What memories do you have of being a first-generation college student? What challenged you and what surprised you?
I grew up in Florida, and so I attended the University of Florida for college. One thing I remember about being there was the sheer excitement I felt at all there was to learn. There were so many interesting classes, and on the most widespread and sometimes random topics. And there were so many directions in which I could take my studies: so many majors and programs, and so many avenues for becoming involved in the world around me. I also loved getting to meet so many different people and encounter so many new worldviews.
What challenged me the most was twofold: most immediately, I was challenged by how little I knew about how to navigate all of the options for study that I had. I didn’t have any immediate family members to whom I could ask advice or off of whom I could bounce ideas. For example, I wasn’t able to ask, “do you think this major is a good one?” or “what sort of career paths and lifestyles do you think will unfold from this or that choice of major, program, etc.?” Other questions I had were, “what do you think of this class schedule?” and “if I am struggling with these classes, does this mean I should change majors?” Things like that.
But even more challenging was another issue, an even larger one that I realized only years after I had graduated: namely, that there were so many things about college—how to navigate the experience itself, the application process, the options afterwards—that I didn’t know that I didn’t know. In other words, being a first-generation student was like trying to play a game not only without any instructions, but also without knowing that instructions existed.
To give an example, as a high school student, I had a job at a movie theater that I absolutely loved. I had worked there for four years and had been given raises and promotions, and I got along well with my managers. Therefore, when it came time to apply for college, I felt like it was perfectly reasonable for me to ask a manager at the movie theater to write me a letter of recommendation, explaining to the admissions committee how I had moved up the ranks during my employment there. At the time, my dream college was Duke University, and I sent them my application packet eagerly, complete with the letter of recommendation from my manager on Regal Cinemas letterhead. When the admissions letter came back, I was heartbroken that I had been rejected. Not getting an academic letter of recommendation was just one mistake I had made.
It was only years after college that it dawned on me just what had been wrong about my application. At the time, however, I had no idea what was appropriate to include in a college application because I was completely unaware of what the standards were for applications. And importantly, I did not know that I was unaware of the standards. Things like this happened all the time in college: for example, early on, I didn’t seek out internships, research opportunities, mentoring paths, or independent studies because I wasn’t aware that they existed. There were so many possibilities that I didn’t know I didn’t know about.
What advice/tips would you give first generation students?
The advice I have for first-generation students is simple: get to know each of your professors by visiting them in their office hours. As professors, we love it when students come to our office hours, as these are times that we designate each week for you. You don’t need to have a particular question about the class or to be struggling in the class to come by and visit. You are always more than welcome to just come by and say hello. If students do not come to my office hours, I actually feel bummed, as I sit in my office each week waiting to see who will come and stop by for a chat!
During their visits to professors’ office hours, I advise first-generation students to be forthright and ask their professors to tell them about any and all opportunities for students that they know about. You’ll be surprised what different professors will share with you! Maybe they have an opening in their lab and are looking for student research assistants; maybe they are looking for a work-study student, etc. In my own department, I have worked with students in the following ways: students have been hired (and paid) as undergraduate teaching assistants, they have been hired (and paid) as undergraduate research assistants, they have been given travel grants from the dean to study various communities around the United States, they have been hired as work- study students, they have been paid to travel to conferences, they have presented their research at undergraduate research symposia, and they have submitted their research for publication in student and professional journals. There are so many wonderful opportunities awaiting students if they only ask.
What do you wish first generation students knew when they come to Rutgers-Camden?
I wish that first-generation students at Rutgers, Camden knew how much their professors care about them, want to advocate for them, and want to see them succeed. I also wish they knew just how many student opportunities their professors are aware of, and just how many of these opportunities they could take advantage of if they only asked their professors about them. If you are a first-generation student who, like I did, feels as though you don’t even know what you don’t know about navigating and taking advantage of college, the best way to break out of that is to go visit a professor and ask them what opportunities they know about that might be a fit for you. For example, did you know that starting this year, all students (beginning with the current freshman class) will be given $3,000 by the university in a fund called the ELF account? With this money, students can take courses that have a study abroad component, pay themselves to do research, or pay themselves a stipend to transform an unpaid internship into a paid one!
What motivated you as a first-generation student?
As a first-generation student, I was motivated by a sense of duty to learning and education. My parents never got the chance to receive an education. They were also immigrants to this country. These two things combined made them instill in me the tremendous value that having an education provides. They also instilled in me that education was an opportunity I should not squander: since I had the opportunity to go to college, I should study hard and get good grades, and should take advantage of all the learning I could. Now that I am a professor, I know that education is about more than just getting a job and making money (although those are certainly important); education is about gaining an ability to be a strong thinker, to be agile in the face of a changing world, and to be able to face challenges and problems in our lives and in society with a nimble, capable confidence.