Thursday, March 22, 2012

Matt Dikeman - Re-gifting

Education is a true gift, the size, shape, and cost may change but the greatest gift an individual can receive is an education. My identification as a first-generation college student did not begin until after I had graduated from my undergraduate institution. However, I was keenly aware of the fact that I was different than some of my peers throughout my undergraduate career. I attended a predominantly white institution in the Midwest. My skin color, socioeconomic background, religious beliefs, and geographical location growing up were not much different than the majority of students at my institution. With this in mind, why was it that I felt a little less prepared than other students? Why did I feel slightly unaware of larger global issues than my peers? Why were my parents somewhat disengaged from my college search process? All of these answers I have found relate back to my classification as a first-generation college student.

When searching for a college that fit my needs, I was self-motivated to do so. Many of my peers had parents who were setting up college visits for them, arranging meetings with professors that they knew from their college careers, and taking them to ACT test preparation and practice sessions to help improve their score. They were improving their score not to get accepted to a university, but to get more scholarship money. I had not even thought of that idea at that point in time. When I visited my first college, it was my first time on a college campus. I had never been to a college sports game, never been to a music recital, or theatre production. I do not know what I expected, but whatever it was…it was not what I received. I felt unwelcome, like a burden to those whose paths I crossed. The university wanted to show us the campus and the residence halls, but did not seem to care about who I was as a student, or what I wanted to gain from a college experience.

After that first visit I was turned off from the college concept. It seemed elitist, and a place where I would not fit in. After conveying this experience to my brother who is two years older than me, he suggested I visit his university. He said that he felt welcome, and he thought I would enjoy the experience it provided. I reluctantly decided to visit. The institution that was at the bottom of my list quickly advanced to the top. Coming from a small community, I did not want to attend the same institution as my brother. The welcoming feeling and overall sense of respect that I received was astounding. I went home and canceled all of my applications and campus visit days, I applied to that institution and never looked back.

Secretly, I think I found comfort in the fact that I knew someone on a campus that at the time seemed large and overwhelming. The institution did not do anything super special for me as a first-generation student, except they made me feel at home. I was welcomed into the community in the residence halls; I was encouraged to get involved both inside and outside of the classroom. I had professors who engaged and supported me through my academics, and professionals who supported me outside of the walls of the class. Because of this support, I began to involve myself in residence life, student government, academic based clubs, and orientation. Through all of these experiences, a passion began to build inside of me to help others. It was through my work as an orientation leader and orientation intern that I found my passion for helping students who do not know what questions to ask, or where to find the answers to the questions that they have. As a professional, I am looking forward to crossing paths with all students and helping them through their transition to college life, but the students who identify as first-generation students will always have a special place in my heart. It is through them, that I can repay the kindness that was shown to me throughout my undergraduate experience. The greatest gift of all is the encouragement that I can give to students to be successful. The first student that I encouraged who was a first-generation college student, was my mom. She graduated this past December with a degree in nursing. She encouraged and supported me as much as she could or knew how, and once I knew how to help and encourage her, I re-gifted.

