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First-Generation Essays from Campus

Charlie Broaddus, '17

charlie-broaddusCharlie Broaddus, ’17

Major: Journalism

I came to Richmond to play for the football team and live the dream of being a Division-1 football player. I quickly realized that this lifestyle was not for me, and I left the team after one season. Once I was removed from the support system of the team, I began to understand what it meant to be a first-generation student and the problems that come with it. My car broke down and I had trouble finding friends because I was intimidated by the apparent comfort that everyone else seemed to have. I felt as if I was the only student who wasn't in a fraternity, and I felt that I dressed differently than everyone else. I did not feel as if I belonged at Richmond. Soon enough, though, I got connected with some professors in the journalism department who guided me toward opportunities that changed my life. I got involved with the student newspaper and met people who had similar interests as I did. The biggest thing I learned was that I do belong at Richmond, and that although it may seem that everyone else has it figured out, they don't.

Sunni Brown, Assistant Director of Media and Public Relations

sunni-brownSunni Brown

Assistant Director of Media and Public Relations, University Communications

I was the first in my family (of seven older siblings) to receive a college degree. Though my parents were supportive when I expressed interest in going to college, I basically had to navigate the process solo. I sought out counselors, set up campus visits, and talked with friends' older siblings who were in college. I had to make my own way among family members who didn't really understand higher education — let alone applying for financial aid, housing, etc. It was a tough but rewarding process, and walking across the stage after graduating from a small liberal arts college is among the proudest moments of my life.

Kevin Butterfield, University Librarian

kevin-butterfieldKevin Butterfield

University Librarian, Boatwright Library

I was the first in my family to attend college. Leaving a small town for a Big Ten university with 30,000 students gave me a big case of culture shock. The vital and supportive relationships I built during that first year carried me through my four years there.

Myles Estey, '17

Myles Estey, ’17

Major: Business Administration, Management Concentration

Minor: Healthcare Studies

My experience as a first-generation student has allowed for personal development people my age don't typically experience. My "unfortunate" experience is something I cherish because it has shaped me into the person I am today. I know what it's like to be raised in a single-parent household while receiving government assistance, but I also know that my socioeconomic status doesn't limit my goals and aspirations. I'm motivated to be more than just a statistic, and by attending the University of Richmond, I think I have already accomplished that goal.

Andrew Gurka, Director of Living-Learning and Roadmap Programs

andy-gurkaAndrew Gurka

Director, Living-Learning & Roadmap Programs

I grew up humbly, raised by a single mom who worked hard, always emphasized education, and was my biggest cheerleader. For me, college was a means to an end — my sights were always on the end (a diploma) and not on the journey of college. My days consisted of class, work at the library shelving books, class, grabbing some lunch and studying, class, going to work giving a campus tour, dinner, hanging out with some friends, and going back to my residence hall to study.

My support structures on campus were the staff whose offices I worked in during my four years at college – all of the “second mothers” that I had — like Maxine, the administrative assistant in the admission office, and others around campus who watched out for me, encouraged me, and helped me navigate the university structures and processes.

Amy Howard, Assistant Vice President for Community Initiatives

amy-howardAmy Howard

Assistant Vice President for Community Initiatives, University of Richmond

Executive Director, Bonner Center for Civic Engagement and associated faculty in American Studies

When I attended the hall social my first week at Davidson College I met women who had attended elite private schools and others who had spent the summer at camps where they sailed, hiked, and more. These were foreign experiences to me. I began to worry that I was already behind and lacking what I needed to succeed in college. I decided at the moment to work even harder, to dedicate myself to learning and exploring, and to keep an open mind. This mindset contributed to what turned out to be an amazing, transformative four years.

Chris Klein, Associate Director of Study Abroad

chris-kleinChris Klein

Associate Director of Study Abroad, Office of International Education

I grew up in a very small town and graduated with 95 other students. My family was supportive of my plans to go to college and I did my studies at a large state university. I went to the advising center when I had questions about choosing classes and to the career office as graduation approached. I generally got good advice but I now see that much of it assumed that I knew what I was doing, and that was not always true. What I needed most was a basic explanation on how to make choices so that my college years would be as helpful as possible in getting me to the life I wanted. And I specifically needed to hear this from someone who understood the “culture” of college-educated people, yet could explain it effectively to someone like me who was not yet a member of that group. I never really found that kind of “cultural informant.” I changed my major several times and missed opportunities for internships and study abroad because I was still trying to figure out the basics of college for myself. My advice to other first-generation college students is to never be afraid to ask questions, big or small, of the faculty or staff. Many people in jobs like mine, and especially those of us who have shared our stories, are more than willing to talk with you about the world of college and what comes after.

