UMass Lowell has a rich tradition of welcoming and supporting first-generation college students (someone for whom neither a parent or guardian completed a four-year college degree). A number of faculty and staff on campus were first-generation college students, and advocate for their success. Below are narratives from first-gen faculty and staff around campus. They describe their experiences as a first-gen student, as well as some lessons they learned along the way.
It was during our regularly scheduled advising appointment when Associate Professor, Phitsamay Uy, my committee chair (friend and confidant) stated “You will be the first African American to graduate with a Ph.D. from the Leadership in Education Program”.
“Lord willing and the creek don’t rise” I thought to myself. It’s a saying I picked up from my mother, who always believed that all things are possible if you just have faith. Uy’s statement was so surreal. I felt my faith was the only way it would be possible to achieve such a degree. After all how is it that this black girl from the streets of Philadelphia, the youngest of eleven children (yes I have 10 brothers and sisters, same parents, none adopted), the first of whom to attend and graduate from college, possibly get a Ph.D.? For the rest of that day, I could not stop thinking about it. Why was I so unnerved by it? Why was it bothering me? Then it occurred to me that I had had this same feeling so many times before. It was that feeling of uneasiness I first experienced when I started my journey into higher education. A journey that for all intents and purposes was not supposed to happen. A journey, Thank God, that did happen, but not without its challenges.
My parents couldn’t afford to pay for college. That’s what I thought. So when my high school guidance counselor kept telling me to apply to colleges, I told her what’s the point? My family can’t afford college. She said, “please just try.” So I did. I applied to nine schools and guess what? I was accepted into every one! And scholarships were offered as well! It was unbelievable. I was going to college, out of state. I was so excited and scared out of my mind. My first week on campus, I called home every single night. I hated it. The course work was too hard. I had no friends. Oh yeah and there was not one African American student in any of my classes. Hard to deal with since I had gone to predominantly black schools from Kindergarten through 12th grade. I tried and tried but I just didn’t like college at all. I went home every weekend. I would tell myself just make it to Friday and then you are out of here. By end of the fall semester and with a GPA I would prefer not to mention, I knew something needed to change. My parents told me that they could not afford to pay for me to come home every weekend anymore. Either go to school or stay home for good. I guess that was the “kick in the butt” I needed, because that spring semester, I only went home and that was for spring break. The next time I went home, it was the end of the semester with a GPA worthy of Dean’s list.
Even with that troubled start, I was able to graduate in 4 ½ years. I began working immediately after graduation. After a few years, I was fortunate to work for a company that paid for education for its employees. I was able to work and go to school in the evening and in three years earned my Master’s degree. Several jobs and several moves around the country later, I settled here in Massachusetts and began working at UMass Lowell. It was here that I met Dean Greenwood and like that high school counselor, she kept telling me to apply to the PhD program. I told her, what’s the point? I have a family, a demanding job, and no time to be back in school. And just like the counselor she wouldn't take no for an answer. So here I am, four years later, starting my dissertation for the doctorate program. The Class of 2020! It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
Francine Coston's Staff Bio
Luis Falcón is the Dean of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences (FAHSS). Luis has a Ph.D. in Sociology from Cornell University, and attended the University of Puerto Rico for his B.A. in Sociology and M.A. in Social Work. Before coming to UMass Lowell, Luis worked at Northeastern. His research foci are the interaction between immigration and the economy and population studies.
Luis grew up in Puerto Rico, and graduated from high school two years early, at 16 years old. His parents never went to college: his father finished high school, but his mother never did. Despite this, they always encouraged their sons (Luis and his older brother) to attend college and get degrees even though they had not. He and his brother both entered college at the University of Puerto Rico in the same semester, though his brother did not end up finishing his degree and instead entered the military.
Throughout his undergraduate years, Luis commuted to school via bus each day while living at home. At the University of Puerto Rico housing options were limited; as such, he never had the opportunity to experience living in a residence hall. During these years, he was able to develop good connections with researchers, political scientists, and professors on campus. These connections helped him think about the bigger picture, life’s bigger questions, and how one would go about finding answers for them. These larger questions and connections are what eventually drove Luis to get a Ph.D. in Sociology.