Precious Porras

My mother dropped out of school in the seventh grade to help raise her siblings. However, she always understood the value of education and she encouraged me to do my best so that I could go to college. Although numerous obstacles blocked my path, the challenges I have overcome have profoundly influenced my pursuit of a career in higher education. Earning a bachelor’s degree was not going to be a means to an end for me. I set high goals for myself to be a lifelong learner and obtain an honor reserved for very few, earning a doctoral degree.
My education was always a priority in my family. My mother taught me to read when I was four, always encouraged me to do well in school and homework always came before fun. I watched my mother work various low paying jobs to make ends meet; both she and I knew that college would be my key to a more fulfilling life. So while I knew that I was going to college, I had no idea how to get there. 
At the beginning of my sophomore year in high school, I joined Upward Bound. It was a great opportunity for me. I had fun, made friends, I even learned some things! As a senior I had the opportunity to attend the MAEOPP (Mid American Association of Educational Opportunity Program Personnel) Student Leadership Conference. I had a wonderful time going to sessions and meeting new people. The last night of the conference, we were at the banquet dinner and there was yet another speaker; Dr. Bertice Berry; famous author and lecturer. Dr. Berry spoke to us about making the most of the opportunities that we were given.  She had also been in Upward Bound. Her message was, also, one of giving back. She became a professor, she said, to help students in the way she had been helped along her journey.
As I sat there and listened to her speak, it was as if I light bulb went on over my head. By the time her speech had ended, I knew that I would work for TRIO. In my three years in Upward Bound, I had been given so many opportunities. I realized that I wanted to spend my life helping students from similar backgrounds! After leaving the banquet I remember telling my mentor and the program Associate Director, Carole Johnson, that I wanted to give back. 
I spent the rest of my senior year convincing my Upward Bound staff that I wanted to work for TRIO and asking a lot of questions. Once they realized my persistence for the issue, they provided me with many opportunities. After my first year in college, they allowed me to work for the program in the summers. For six summers during undergrad and grad school, I worked as Head Resident for the same program that I was a student in.  The experience I gained during my summer work was immeasurable; I saw it all! There are things that happen during summer session that I could never learn about in a textbook: drugs, illness and injuries, deaths of students and student’s families, hospital trips, there isn’t much I didn’t dealt with! 
My passion for helping other students succeed continued throughout my undergraduate career. I became a member of Student Support Services (SSS), another TRIO program designed to help with college success. I also worked for SSS as a student mentor, gathering experience and preparing myself for a career with college access programs. Despite my support system with SSS, no one at home truly understood the challenges of college, I found myself in need of additional support and that led to my active involvement on campus. 
As a freshman, I held leadership positions within Black Student Union and the Gay/Straight Alliance. I was also a member of Hispanic American Leadership Organization and Students Association for Multicultural Education. As a student of color on a predominantly white campus, I sought programs that would allow me to meet other students of color and educate the campus about my culture. My involvement on campus allowed me to see how my personal experiences had given me a special ability to empathize, motivate and serve others. 
After working four summers as a counselor for Upward Bound, I developed a passion for counseling students. For this reason, I applied to the master’s program in counseling at Emporia State University. When I had my intake interview, my advisor told me about the student personnel program and I made the switch; I had finally found my calling.

Aisha L. Williams - Pay it Forward: I'm 1st Gen, Are You?

