The Path to College: First-generation Students Tell Their Stories

Going to college can be a daunting experience even with a guide, a family member or friend who has walked the same path and can tell you what to expect and answer your questions.
But what if you’re the first in your family to go to college? What then?
Current first-generation Allegheny College students, alumni, faculty members and administrators talk about blazing their own trail, the resources they discovered and the lessons they learned along the way.

Robyn Katona, 19
Sophomore from Deerwood, Minnesota

Robyn Katona and her three siblings grew up in a house “covered in books,” a testament to the English major Robyn expected her mom would have been had she attended college.

“She had plans to go to college but never did,” said Katona, who is majoring in creative writing and history. “It was a hope for all of us to go to college.”

Robyn Katona

Katona wanted to continue her education after high school, but didn’t think she could afford college. She started looking at writing camps and summer programs instead as brochures from colleges and universities started piling up.

One brochure, from Allegheny, caught her eye. So, too, did the idea that Allegheny was a place where students with unusual combinations of interests can flourish.

“I didn’t want someone telling me I had to take this minor because it complements your major,” Katona said.

She started researching Allegheny and financial aid and, eventually, applied under the Early Admission option.
On Dec. 18, 2014, she got the letter: She was in — with a Trustee Scholarship.

“My mom called everyone,” she remembers, smiling. “It was great.”

Katona joined a group for first-generation students and has since spoken at a conference for first-generation students, sharing her story.

“I wanted to make it known that (college) is manageable, even though it’s costly,” she said.

Being here at Allegheny is a “personal accomplishment,” Katona said.
“College has really helped me grow.”

Winly Mai, 21
Junior from Philadelphia

Winly Mai has racked up a list of firsts.

She is the firstborn of her siblings. She was the first in her family with roots in rural China to speak English. The first to graduate high school. The first to attend college.

“It’s just me, consistently breaking barriers since birth,” she said.

Mai grew up in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, surrounded by people with similar socioeconomic backgrounds and cultural practices and expectations. Her parents were like the parents of her Chinese-American friends: hard workers with a grade-school education who made their way in life without a college degree.

“There were no differences that were obvious because I grew up with people who were like me,” said Mai, a biochemistry major.

It wasn’t until high school that she realized some people grew up very differently, with different opportunities, challenges and advantages. She didn’t know how to talk to people who weren’t like her and didn’t know how to relate. Making friends was hard.

“It felt very strange,” she said.

When she arrived on the Allegheny campus, she met people who seemed to already know how to network with others and navigate the campus. College was a transition, but one she relished.

“I’m a hungry sponge,” Mai said. “I want to absorb more skills and knowledge that I don’t know.”

To do that, she’s relied on mentors along the way.

“The two things I’m very thankful for as a first-year student are mentors and the (internet and books) Mai said and laughed. “They provide the key to break the barrier.”

Rachel Belson, 21
Senior from Brick, New Jersey

Rachel Belson will do something in May that no one else in her immediate family has done: walk across a stage to accept a college diploma.

The path has been anything but easy.

Belson, a communication arts major who wants to work as a journalist following graduation, was involved in a car crash during her sophomore year on Oct. 31, 2014, while traveling south on Interstate 79. She suffered a traumatic brain injury.

“There were people who prayed from coast to coast,” for her recovery, Belson said.

Belson’s recovery is ongoing; an academically competitive student used to earning As, she said she now struggles with some classes.

“I was always a student who put in a lot of time,” Belson said of her high school years. “It does not come naturally to me, but I stayed after, I studied a lot. If I didn’t understand something, I would ask. And I’m still that kind of person.”

Belson said she always assumed she would go to college, even though her father did not and her mother discontinued her education. Both parents worked and, together, built a successful family business selling custom window treatments — a source of pride not unlike the pride Belson expects she’ll feel come graduation day.

She didn’t used to think being a first-generation student was a special label, but she does now after nearly four years at Allegheny.

“I will feel very accomplished,” she said, looking ahead. “I’m going to do it. I’m going to pull it off.”

Tomas Nonnenmacher ’90
Professor of Economics, Allegheny College

Tomas Nonnenmacher arrived at Allegheny as a first-year student without ever having stepped foot on campus before.

For a student who’d grown up in suburban New Jersey, moving to small-town Pennsylvania “was a real culture shock,” Nonnenmacher said.

