rather than what was I contributing to this institution, or to the field? I was still a junior. So I said, "I don't know where to start." He said, "Well, the first thing is we are going to get you connected with a speech communication association. And because your area is in public relations, how about you help us develop a conference on your campus, and you will be our connection." You tell that to a student in public relations. I'm thinking, "What? Now you're telling me that I am going to..." I didn't have any idea what a conference meant , how to organize it, and how to be a liaison, because that's what she was telling me, and I was not even faculty, or even staff at the university. And she said, "We'll teach you, but you will be our connection. First of all, we want to make sure we have a lot of students involved in this process." And I said, "Fantastic." So I was taking classes with this professor Joan Loveridge Sanbonmatsu, I will never forget. And wherever she is I will always say, thank you. And she paid for my membership in the organization, and while I was there she gave me the instructions of what I needed to do. And when I came back to the University of Puerto Rico, I helped her in the process. So I served almost as a liaison, but at the same time as an ambassador for students. And that was one of the best experiences in my life. The interesting thing about that is that actually gave me an opportunity for people in my college to see me and what I was bringing to the table. Unfortunately there were other faculty in the department were less helpful in my path. I found people who instead of lifting you up...

Maria:

They do the opposite.

Yanira:

Exactly. Unfortunately , I remember her name too. But I'll never forget when I went to meet with her to help me plan courses to finish my senior year. I'll never forget when she said, "You're never going to make it. I don't think you have the skills necessary to be in this field." At that moment, of course, I'm young. First of all, it was the level of respect. You have an elder, you're not supposed to contradict what they're saying. So they're supposed to be wise, you know, and they're supposed to guide us. And that's what she said, so at that moment that was my reality. But I was very fortunate, my mom is a very strong woman, And she has never given up on anything in life. And I remember that I had her support. So I'll never forget that. At that point through her and my friends and my family, especially my grandmother, they say, "You are going to do whatever she said that you were going to do, you're going to continue, you're going to finish it." So while I was there doing my national student exchange, I also connected with other peers that were going to graduate school. And they were saying, "We're going to graduate school, how about do you go to graduate school too? And I was like, that's not for me, I don't think I can do that. Who will want me? And for what? And they say, "Listen, they will pay for your studies." And I think, "I don't think that's true." I thought they were lying to me. At one of my jobs I received a call, and they say, "Hey, there's a recruiter from Iowa State University who wants to talk to you." So I took the phone call. Not only did they want to talk to me, but the person spoke Spanish. And I'll never forget when I answered the phone and he was explaining to me, he says, "Somebody mentioned that you're interested in coming to graduate school. This is what we can offer you. We can offer you an assistanceship , we can offer you tuition remission..." And all that good stuff. So I went to graduate school. While I was in graduate school, the person who hired me became my mentor. And the funny thing is that he hired me to coordinate the program that recruited graduate students and provided them assistantships. So we had our budget of $1 million and he just said, here, work with that."

Maria:

Great. So, Amanda, what did you do after college? What was that experience like? That transition from, "Okay, I'm done with school," and then "What do I do next?" You know?

Amanda:

The whole time I was in college, I was thinking about jobs. I was doing a lot of networking to look for research positions. And so I was very fortunate that when I was in my undergraduate in Seattle, wrapping up my degree, I got connected through a friend of a friend to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. And so I met with one of the investigators there and started doing things like cleaning fish tanks in their lab . And then it was really fortunate that the timing worked out where I was able to move full time into a research assistantship there as a research tech in that lab. And then got a lot of mentorship, and was encouraged by my employer to then just collect stories. And she told me, "When you have this job, you can do it two ways. Either ways is right. You can come in nine to five and go home. Or if you want to use this as an opportunity to think about graduate school, then we'll find a research project for you. You'll come to lab meetings, we'll send you to national conferences, and also help you network and you can go to research talks and things like that." So I chose the second option, because I didn't really know what this graduate school thing was about. And through that I decided I did want to go to graduate school. And when I was in graduate school, again at UW Seattle, In their fisheries program, as I was entering that program, had an opportunity to connect with other graduate students who also identified as Latinx or native American, and helped to cofound a student chapter of a national organization called SACNAS, Society for Advancement of Hispanics, Chicanos, and Native Americans in the Sciences. And it was awesome. It's so good. And they have this great story about how they started at a scientific meeting where Native American and Latinx scientists were in an elevator going to lunch and they said, "Gosh, if this elevator crashes at this conference, all the brown people are gone. So it was an organization that was started by folks from particular communities for that community. And it just has this really beautiful, powerful history. So as I was entering and and considering starting this chapter, I had an older graduate student, her name is Charlotte Lambert, Doctor Charlotte Lambert . And she was like, "Hey, you should come to us with this national conference." And I said, "I can't afford that." And she said, "Let's ask the school for money." And I was like, "can we do that? Can we ask them for money?" And she got me funding to be able to attend and then it was over. And so in graduate school, one of the ways that I was prepared for success is that I had this really tight network of student leaders within a student organization who were really passionate, and were in the right place at the right time, where the university was like, "How do we diversify STEM programs, and what does this look like?" And so I got a seat at a lot of different tables about how do we do that in STEM, and how do we do that with genuine student voices i n leadership, and have just continued those lessons. I went back last spring to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the chapter, and I reached out to the other founders and got video shout outs and encouragements to the current chapter students. So that has definitely been hugely foundational in how I think about my leadership.