J.P. Laurenceau-Medina, Associate Director of Multicultural Affairs

jp-medinaJP Laurenceau-Medina

Associate Director, Multicultural Affairs

As an undergraduate student at Penn State, there were times when I felt that I was a statistic. Imagine going to class with 1,200 other students in an auditorium! I always sat in front of the class, as I thought I would be more engaged in the material being taught and simply more present.

What I found to be most helpful to not feel like a statistic was to be more proactive and make the most of office resources, where I was able to connect with professionals who were on my side. In my case, connecting with the Multicultural Resource Center, Career Services, and the College of Education (specifically the multicultural student affairs administrator) contributed greatly to my success.

Additionally, I learned about the power of informal networking while playing sports with university faculty and administrators. This healthy outlet from my studies and work allowed me to connect with administrators and faculty from the College of Science, Office of Admission, various departments across campus, local community members, and even business owners, in a way that I would not have been able to otherwise. Thanks to the connections made, I was granted in-state tuition, as well on-campus housing and dining benefits for free, because of the relationships I had established with professionals on and off the basketball court. In sum, getting to know faculty and administrators (and even community members) outside of the classroom or office was key to my success in college.

Lindsey Love, Associate Director of the Academic Advising Resource Center

lindsey-loveLindsey Love

Associate Director, Academic Advising Resource Center

I’ll start by saying that I didn’t even think of myself as FG until recently, and especially not while I was in college. I do remember completing all of the paperwork associated with college, finding my own place to live and working several jobs while in college — and it all seemed quite normal to me. I think the biggest challenge I felt at the time was that college didn’t feel like what was represented to me in movies and on TV — I was just going to class, going to work, making dinner, doing homework, and starting the day over again.

Looking back, the thing that helped me the most was having someone to reflect with along the way — my best friend and I completed college together and were both FG college students. What I now know is that I should have taken advantage of campus resources, advisers and programming — these things were available to me just as much as they were to any other student, and they could have added depth and perspective to what I was learning in the classroom and given me access to adult mentors along the way!

Mari Lee Mifsud, Associate Professor of Rhetoric

mari-lee-mifsudMari Lee Mifsud

Associate Professor of Rhetoric

Director of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Department of Rhetoric and Communication Studies

I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college. The story of why is a long and hard one, so I'll stay focused on the experience. School and learning was for me a life raft and going to college a survival dream come true. When I arrived, I was in awe — of the freedom, the beauty and dignity of the space, the abundance of the library, the opportunities to study and learn and become human. That's how much power I gave to college. I saw it as the way to become more human. I studied all the time, and I had a great social life. Which meant I never slept and hardly ate. Exercise was not even on my radar. Who has time for such things, I thought! Until my body gave out. I had to change and heal. So I did. I scheduled my classes in a smarter way to allow for more "down" time. I ended my over-extension in extra-curriculars. I kept a disciplined sleep, exercise, and eating schedule, as disciplined as my studies. And I learned to take care of myself, to avoid being a supernova — burning hot and fast and brilliantly, then quickly burning out! I am still living this lesson though, as I love school so much. Being a professor is a life raft, and a survival dream come true. I am in awe of our work as a University community, and I find I want to do everything all the time. But I have to remember to reserve time to take care.

Bianca Ortiz, Area Coordinator for Westhampton College

bianca-ortizBianca Ortiz

Area Coordinator for Westhampton College

I am extremely proud to be a first-generation student, as my experience has challenged me to find courage, independence, and mentors. I always saw myself as a lover of academics and education. Applying to college was exciting but tough for me to imagine as no one in my family had any experience or financial means. I relied on really great educators, such as my college career counselor to help me pay for my ACTs and college applications. He taught me my first lesson, the importance of mentors. I have had so many throughout my educational journey who never let me feel like I did not belong in college. Transitioning to college challenged me socially as I felt it hard to meet others like me, but thinking beyond what I didn’t have, I focused on what kind of experiences I wanted in college. Finding my niche in working for Residence Life created a bridge to feeling socially acclimated to the new college environment. Being a first-generation student did present some financial challenges as I did not fully comprehend the financial side of paying for college. At the end of all the challenges that came from being a first-generation student, making it to graduation was one of my proudest moments. Being able to attend university and to graduate was not only a transformative experience, for me but also for my family.

