If there’s a common thread among the incredibly diverse experiences of first-generation college students, it seems to be an unwavering self-reliance. Unlike many other students, first-gen students (defined as those whose parents didn’t obtain college degrees) tend to find that they have to chart their own path to and through college by whatever means they have access to, often without the guidance of those who have made the journey before them. That kind of determination tends to produce resilient students who in turn lend their strength to the college communities they inhabit.
We talked to current first-gen Sewanee students, faculty, and staff to learn more about their personal stories and the lessons that can be learned from them. Here they are, in their own words:
Jeffrey Guerra, C’24, Gaithersburg, Maryland
My parents are both immigrants from Guatemala. I was born in Silver Spring, Maryland, but moved to Guatemala with my parents when I was six years old. I was there for nine years, and then I came back to Maryland to live with my aunt. We had seven people, including five children, living in an apartment. When I moved to Guatemala, I didn’t know any Spanish. When I moved back to the U.S., I had to do the whole process again because I only knew Spanish. When I was 10, my dad was in a car accident and passed away.
I’ve always been a realistic person, so I didn’t think I’d go to college. College is expensive. I didn’t want to get myself in debt, so I knew I needed to look for scholarships and grants and stuff. But I’m here thanks to the Posse Foundation. If I hadn’t gone to college, my idea was to enlist in the Army, and I went through the first stages of the recruiting process. When I found out I got a Posse Scholarship, I was like, “Never mind.”
It’s been a little hard because my parents didn’t go to college. Basically, it’s been on me to do all the research, to know everything I have to do, and to know how to write an email to like the dean of students and faculty. It’s the stuff that if I wasn’t a first-gen student, my parents might have helped me with. And financially, it’s almost all on me. But between the Army and Sewanee, Sewanee was a better choice. I don’t know what would’ve happened in the Army, but here, I know I will be expanding my network through other students, professors, and staff.
Madeleine Rumingan, C’22, Fairfax, Virginia
My mom came to the United States from the Philippines when she was 16. My dad was born and raised outside D.C. to parents who immigrated from the Philippines. I grew up in a multigenerational household. Just to see the work that my family has put in and the sacrifices they’ve made for us really speaks volumes to what I want to be doing.
My parents just kind of trusted that my brother and I knew what we were doing, and if we wanted to find the resources to apply to college, then we would find them. I was awarded a Posse Scholarship to come to Sewanee. I was in a college-prep program when I was a junior in high school and I honestly thought that I had all the time in the world to be looking for colleges. My college counselor told me about the Posse Scholarship and I wrote it down, but I thought that was going to be that. Then she asked me if I was going to apply for it. I thought I could just do it senior year, but she said, “Well, the application is due tomorrow.”
If I told my 18-year-old self all the things I’m doing right now, I definitely would not have believed it. I’m a neuroscience major with a double minor in biology and chemistry. I’m a senior interviewer for the admission office. I’ve been a proctor for two years. I’m also doing independent research for the neurobiology lab, and I’m in the process of writing a research paper with Dr. Chris Shelley. I’m going to be presenting that research at a national conference for undergraduate research, which is really exciting. I’m also the student point person for Sewanee Science Fridays, and I’m a Canale site leader for Folks at Home, an organization based in Sewanee for folks who are 65 and older, just to help them be more confident and independent so they won’t have to move to a senior citizens’ home.
I’ve been on the pre-med track since freshman year, and I’m applying to med school right now. My dream profession is to be a pediatric surgeon. When my parents look at the things my brother and I are doing now, they tell family members, “We did not push them to do that! They found that on their own.”
Betsy Sandlin, associate dean for inclusive development of faculty and curriculum
I grew up in a really small town called Nancy, Kentucky. My high school had some college-prep and AP classes, but it wasn’t a given that we were going to college. Some of us did, many of us didn’t. I did somehow get into AP classes early on and that was really helpful because I had teachers who believed in me and were pushing me in certain directions. I ended up going to Morehead State University, in part—I’ll just be honest—because it was the place that gave me the most money. Early on, my parents told me, “You can go to college if you want to, but we’re not going to be able to help you. So, you have to figure that out.”
My mom graduated high school and worked in a clothing factory most of her life until the factory shut down. I think eighth grade was my dad’s last formal education. He ran a printing press at the local newspaper and then worked for the state highway department. Because I always loved school, everyone assumed I would go to college and then come back home and get a job. I think what shocked them was that I went to college and then I kept on going—to get a master’s and then a Ph.D. So, the joke was, “Are you ever going to get out of college?” My dad didn’t understand what I was studying, and he would tell me, “You’ve got to learn a trade. That’s how you get a job.”
Coming to work at Sewanee was an adjustment. I quickly learned that this is a place of affluence, especially then, 18 or 19 years ago. I just hid my background. I wouldn’t tell people I went to Morehead State because it wasn’t prestigious enough when many of my colleagues went to Harvard or Yale or Cornell. I was on the down-low about it, but as the years have gone on, I’ve realized that if I talk about my experiences, then it will help students who might be like me and don’t know that I went through what I went through, and maybe I can serve as a model or example. It’s part of who I am and why I care about the things I care about. When I teach, on the first day of class, I use it as part of my identity when we introduce ourselves. I’ll say, “I identify as a mother, as Appalachian, and as a first-generation college student.” I make sure that I state it up-front really clearly on day one in case there’s somebody in the class who needs to hear that. It has brought many students my way. Often, there will be students who hang back at the end of class or come to my office and want to talk about that.