Luis’s advice for RHSA students is that the college experiences goes by very quickly. He encourages students to connect with faculty early and often to talk about possibilities for their own careers. Though it might seem obvious, he encourages students to keep in touch with faculty members they have made connections with, as those connections can be extremely helpful moving forward in college and career.
Luis Falcón's Faculty Bio
Distinguished University Professor of History Robert Forrant was the first in his family to graduate from college. Today, he has achieved the University’s highest honor for educators who are recognized by their peers for outstanding contributions to teaching, research and service.
Reflecting on his motivations for going to college he states, “What motivated me to go to college was a high school history teacher named Mr. Casale. He kept bugging me about whether or not I was going to college and how I was doing, where I was applying, and if I needed a reference. I partly applied so he’d leave me alone but I’m glad he bugged me now.” Growing up in Beverly, Massachusetts, Bob credits his parents for instilling a lifelong love of reading in him. He states, “both my mother and father were readers and even though neither one of went go to college, the house was full of books. For them, reading really mattered. I had a set of biographies of U.S. Presidents, Time Magazine, and Newsweek; the idea of being aware and informed was definitely part of the deal. Biography wise, my favorites were the books on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lincoln, they’ve made me what I am today.”
His advice to students? “Really try and think about what it is you’re going to really like learning about, I just went lockstep with the program until all of a sudden I realized there was more to grasp instead of just following some kind of a singular track. Slowly I realized that telling stories was what I was good at and that’s really what history is. Too often, I now see that students are often unhappy because they’ve had a major picked by their parents and end up boxed in by a subject that they’re not interested in. Being in college is a lot of hard work and if it’s in an area that you’re not passionate about, it can be really a bad mix. With as much as college costs today, you want to find a passion. Maybe you study math, but you also pick up a minor in creative writing. You have to allow yourself to find your passion because otherwise it’s too hard and life is too short.”
Extending upon this he states, “I didn’t have a program that helped me sort that out which is why I felt lost when I attended college. The idea of knocking on a professor’s door for instance wasn’t encouraged and wasn’t part of the culture. Here, I feel like most of us like what we do. When we say we have office hours and if there’s a problem to come and talk to us, we meant it. Anything that can break down that mystic that were in our office to do great and powerful things, that’s malarkey. If you care about the job, then there’s always time for students.” Also, make sure you try to be out in the field for what you do. I’m a firm believer in taking big bites out of the stuff that’s put on your plate. If they’re making that stuff available to you, then you need to grab it. If there is a subfield that’s of more interest to you, you can find out about it in the real world. If someone’s coming to give a talk on campus, tag along. Be open to learning all kinds of new and different information. Consume it; don’t close yourself off. “
His thoughts on what it means to be a first-generation college student?
“I think that from talking to first-gen students in my classes, it’s a somewhat significant pressure that’s put on first-generation students to make good and not mess up. It’s tough to carry family pressure to succeed every day, which is why I want to help first-generation students here in any way you that I possibly can. I’m living proof that you can do it, you just have to figure out how to navigate it.”
In his spare time, Bob enjoys reading, jogging, and watching Red Sox and Bruins games. He recommends that students read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and the Arch of Justice by Kevin Boyle, books that focus on the strength and resilience of the human condition in difficult situations. A fun fact about Bob in his words? “Interrupting my career was 15 years spent as a machinist. You never know where the road will take you.”
Robert Forrant's Faculty Bio
Jessica Garcia is an Assistant Teaching Professor and the undergraduate organic lab coordinator in the Chemistry Department. She received her B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Southern California and Ph.D. in Chemistry and Biochemistry from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is a synthetic organic chemist with experience in methodology development, natural product total synthesis and the design of medicinally-relevant small molecules. After completing her postdoctoral research at Northeastern University, Dr. Garcia joined the faculty at UMass Lowell to focus on teaching. Currently, she is interested in designing teaching experiments with real-world applications as well as incorporating green chemistry and sustainability principles into the organic lab courses.
What motivated you to go to college?
For as long as I can remember, my parents used to always tell me, “get an education so you can get a good job.” When I was older, I realized what they really meant was, “get an education so you can get a good paycheck.” People will tell you that money isn’t everything, but it makes things a lot easier. So, I wanted to go to college to have a stable financial future, to move out of my small hometown and to become a medical doctor (or so I thought).