Thrown together with people he didn’t know on a campus he often didn’t know how to navigate, he made friends with other out-of-state students. Nonnenmacher’s brother had gone to college, but his parents — both immigrants from Germany — had not.

“Sending their kids to college was part of their vision of the American dream, which I think is what a lot of immigrant families think,” Nonnenmacher said.

Many families of immigrants and first-generation students “have the same impulses as my parents,” he said. “Go to college, get an education, and become more integrated into society. This is a pathway to the American dream. I’ve always thought that was their rationale for pushing us to go to college. Growing up, it was clear that college was going to happen.”

Though they’d always planned for their sons to continue their education past beyond high school, Nonnenmacher’s parents didn’t have “any experiences negotiating and navigating college life,” he said.

“That’s something I feel like I share with many students who are coming to college without a lot of family background. … That makes it a little bit harder for first-generation (students) because they often don’t have that kind of family support network to help them through college,” he said.

Families of first-generation students might also not have the extensive social networks that their children can use to help with life after college, Nonnenmacher said.

“The social networks (my parents) were in weren’t the social networks that some of the kids who went to my high school were in,” said Nonnemacher, who attended a private high school in New Jersey. “I often tell the students here that first-generation students have to work extra hard for that first internship or job because they may not that family network to fall back on.”

Resources like the Office of Career Education, part of the Allegheny Gateway, are invaluable, Nonnenmacher said.

“I’m always encouraging first-generation students to go down there, because they need extra help navigating not only college but what comes after,” he said.

Catharina Coenen
Professor of Biology, Allegheny College

Catharina Coenen’s parents ran a small clothing retail business. Neither went to school past age 14.

“My parents wanted more education for both of us,” said Coenen, who grew up in Soest, a small town in northern Germany, with her sister. “What I always heard from them is, ‘Your education is the only thing that nobody can take away from you.’ I think part of that idea came from having lived through the war as children where people lost most everything. They figured that education is portable. They saw it as a safety net for us.”

They didn’t know, though, what that safety net looked like.

“My parents had no idea what they wanted for me. They always said, ‘The kind of job you’re going to have, we don’t even know if that exists.’ They felt that their own view of the world was far too narrow to have an idea of what they wanted for me. What they wanted was for my life to be wide open, so I could do what was right for me.”

There was no equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in Germany at that time; Coenen took undergraduate and graduate-level classes at the University of Bremen, applied for a Fulbright grant, and, eventually, earned a doctorate at Oregon State University.

“Because my parents didn’t know how this was going to go, I had no idea how this was going to go,” Coenen said of her education. “I felt a deep and nagging insecurity that did not leave me until I got tenure here. Part of it is the first-generation thing: I lacked perspective. I never knew whether I was doing well or not.”

Coenen’s advice to current and future first-generation students is to find resources and seek out mentors.

“Trust that people want to see you and they want to talk to you about what you might need or what your hopes and dreams are and to help you brainstorm what might be good ways to move forward in your career,” she said. “Conversations you can’t have with parents can be had with professors, and Allegheny has a really great staff that is trained in helping people with (career education and placement). … Trust that people are invested in your success and well-being and just reach out.”

Keri Fadden
Director of Alumni Engagement, Allegheny College

When Keri Fadden left her hometown of Buffalo, New York, to study at the State University of New York at Fredonia, the move came with more than a change of address.

Keri Fadden

It changed her perspective.

“I wasn’t prepared for how much college was going to change me. That was never even talked about,” Fadden said. “My parents said, ‘College is important, you should go,’ because they wanted me to have a better life and more opportunities. But it was the personal growth that I experienced that surprised me the most and ultimately led me to work in higher ed. I felt like I was completely changed by it.”

Fadden came to realize the world was a much more complex place than she had experienced before college.

“You’re seeing diverse points of view and expanding your horizons. I felt like my world was much smaller and when I went to college it grew, seeing other people’s opinions and (backgrounds),” she said.

The new world of SUNY Fredonia came with questions — lots of them.