I have always had a different outlook on life. As a child, I was very curious and would always question why things had to be the way they were and wondered who created these norms and rules. Growing up in some of the rougher parts of Miami, Florida, I was exposed to many things some people will never see in their lifetime. I learned at an early age that I wanted more out of life. I couldn’t quite express it or knew exactly what it was, but I knew that I wanted better than what was around. I stayed with my grandma and aunt during the earlier years of my life while my mother battled her drug addiction. Once she was cleaned and got herself together, I moved back and forth between living with her and my other siblings and my grandma. Although we lived in some rough neighborhoods, my mom always told us that our home was inside and not outside. She never let what was going on around us affect her desire of wanting more for us. Education was something my mom pushed and something I wanted for myself as well.
School was never difficult to me. I always excelled in academics and by the time I was in eighth grade, I was reading on the level of a freshman in college and math scores of a high school junior. When it came time for high school, I was super excited until I learned that I would not be able to attend the school of my choice. Disappointed, I enrolled in the local high school. High school was one of the toughest periods in my life. I entered high school defeated. I was very reserved and kept to myself. In class, I wouldn’t speak to anyone and just wasn’t interested. I had two friends in high school that got me through. My grades were not good and definitely not what I was used too. I was simply going through the motions. I was not excited to be there and shut down. Aside from school, I had responsibilities at home as well. Being the oldest girl, I was expected to help around the house. On days my mom worked late, I would come home, cook, and help my little brother and sister with their homework. It was a tiring process sometimes and I felt as though I was missing out on some of my high school experience. During the summer before my senior year of high school is when I decided to seriously think about college. I knew that I wanted to go, but hadn’t really been preparing myself for the opportunity.
October of my senior year, the University of Florida (UF) came to my high school, did a presentation about college, and spoke about a shadow day where we would get the opportunity to see the campus and experience college. It sparked my interest so I signed up to participate. When I went to UF for Shadow Days, I fell in love with the university and knew that was where I wanted to be. My best friend and me had it all planned out; we would be roommates and all. The staff at UF was very helpful and I couldn’t wait to start the process. When I got home, I started filling out everything. I also applied to other schools as well. When the letter from UF came that day, I was so excited, but it wouldn’t last for long. I was rejected because I waited too long to retake my SAT’s. At that point, I felt my future slipping from me. All the plans I had set in motion had just been crushed. Feeling real low, the next week, I received three acceptance letters from various universities. This lifted my spirits and let me know that college was still within my grasp. It was then that I made a decision to take my future in my own hands. No longer would I play around and not take things serious. Choosing a college was one of the most liberating experiences because it was a decision that I had made on my own. From that day forward, I decided that there would be some changes made.
I decided to attend Florida International University (FIU). Entering FIU, I was determined to not let my college years pass me by. During orientation, I was placed in a group that would have to be tested to see if we were up to university standards or would need to take remedial courses. I was confused as to why I was in the group and felt as if I didn’t belong. The lady who was over the group was already handing us papers to dual enroll at the local community college before we had even taken the test. I asked her why and she said, because your high school didn’t prepare you adequately for college and you will probably fail, so fill out the paperwork now. I was completely turned off and was determined to show her. I passed the test, not missing any questions. It felt so good to tear the papers up in her face and walk out of that group. I excelled in my summer classes and was getting use to college, but it didn’t feel quite right. As the summer came, went, and then began fall semester, I found myself slipping into the same pattern as high school. I would come to school, go to my classes, get something to eat, and then go home. I felt like my experience was slipping away from me. I wanted to be able to look back at my college years and have tons of lasting memories. Determined not to let that happened I decided to get involved. I didn’t know that this would be the best decision I had ever made.
My first involvement and leadership position at FIU was as a Peer Advisor with the Office of Orientation and Commuter Services. This was the best position ever. Being a Peer Advisor gave me the opportunity to learn about my university rich history, how the university was ran and operated, and instilled great pride for my institution. It also taught me how to do college, which would help me out for the rest of my year at FIU. Serving as a Peer Advisor opened the gates to involvement for me. I help leadership positions within Student Government Association (SGA), Homecoming and worked within the Career Services offices. It was with two particular groups where I would find my niche at FIU. I became involved in the Black Student (BSU) on campus. Attending a Hispanic Serving Institution, being involved in this organization allowed me to connect with other students of the African diaspora. I was apart of the group of students that fought for our BSU to become a standing council under SGA so that we could received more aid, and better service the population of students. While at FIU, we made BSU apart of the FIU community and partnered up with various organizations. It was a great way for other students to learn and enjoy our culture and gave me a sense of belonging and pride at my campus. My work with the Women’s Center on campus also helped build my connections on campus as well. I served as the Chapter Director and Mentor for a non-profit organization called Strong Women, Strong Girls (SWSG). It was there I would discover my love of mentoring and giving back. We mentored girls in grades 3-5 and also served as a support system for the mentors. I was able to help young girls start to visualize their goals and serve as a resource to some of the mentors who may have been a freshmen or sophomore, to help them navigate through college.
Throughout all my various involvement, I came to learn about the field of student affairs. I had mentors who took interest in me and saw that I would be great for the field. Once looking into it, I knew instantly that it was something that I wanted to do—maybe even set-up this way from the beginning. I became interested in the field of student affairs, because I wanted to be the positive role model and advocate for students that I saw many of the student affairs professionals at my undergraduate institution did daily. They inspired me to do better, challenged and supported me, and were instrumental in my success and ultimately graduating. They help shaped me into the woman I am today and continue to inspire me. I want to someday be able to inspire change and set a positive example for the students I work with, with my actions and encourage them with my words. I want to be the help that someone was to me and pay it forward. On my way up, I want to be able to extend my hand and pull someone up with me, so that they can do the same.
I decided to partake in this project, because I’m hoping to give a different perspective on how and the way we look at first generation students. I didn’t realize I was a first generation student until my junior year in college. Although I was first generation, I had a brother and cousins who went to college before me, so the concept of college wasn’t new to me. I also want to hear the stories of others, give them a voice and space to share their stories, and learn how we can apply this knowledge to the students we serve.
Growing up, some would say the odds were stacked against me and some may even consider me a success story. I simply wanted more for myself and works hard everyday, so that my future will be a little brighter. Remembering my, humble beginnings is what keeps me grounded and striving for all the things I want to accomplish. I work for my family and for them to be proud of the woman I have become and to know their sacrifices have not been in vain. I want to make my niece, who looks up to her Auntie Aisha, feel proud of all that I’m doing and serve as a resource for her when she someday decides what her future will be. I’m a first generation student, and this is my story. Be heard!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