What motivated to dedicate your time to help the RHSA?
When I got to USC, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I struggled academically my freshman year and had a hard time making friends. I didn’t know where to go for help or who to ask for it. So, when I heard about RHSA, I immediately though, “I wish I had something like that when I was an undergrad!” I want to make myself available to RHSA to support first-gen students here at UML.
What was the best thing about your college experience?
My work study job at the California Science Center. That job is where I learned that I loved teaching and that I was good at it. It was the catalyst that led me to my current career. I was also interacting with fellow coworkers and museum visitors, so it helped me become less shy.
Looking back on your college experience, what would you tell your freshmen self?
Don’t be afraid to go to office hours and ask questions. We professors are paid to teach you and that includes answering your questions. Show up, ask questions, get to know us and let us get to know you. It’s an easy way to start a relationship that can possibly evolve into mentorship.
What are your hobbies? Is there a fun fact about yourself you’d like to share?
I love Animal Crossing New Leaf [a Nintendo game]. I’ve been working on my town for over three years now and everything is nearly perfect (email me if you want my dream address). I wish I had an assistant like Isabelle in real life!
Jessica Garcia's Faculty Bio
When I was nine months old, my father abandoned my mother and me. She had completed one year of college, but her academic career abruptly ceased. Because my mother had no degree, she was forced to take jobs that worked her long hours, paid quite little and were never secure. I recall her going to work extremely ill for fear of becoming unemployed since she wasn’t provided sick days. As I grew up and my mom talked to me about academia, her chronic refrain was, “When you go to college . . .” Naïve as I was, I assumed, like high school this was something mandatory, but never once did I think it was out of my reach.
My college education was funded by partial scholarships, grants, a student loan, and money from my jobs. My mother, to this day, laments that she couldn’t financially help. One of my conundrums in college was solving how to complete my five-year double major in four years, since my scholarship expired after four. Luckily, I had a fantastic advisor and English professor, Dr. Michael J. Meyer, who sat me down the second semester of my first college year and literally planned out my entire schedule of classes (including summer school) to alleviate my fears and show me how I could meet my deadline. There was never a time I didn’t work while taking my 18-21 credits each semester. I sold clothes at a local mall, cleaned houses, and I was exuberant when I was able to acquire an on-campus job as a writing tutor and later when I became an RA. Meanwhile, my GPA was always at the forefront of my mind, since I was dependent on that scholarship, and my jobs and my mother’s experiences revealed the alternative for my future if I wasn’t successful in academia.
These are a few of the reasons I immediately volunteered to teach an RHSA section of College Writing II. I knew that my students would be driven and bring an array of real-world experience into the university. First-gen students are fearless in the classroom, they are eager to share what they know, unafraid to question what they don’t, and they are extraordinary self-advocates for whatever extra help they may need. My RHSA students are eager to lift one another up, interact with each other, and share tips and tricks for surviving a semester. The seriousness with which they approach learning is beyond impressive. For first-gen students earning a college degree is not simply an expected right but an opportunity; a degree will allow RHSA students to follow their dream careers, change their lives, and it will provide them with options within their field of study. We know that due to the deferred dreams of those before us, we are able to reach for our own. That’s why being a small part in the RHSA program, as an English professor, is an absolute privilege for me.
Tracy Michaels' Faculty Bio
When asked to serve as a RHSA faculty liaison, I immediately and enthusiastically said “yes!” Actually, it was more along the lines of, “I would love to.” You see, I am a first-generation college student myself and “I am proud to be first.” My grandmother, a woman full of wisdom and love, never made it past the third grade. My mother graduated high school, but higher education just wasn’t an option for her. She was the oldest of 12 and was expected to help sustain the family. She did, however, ensure that her children were not faced with the same dire circumstances. She left the Dominican Republic and came to the United States to give my brother and I the opportunities she didn’t have. This sacrifice was something we were made perfectly aware of. In fact, it was part of our family narrative and we took it very seriously. Ok, well, I might have taken it a little too seriously since I’m technically “still in school”. Not only did I successfully complete two bachelor’s degrees here at UMass Lowell, I continued on to graduate school and am now a dedicated and passionate educator. I can think of no higher calling than to serve others and for me that translates to teaching and mentorship. I saw this position as an opportunity to serve a population of students whom I feel I can understand because I lived it. I was sitting in your position not too long ago. I also understand because my sociology background and familiarity with education research has made me perfectly aware of some of the challenges trail blazers, such as yourself, face as they navigate a world their predecessors have not.
