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Panel celebrates first-generation students

Kaitlyn Rabach | Monday, January 21, 2013

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, members of the Saint Mary’s community gathered together to host a panel remembering Dr. King’s message of fostering an inclusive community titled “First Generation College Students.”

“We are doing this in honor of Dr. King and his message to include everybody,” Tamara Taylor, assistant director of Student Involvement and Multicultural Affairs, said. “I am a first-generation college student and during my time in school I often felt excluded and forgotten. It is important to recognize the different struggles individuals are going through on campus.”

In addition to Taylor, the panel also included other faculty members, all of who consider themselves first-generation college students.  

Topics varied from financial aid and parental support to mentorship advice and campus involvement, but each panelist offered her own experience.

“My father eventually went to college after he served in World War II and had access to the GI Bill,” Jan Pilarski, a professor in the Justice Education Program, said. “His college experience was not typical and he could not offer me much advice in terms of my education. He pushed for me to be a doctor and it became a struggle for both me and him when I decided to step off that path.”

This theme of dealing with friends and family after starting the college experience was expressed by more than one panelist.

Bettina Spencer, a professor from the psychology department, also alluded to how different her home in Detroit felt after she started her undergraduate degree at a small liberal arts college in New York.

“It was a struggle,” Spencer said. “In fact, it still is a struggle. I went to college and sometimes felt as though I didn’t fit in there, and then I would come home and realize I no longer fully fit in there either. I had to redo my boundaries with certain family members.”

Being a first-generation college student is hard enough, but Stacy Davis, a professor in the religious studies and gender and women’s studies departments, said being a scholarship student added to the difficulties.

“It is a very scary thing to be a scholarship student at a school with a lot of money,” Davis said. “Academics at the college level are a whole different world. I was the only non-white student out of 60 students in the honors program and everyday was a challenge. It was not until my junior year that I met non-middle class students and truly felt as though I found my people and niche.”

All four panelists agreed that the first two years of their college experiences were the most difficult because they did not find a community to which they belonged.

“I had a very different experience in the fact that I became a teen mom and then decided to attend college,” Taylor said. “I struggled with the workload and loans. It was not until I became a McNair Scholar at Central Michigan University my junior year that I felt mentored and included in the campus community.”

This idea of mentorship and involvement were the two key points each panelist pinpointed as a turning point in their college careers.

“I had two very good mentors,” Davis said. “They both taught me that if you are not having fun then the major isn’t right for you.”

Each panelist attributed her time as being a first-generation college student to a unique perspective she can now bring to the table in her job.

 “After a difficult moment in one of my classes during my undergrad, I had to ask myself the question, ‘Is this threat or a challenge?’ I decided it was a challenge and from then on when I come across difficult situations I ask myself the same question,” Spencer said.

The panelists agreed it was these difficult moments of overcoming hardships that led them to appreciate their undergraduate degree.

“My advice to offer you is to circle the graduation date,” Davis said. “Keep that date right in front of your face. Once you cross that finish line it is well worth it. Out of all the degrees hanging on my wall I am most proud of my undergraduate one.”