James Jones - My Life Through College

I originally decided not to go to college.  I figured since most of my older brothers did not go and my mom did not go, why would I?  Being raised mainly by my older brothers and my mother really made me think I should help out my family before thinking about myself and spending more time and money on college.  I didn't really think about college until my friends started to ask me about it.  They were all going to the same school and hang out together so why not my twin and I?  When I told my mom I was going to college she was happy and was willing to help me with everything she can.  Since my one of my older brothers went to college she knew about financial aid and FAFSA so money was rarely a problem for my twin or me but I always felt somewhere in the back of my mind I had to help out one way or another.
I gave little thought on what I wanted my major to be.  I figured since I was already working in the restaurant industry why not go for culinary arts.  The school I attended, Pennsylvania College of Technology had many course offerings so it was easy for my friends and I to find the major we wanted.  The first year was great; I had my friends and my brother with me the whole time so if I had any problems with classes I could talk to them about it.  I had no reason to look for others outside of my own group for community and it showed in the next year.
After the first year of fun times with my brother and friends I found it was difficult to stay connected to the school.  My friends that spent too much time partying and staying up late decided to either leave school or were removed due to grades.  This left my brother and I in a school we knew nothing about and since we were already there a year before, orientation were not something we could have done.  That next year was one of the most difficult times for me, I knew nothing about the help I could get from school and since I did not try to make friends the year before how was I suppose to make them this year.  School started to become harder and the harder it became the easier it seemed to leave.
During the end of my second year I started working in the resident life office as a summer conference assistant for money and a place to stay while working an internship at a local restaurant.  During my time in the Res Life office I learned a lot about what college really is; the problems students deal with, the problems staff have to deal with from parents and students, and over all how a college functions behind the scenes.  Towards the end of the summer I was offered a Resident Assistant position and gladly accepted it thinking what is better than free housing but learned there was much more to it than just free stuff.
As a RA I was given a fresh start from the person who did not belong in college, the position gave me the power to talk to those I never thought I could and I learned about departments in the college that I never knew existed.  There were departments that were willing to help me with problems and people that were generally interested in what I wanted to do in life.  It was not much longer after working as a RA that I knew I was going to stay in college and enjoy the rest of my time there.  As an RA I learned about conferences and groups dedicated to Student Affairs and graduate schools aimed towards creating Student Affairs Professionals.  The idea of more time in college was a plus for me, but more time out of school meant less time making a living for me and my family.  When I told my mom about my dilemma she told me, “I understand you want to help but I want you to get the most education you can before you start working.”  I felt if she had not told me that I would not be where I am today.  With out my mom and those helping I do not think I will be where I am today, so I feel to pay it forward I will help those that are in a similar position as I was.

Jaimie Biermann - Still Learning

I did not hear the term “first generation” until I started graduate school at Indiana State University (ISU).  Being a third generation student myself, I started college with the perception that everyone went to college and came from families where at least one parent attended college.  I realized during my first year at my undergraduate institution that some of my friends came from families where neither of their parents went to college.  Although I researched different colleges by myself, I had support from my parents and grandparents.  They were knowledgeable about the many opportunities that college had to offer me after high school and were willing to share those experiences with me. 
I now think more about how I interact with the undergraduate students I work with and the language I use.  Student Affairs Professionals use a lot of acronyms for different groups or resources on campus.  I had the support from my family and friends and they helped me figure out different acronyms and college terms that I did not understand when I first went to college.  Many students who are first generation might not have family or friends who know what the different resources on campus are, or what the acronyms that student affairs professionals, faculty, or administrators mean. 
It is extremely important to me to make sure that student affairs professionals take the time to learn about students’ backgrounds and how they can help them get better acquainted with college.  I am interested in hearing people’s stories about being first generation students.  Now that I am familiar with the term “first generation,” it is easier to discuss the topic with my peers and learn about their experiences.  I am excited to learn more about first generation students and what experiences made them choose student affairs as a career.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Shereen Hassanein - Be Heard!

"In ten years I want to have a Masters degree and be working on a Doctoral degree" was what 17-year old me told my high school guidance counselor. I stumbled upon this interview  about 9 months ago as I cleaned out my belongings at home and packed my car for the 850 mile drive over to Terre Haute, Indiana to start working on a Master of Science in Student Affairs and Higher Education. Though neither one of my parents had received any kind of formal education, education was a value that they both instilled in me and higher education became a passion of mine.

When I enrolled at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, I was fully aware of my status as a first-generation college student. Prior to starting in the fall I attended a summer bridge program, which was a stipulation attached to one of the grants I was receiving in order to help pay for my college education.  I came from from a low-income background, so for my family a college education was means toward a high paying job and a better life.  My parents expected me to study pre-law or something business related. They were quite surprised when I announced that I was double majoring in Journalism and Media Studies and Middle Eastern Studies. They told me that Journalism was a leisurely career meant for the rich and that I'd never get a job in politics, but I was too stubborn to back down. While I agree that college is a means to a better future, that is not the only purpose that a college education serves. For me it turned out to be so much more than that.