Honesty, integrity, and full disclosure of information are things I value more than I can put into words and so I’ll be perfectly honest with you. These challenges will not disappear when you leave college. I sometimes still feel like I’m learning as I go along. I encourage you to think of these experiences as opportunities for growth. They serve a purpose. They will make you more resilient adults and positively affect your family for generations to come. Trust me, the knowledge you will gain in the next few years will surpass information covered in a textbook. You will learn what you are made of, what your priorities are, and where your convictions lie.
I honestly believe that I was called to be a teacher, mentor, and supporter to those I am fortunate enough to be around. The amazing thing is that I am not the only one. I dare say that if you were to take a quick look around, you would realize that you are surrounded by caring individuals who genuinely have your best interest at heart. The faculty, staff, and university leadership that make up RHSA have a lot of institutional knowledge and can help you navigate the path you are trail blazing for your family and friends. Think of us as your academic family and therefore a valuable resource readily available to you. Your family and friends may not understand the ins and outs of academic life: midterms and finals, advising and tutoring, majors and minors, core curriculum and free electives, and science with and without a lab, to name a few. But we do and we’re here to help. There is nothing you can’t achieve if you are willing to stay focused, ask for help and persevere.
Yahayra Michel's Faculty Bio
I was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to New York City, specifically an area called Spanish Harlem, at the age of 6. My dad was a factory worker and had a number of side jobs to make sure we had what we needed to meet our basic financial needs, food stamps helped to meet our physical needs. My parents worked very hard to make sure we had better opportunities than they ever did. This is why education was top priority for them, even though neither one of them attended college or understood the language, they wanted to make sure we made it “all the way”.
I attended Martin Luther King, Jr. High School in Manhattan and was fortunate to have very supportive teachers in High School who encouraged me to get involved in various after school programs and extracurricular activities. These helped expand my world view and see possibilities for a future far beyond what I was exposed to within the walls of my neighborhood. During these years I realized that I didn’t have to conform to the limitations of my surroundings, but I could achieve much more – this may sound cliché, but it was so true for me! I finally had a vision for my future and knew that being the first one in my family to graduate college was going to get me there, and also set an example for my 3 younger siblings.
My first year of college was at Marymount College, a small private college in Tarrytown, NY – an all-girl college – I don’t know what I was thinking. I was able to finance my education with the help of scholarships, grants and student loans. During this time, my family experienced a traumatic event, which led to my dad, the sole financial support of our family of 5 be laid off from his factory job after almost 20 years – without a job, they considered moving to where we had family and could start fresh – Lawrence Massachusetts. I decide to transfer out of Marymount and applied and was accepted into UMass Lowell. I was ready to move when my parents decided to stay in NY – I was off to MA on my own.
I was considered an Out of State student while at UMass Lowell, which meant that financial aid was not enough to cover all my costs – I worked multiple jobs, after school and on the weekends to get myself through school. Many times I felt very lost and alone in this whole process, my parents were supportive yet unable to help me figure things out or financially. One day I walked into the financial aid office and met Mr. Richard (Dick) Barrett, I called him my guardian angel, he sat me down, hired me as his work study student (now my third job) and helped me every step of the way. I remember telling him I didn’t think I could do it (finish college) and he told me “even if you have to get your degree in Spanish, you will graduate college”. I am so grateful to Mr. Barrett for helping me to dream again and thanks to his support I was able to earn my college degree.
My experiences growing up and the divine encounters along the way served as my motivation for helping other students, like myself, who dream of a future they weren’t exposed to. I have been working professionally at UMass Lowell for over 13 years now, and I love meeting and speaking to students who are first gen and share similar stories. One of the great outcomes of being a first gen is the privilege of opening doors for others after you. I find the RHSA program is so crucial to providing first gen students the support they need to earn the degrees that will ultimately change the course of their lives and that of their families. Being involved in a small way with the RHSA program, is a great honor.