Music:

[Transition music]

Maria:

Hi again. I thought now would be a good time to talk with you about the "We Are First Generation" project. About 65% of UW Tacoma students are first generation. We created this project both as a way to honor our students and to serve as a resource for those who are thinking about attending in college but don't know where to start. If you're a first generation student or if you know someone who is, I encourage you to visit the UW Tacoma website and type "We are first generation" into the search bar. Okay. That's it for now. Back to the show.

Music:

[Transition music]

Maria:

So, based on your experiences, what do you do now? How does that relate to the role that you have at the university?

Yanira:

I will say, I've been working in student affairs for 19 years, and I have been very fortunate to have very strong colleagues that believe in opportunities for students, especially first generation students. With programs that I have worked with, we have been able to work with students from opportunities for middle school and high school students all the way through their tenure in college, and guiding them through the path to graduate school. I will say that one of the areas that I would like to emphasize is providing opportunities for students where they can have access to internships, research opportunities, or different needs according to their classification here. Because each student has a particular need according to their growth. For example, the needs of first generation freshman students are going to be very different from those of the sophomore, junior, or senior. Where I used to work I was able to coordinate a program. It was a George Washington Carver Scholarship program where we were able to provide a full scholarship for students, all throughout their tenure in college during their undergraduate program. And to be very honest, giving a scholarship to a student, it's very easy. The most difficult part is to make sure that you as a student can keep that scholarship and make it grow, and grow yourself holistically. And that should be the responsibility of the institution. We can give a scholarship, but our responsibility is to make sure that we can retain the student and get them graduated. And my hope is that while I'm here through collaborations with different units on our campus, that we can create those pathways for the students where they can succeed. And not only that, that they can grow holistically as a student and as a civic minded human being. And that they can see that their current and past experiences are an asset to our institution. That they're contributing to the history and the culture of this particular institution wherever they may be, in this case UW Tacoma. Again , I would like to be able to provide those through connections and collaborations, opportunities for students according to their classification here. For seniors and juniors that they can experience research. To publish, to connect with faculty, to have a mentorship. For freshmen and sophomore students, for them to start thinking about study abroad. Maybe national student exchange.

Maria:

There's a lot of things that they don't know about.

Yanira:

Absolutely. Our goal also is to be able to give them information that they don't know that they don't know. Resources, connect them to resources, guide them through resources. Cause I can't tell you, hey, you might want to go to the Office of global affairs and think about it and get this information. But it's better if actually I can say, "Let me connect you with so and so in this particular office." This is what you can expect when you visit this office. Actually, I even have one of your peers who has user services. And this is what they gain. But I would like for both of you to meet. So maybe develop a peer mentorship program where the students can have people who can relate to them, who are going through the same situations and experiences, that they can trust at the same time. So those are some of our programs. And my hope also is that we get to know, who are freshmen and first generation students on our campus? Who are they? What are their needs? What are they bringing to our campus? And what services do we have already that can meet those needs, and what services can we actually develop to actually help them, and help them to succeed in their career path. And most of the time we will have to change our institutional mindset. Whereas most of the time we are mostly focused on "is the student prepared to come to college?" We're focused on that, on student preparedness, rather than " Is our institution prepared for our students?" So I know it will take time, and I know we're ready. I mean, through the advocacy of our students, you all did a fabulous job. You continue to do a great job. The advocacy also of faculty and staff. You all have been able to create this position . You all have been able to actually have a space for the program. There's no stopping you all now, you know. And the important thing is that I respect the legacy of those who have worked so hard to develop, to be where we are right now, and make it grow.