“There was a lot of lingo and knowledge that people thought I would know” but didn’t, Fadden said. “Financial aid, understanding how to get books. It’s the things that seem obvious to other people that are the most daunting for first-generation students. It’s almost embarrassing to ask, ‘How do you get books?’ ‘What do I do if I fill out the FAFSA and don’t get enough aid?’ My parents didn’t know. I had to force myself to go to Financial Aid and ask how am I going to pay for college.”

Her advice to current and prospective first-gen students: “Just be open to the idea that you don’t know everything. That’s not a deficiency; it’s just a reality. Be open to assistance and don’t be ashamed to not have all the answers.”

Jay Badams ’86
Erie School District Superintendent

Jay Badams’ parents made it clear that he would go to college, no question.

They just couldn’t tell him what to expect when he got there, academically or socially.

Today, Badams is busy preparing 11,500 students of the Erie School District, including his youngest son, to go to college or enter the workforce. Two older children are currently in college.

“It really makes it easy for my wife and me to help our kids because both of us have graduated from college,” Badams said. “We’ve been through the whole process, the search process, all the ups and downs that you face as a freshman. We’ve been able to provide more support than my parents were able to. It’s hard to give advice about something you’ve never experienced.

“I feel like I’ve been able to talk to (my kids) from a position of ‘I’ve been there.’ It’s so much easier to relate to my kids and the challenges they had in college.”

From his vantage point as an educator, first-generation students are the vanguard that influences future generations. College opens the door to opportunity for many families.

“If you can help get one of their children into college and support them so they get through college, what do you think the likely task for that person’s children is going to be? To go to college. If you want to break that cycle of lack of education, you just have to get that one kid into college.”

Annie Ginty ’09
Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Baylor University

It wasn’t unusual for people in Annie Ginty’s working-class neighborhood to not go to college. Many of the friends she grew up with were first-generation college students.

Ginty’s parents made sure she and her brother would be among them.

Annie Ginty

Her father, an Irish immigrant who grew up working on a farm, earned his GED when he moved to America; her mother, a first-generation American whose parents were Irish immigrants, worked as a Realtor.

“They valued higher education and the American dream,” Ginty said. “They were immigrants who wanted better opportunities for their children than they had. They wanted us to take advantage of the opportunities we had.”

What they didn’t know, they searched out.

“They were incredibly helpful in that they would talk to friends who had gone to college,” Ginty said. “They knew surprisingly a lot about college from what they learned from friends. They were more than willing to go to visit colleges and take an interest.”

Ginty credits at least some of her success as a first-generation Allegheny student to early connections she made on campus. She joined the cross country team her first year and served as a resident advisor her sophomore year.

“I always felt incredibly supported,” she said. “Maybe it was lack of awareness that there was a difference” between first-generation students and others. “With my personality I always expected myself to do well.”

It wasn’t until graduation day that she realized the weight of the moment — for her and her parents.

“It was just such a happy day,” she said. “You could tell they were incredibly proud.”

Ryan Cole ’10
Project Coordinator, University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health

“I was always good at being outgoing and connecting with people, but this was a completely new atmosphere and a new group of people,” Ryan Cole remembers of stepping onto campus as a first-year student.

It wasn’t just the environment and people that were new. It was the logistics of financial aid, of scheduling classes, of navigating this new space.

Ryan Cole

Cole found comfort in connection. He arrived one week earlier than other incoming students to attend the cross country team’s training camp. He ran in high school, and while not intending to participate in a varsity sport when considering Allegheny, he changed his mind the summer before and decided to give it a try.

“It was team camaraderie and bonding,” Cole said. “We ate meals together. I didn’t have that awkwardness of ‘Who am I going to sit with?’ I felt comfortable expanding from there and reaching out.

“As I was there more, I got comfortable. I went out to events. I really appreciated the different activities they hosted so people could get to know each other. I didn’t stay in my room.”

He and another student started a running club in Cole’s junior year.

“We got to see a lot of those students who were trying to find their place,” Cole said. “It was nice to be on the side of helping them acclimate to campus.”

Cole worked at Meadville’s Redevelopment Authority as a Davies Community Service Leader in his last two years, but wishes now he’d become more involved with the downtown community earlier in his time at Allegheny.

“It’s not a big downtown, but it’s nice to get out of the bubble of the college campus. You get to meet other people. You get to go down to the coffee shop. As I moved along in my schooling, that was one of things I tried promoting, getting people to explore downtown. Find places off campus to connect the gap.”