Zach Perry, '17

zach-perryZach Perry, ’17

Major: Philosophy with a Concentration in Ethics

Minor: German Studies

Being surrounded by legacy students here at the University of Richmond definitely makes fitting in difficult. In addition to being a first-generation student, I come from a divorced family of now two handicapped parents and, as a junior, still struggle to fit in to the dynamic of the "Richmond stereotype.” While the stereotype itself is mostly a construct, having the extra baggage of finances, family burdens, and the societal pressure of "setting the first-gen precedent" creates a new kind of struggle that shouldn't have to be fought alone. I found solace in being involved with the variety of cultural groups on campus and taking full advantage of the liberal arts curriculum here at Richmond. Music and theatre has also allowed me to express myself without feeling the need to prove I belong here and to embrace the idea of being a part of the "Spider Family."

Ann Pongsakul, '16

Ann Pongsakul, ’16

Major: Health Care and Society

Not going to college was never an option. My parents always told me not to be stupid like them. It's harsh but I always felt the need to do them justice and reach as far as I could. I had to navigate the college application process solo. Google was my best friend. I didn't get in anywhere I wanted to because I didn't apply to the right schools. I picked myself up and eventually landed at UR, where a wealth of opportunities opened up. But with that came challenges. I never knew transferring could be so emotionally and academically difficult. But I sought the help that I needed and still tried to put myself out there. The best present UR gave me was letting me study abroad in Switzerland for a year. Up until today, I've felt lost and helpless plenty of times. But I'm proud to say that I'm independent and strong, and my future is bright because I'm in control of it. Who knows, maybe I’ll live in Europe again one day.

Brittney Quinones, '13, Admission Counselor, Office of Admission

brittney-quinonesBrittney Quinones, ’13

Assistant Director, Office of Admission

I didn't know where to start. I was the only Latina in all honors classes. I thought I was on the right path. I was involved, getting good grades, working; simply self-motivated. Everything I heard about college was hearsay from my friends and their families from extensive college visits. Finally, the summer after my junior year, my mom and I took one trip and Richmond just happened to be on the list. How'd I find Richmond? The College Board matchmaker. In a big public school, you have to fend for yourself. Let’s just say, there’s much more to finding the right college than what you see on the websites. Somehow, after about 1,000 phone calls, we figured it out. It all seemed perfect until the beginning of my second semester at school. I felt alone, like I was the only one who felt unprepared for Richmond’s academic rigor. I didn’t fit in with the people who looked like my friends from home and I didn’t have money to eat outside of the dining hall basically ever, etc. It didn’t make sense to me. Why was everything so different here? I called home and my mom continued to remind me how good that Richmond degree would be. So, I kept pushing myself. I made an effort to build relationships wherever I went. I looked for opportunities and kept inserting myself everywhere until I finally found the right people — friends, club advisers, and even professors who helped everything make a little more sense.

Laura Runyen-Janecky, Professor of Biology

laura-runyen-janeckyLaura Runyen-Janecky

Professor of Biology

One of the strongest memories of college orientation is my parents being overwhelmed, not because they were anxious about leaving their first-born child at college (though I suspect that was part of it), but because they were in awe of all the prospects that laid before their daughter. Although both of my parents attended community college, obtaining a bachelor’s degree was not an option for them. Thus, I was the first in my family to attend and graduate from a four-year college. As such, there were certainly many challenges – much of them financial, some logical, and others social. But there was an unexpected benefit of being the first in my family to attend a four-year college, which I began to recognize on orientation day as I watched my parents marvel in all that this small college in Texas had to offer their daughter. That benefit was a deep appreciation that college held opportunities that others (like my parents) did not have, and this is what I used as motivation when times were tough. It never occurred to me to skip class (well, almost never), grumble about the food, or complain about all my homework on top work-study jobs. How could I, when my parents would have relished the chance to have this college experience! As a college professor, I’ve worked with many first generation college students who have found their own, personal “unexpected benefit” of a first-generation college experience, and used that to accomplish great things. Here’s to you finding yours….

Rosanna Thai, '17

rosanna-thaiRosanna Thai, ’17

Majors: Biology and Psychology

Being a first-generation student means that I have had to grow up faster than anyone else. I had to translate for my parents and file FAFSA by myself. My parents were absent for many of my events, such as family weekend. At the beginning of my time at college, I had many problems. I often felt isolated by my peers because our socioeconomic statuses and our experiences were different from one another. I also felt unloved because my parents never called or visited; however, I soon learned that their love is different from others’. They work almost every day in order for me to have enough money to accomplish my dreams here at UR. As the oldest, I try to be the American parent to my siblings so they do not have to go through what I went through. I appreciate all the things my parents have done for me, and I have grown an independent spirit because of my experiences.