Maria:

Amanda, What are some things that because of your college experience, you have implemented now though you have a position at the university? Or what are some things that you want to change in the future as well?

Amanda:

Oh Gosh, that's a really long question. Do we have another hour? No? Okay, that's fine. I'll be short. Uh, there were so many things. One of the things that I did not appreciate at the time, my graduate degree is in aquatic and fishery sciences, but along the pathway, through my networks, I got connected to learning scientists as well. And so really studying that intersection of how do people learn? And specifically how do organizations and individuals create equitable learning environments and think about culturally sustaining education? And so taking that framework of understanding how people learn, understanding how humans have evolved to be learning machines and we are learning all the time in formal settings and outside of formal settings. That's a lens that I bring to my work. Also thinking about first generation experiences. I have my own set of experiences. They don't intersect in all the ways that other folks do. So I always remind myself that my experiences are not everyone's experiences, but I know that my experiences did not line up with the majority of folks who have been successful in that system. And so remaining curious is important. In the last few years I've really embraced this concept of gracious space, and part of that talks about inviting the stranger, which means you're actively intentionally seeking out folks whose experiences and perspectives are different than your own. And that's definitely something I try to practice as an educator at UW Tacoma. Some of my dreams for UW Tacoma is that as an institution that we shift our framework a lot. Like what [name] was sharing. And so that we don't just talk about students graduating, but we talk about them graduating with multiple offers. O ur data are very clear that our students are coming to us because they understand that earning a college degree will positively impact their future. And so I really have been inviting the campus to be thought partners in what happens after they e arn that degree. It's not sufficient to just earn that degree. There's a whole set of cultural family capital that goes with making that degree mean something so that you get to where you want to get. And I'm not just talking about the wages that you earn; I think economic mobility is a large part of it, but t here i s a particular kind of privilege that you have when you can take your education, and then you understand t hen how to utilize that to make your own definition of success. And then you understand the steps and you understand the dominant system pathway so that you either choose how to navigate within those or say, "Forget those pathways. I'm going to create my own pathways"

Maria:

Because you take it with you. Your like education is like. "I have my own little luggage, like I'm taking that with me every time I go down the street, I go to the store. It's everywhere.

Yanira:

It shapes you. It's interesting because it will always be with you, and you're able to see how it opens, and I know it sounds like a cliche, but it opens many doors, windows. It provides you with many opportunities. And at the same time I think it's your responsibility to, or at least for myself, I think is my responsibility to create new paths for the people who are coming after me, to make it easier for them. And actually at least to make it fair, to carve that path for them as best as I can and with the resources that I have. I think it's my responsibility at this point. And we can all walk and work together to achieve those goals and get them, like you say, Amanda, to that stage that is not just graduating.

Maria:

Where can people find you if they need to reach out to Yanira or Amanda?

Yanira:

Oh, excellent. So we got our new space. We're located in the Mattress Factory building in room 213. That's on the second floor. It's the o ffice that used to be the financial aid office.

Maria:

Oh, people are getting very confused about that. Walking into financial aid, like, "No, that's first gen fellows."

Yanira:

Which actually is a good thing because then we get a lot of people who were not expecting that space. And then that gives us an opportunity to explain who are we, what we do, how can we help, and how can they be part of the program? So we're located on the second floor MAT 213.

Amanda:

And we are on the first floor of the mattress factory, in room 106, and so you can connect there with our career development. We've got drop in hours with our career prep consultants. We've got the pack advisers who work out of their orientation programs. We've got a lot of opportunities, including access ambassadors who work with our pre college visits, and we usually have food around our table. And I will also say sometimes when folks think about career development, they only think about jobs. And to just step back for a moment, when I say students walking across the stage with multiple offers, also graduate school, as part of that. We're helping our students understand that graduate school is a really great pathway and that the career development office also has resources to support that.

Maria:

Thank you Yanira and thank you Amanda for coming in and talking a little bit about your experiences. I know it's something very personal, so thank you just for sharing that with all of us, and thank you for all the work that you do at a university.

Amanda:

Thank you for your leadership, Maria, you are a force on the campus. Thank you.

Music:

[ Transition music]

Maria:

Thank you to our guests. And a big thank you to our senior lecturer, Nicole Blair, for letting us your music on the show. Thank you to Munya recording studio. And thank you for joining us today.

Music:

[Outtro music]