When I started at Rutgers I lived in a Special Interest Section called Latin Images. Latin Images is a student-run organization as well as a housing option for students that are interested in learning about Latin American culture. I lived there for the majority of my time at Rutgers. My last two years there I was the president Latin Images. This role allowed me to work closely with Residence Life staff at Rutgers, learn about their job functions, and learn about Student Affairs. My role with Latin Images also afforded me the opportunity to become a student leader, a mentor and role model to those in that community, build an inclusive community on the floor, plan and implement dozens of programs, branch out into other communities and build long-lasting relationships.

When I left Latin Images to become a Resident Assistant, it was because I wanted to create that same welcoming and inclusive community elsewhere on campus. That year I also became a mentor through the Rutgers Future Scholars Mentor Program, a student leader in two more organizations, and a Teaching Assistant for class for incoming Resident Assistants. I already knew that I was passionate about education, but I discovered that I was also passionate about helping others.

I knew that I wanted to get into the field of Student Affairs, but I could not have done it without the many mentors and role models I had along the way. From my Resident Assistant to my advisers and my Supervisors, these Student Affairs Professionals and Paraprofessionals were nothing but helpful and and fiercely supportive of me, especially during the graduate school application process. I hope to be that same kind of support system, mentor, and resource to others along my journey in Student Affairs. After all, what would we be without the people who believe in us more than we believe in ourselves?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Nicci Cisarik - How did I get here?

     Female, student, friend, advocate, sister, daughter, leader.  All words which identify who I am.  However, it was not until recently that I added a new identifier to my list—first generation.

     If you would have asked me four years ago as I entered college, “What does it mean to be a first generation college student?”  I would have looked at you blankly because I would not have had a clue about what you were asking me.  It was not until recently that I learned what it actually meant to be a first generation college student and that I am in fact one.  I find it strange that that I made it through four years of college and it was not until I started my Master’s program in Student Affairs that I truly understood the term.  What is even more bizarre is the fact that I ended up on the Student Affairs route.  How does a first generation student like myself, someone who going into college knew absolutely nothing about collegiate life, student activities, admissions processes, advising and the like, end up pursuing a career in it?

     I attended Dominican University, a liberal arts college outside of Chicago, where I began my time there like most undergrads—confused, uninformed, and uninvolved.  Did I want to attend college?  In some capacity, yes, but for the most part as a first year student, the only reason I was there was to get a degree so I could “get a good job and make a lot of money”—at least this was the ideal instilled in my head by my parents and the rest of society.  However, when I got to college I realized that money was not going to make me happy.  I decided to double major in Photography and Painting, a field that does not bring in much money, much to my parents dismay.  I do not come from a poor family, but I do not come from a rich family either.  I would say we are comfortable, yet it always feels like we are always living paycheck-to-paycheck.  My parents always wanted my sister and I to have the life they did not so attending college and attaining a bachelor’s degree was necessary.  I scared them when I told them I wanted to study art—mainly because I was attending a university that cost $33, 000 a year and I was taking out about $20,000 a year in loans to pay for it.  Pursing a career that brought in less a year than my undergraduate tuition worried them. They lightened up eventually and supported my decision. Though, they still hate how much debt I have accumulated over the four years.  However, as you can see from this story, I did not pursue art post-graduation.  Something happened while I was at DU that put me on a different career path.

     During my sophomore year, my mentality did a complete turnover.  The summer before my sophomore year, I was an orientation leader for new student orientation—it was that experience which opened my eyes to a completely new world of ideas and experiences.  I began to learn more about the college processes and why being involved as an undergrad was so important.  That fall I began to further explore campus activities by becoming a student worker in Dominican’s, Student Involvement Resource Center (SIRC).  This office quickly became my home-away-home.  Although I resided on campus, I spent most of my time in the SIRC—the people I worked with became my family and the staff was my mentors.  It was this position as a student worker and a simple sentence spoken by my supervisor, Rachel that put me on the path to student affairs.  I was working one day, and I had not been working more than half a semester when Rachel came in to the SIRC and told me that she wanted to promote me to Senior Student Worker the next year.  I was blown away!  Was I that great of a worker?  I did not think I was a bad worker, but I did not see myself as Senior Student Worker material either.  However, Rachel saw something else in me that I did not—especially if she told me she wanted to promote me an entire year before I would even get the promotion.  Rachel’s confidence in me is what helped me form the confidence I needed to put myself on student affairs track and take on the different student leadership opportunities that I did throughout my time at DU.

After that, the rest is history. I continued my involvement in extra curriculars throughout my time in college which included holding executive board positions in our Student Government and Programming Board, as well as being a Student Ambassador, and Student Minister. It was these experiences,  and those that I worked with that put me on the path to student affairs. I love college, and working with college students. Being a college student was the most rewarding time of my life, and I want to be there for students and help them experience how wonderful a college education can be.