Noah Shively, C’24, Fort Myers, Florida
I had applied to more than 20 schools and, you know, that gets quite expensive. My mother said she wasn’t going to pay for anymore applications, so I Googled “free college application” and found Sewanee listed as one of the top-rated schools offering free application. I’d never heard of it, but I applied and got in. I was supposed to be going to Eckerd College in St. Pete. The day I was going to put my deposit down for Eckerd, I received my financial aid package for Sewanee, and it was significantly better than Eckerd’s. The day I moved in for freshman year was the first time I was ever in Sewanee.
I had really supportive parents all the way through the application process, even if they didn’t know what was going on all the time. Completing and submitting the FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] was a really big ordeal and still can be even though we’ve done it twice now. But my parents and I were really active in researching the college application process, and I had some really supportive teachers in high school who were also willing to help.
Coming to Sewanee as a queer-identifying student was difficult in some ways because the community that identifies as LGBTQ here is small. Working through that process and finding the right spots for me during my sophomore year has made things significantly better, but it was a little rough in the beginning. It’s hard to find that community for yourself, and I think there should be a more active queer presence on campus. I live in the Queer and Ally House now and that’s been great—just seeing that there’s a larger community present than what I had initially thought.
Paige Schneider, assistant professor of politics and women’s and gender studies
I grew up in a working-class Anglo-Cuban neighborhood in southwest Miami. My grandparents had migrated there from Appalachia and rural Ohio in the 1950s for work. My dad had a lawn business, and we had a pretty stable working-class life, but then my parents got divorced and things went down from there. We slid from working-class to lower-income. After graduating from high school when I was 17, I got my own apartment, so I was independent, working full-time at a building supply company. I started going to community college at night, and the big break for me came when one of my best friends decided to apply to the University of Florida. That would’ve been the outer edge of anything I could have imagined. She got in and was like, “In the fall, I’m going to go to Gainesville and I’m going to college.” And I was like, “Well, I’ll go too.” So I did, and my sister followed me two years later.
While I was in college, even though I had a tuition scholarship, I worked as a bookkeeper at a daycare center in a housing project to pay living expenses. I didn’t know anybody who’d gone to graduate school, but I remember thinking I was going to go on to graduate school because I had done well in college. The person who helped me the most was the nutritionist at the daycare center, who had a master’s degree. I was like, “Well, how did you go to graduate school?” And she laid it out for me. I got my master’s degree in political science from Florida Atlantic University and then was accepted into the Ph.D. program at Emory University with a fellowship to study political science.
I’ve had a lot of first-generation students at Sewanee, and many of them take the Politics of Poverty and Inequality course that I teach. We focus a lot on unequal access to opportunities and resources for low-income students, most of who are first-generation students. So, I share my story. I want them to understand that I care about these issues. I understand at least some parts of that experience. Then, of course, when you consider other intersecting identities, like race and ethnicity, immigration status, especially undocumented status, I can’t begin to understand what some of my first-gen students have been through. I never had to worry about being deported. I also share with my students that even though my dad cut grass for a living, he was white, and that meant that he got the accounts on Miami Beach that the Black small-business owners who were struggling didn’t get. That’s racism—that’s how it works. Even though some of my students and I may share first-gen status, there is still a lot of diversity of experiences within the group.
Ashraf Haque, C’22, Silver Spring, Maryland
I grew up in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and I went to high school there for almost a year and a half before coming to the U.S. in 2015. In Bangladesh, my father had a small grocery store and our source of income wasn’t very strong. If I had gone to college in Bangladesh, it would have had to be at a public university, and it’s very tough to get into the public universities. Coming here, my parents became more aware of the opportunities that are available for students from different backgrounds, and they became more sure that I would make my transition from high school to a four-year college.
My parents thought I was a good enough student to get a scholarship, but because I’m the first person in my family to go to college, they’re always worried that no one is going to be able to guide me and that I might make the wrong moves. They were not on board with me coming to Sewanee because they just didn’t know what Sewanee was like, and they didn’t want me being so far away from them. That maybe has changed over time. Still, I have to call my mom every day. If I don’t call today, she’s going to call tomorrow and ask if I’ve forgotten about her.
I was hesitant to reach out for advice, but going back, I would be more willing to just talk with people about what kinds of challenges I would face and how I could counter those challenges. My biggest resource is Google. If I don’t know how to do something, I just go to Google. I’ve Googled my way through a lot of things. Now I’m also utilizing the people around me. I’m very used to doing my own thing, helping myself, but sometimes in-person advice can be so much more helpful.
Cassie Meyer, assistant dean for student equity and career readiness
My parents were sort of at the tail end of the generation that could have a successful career without a college education. My dad was an engineer, but he also saw that doors were closed to him because he didn’t get a college degree. It was never a question that I was going to go to college because, I think, especially for my dad, he couldn’t quite get to the level that he wanted because he had never gotten that degree.
I went to Lawrence University, a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. It was amazing; I loved it. But, I can look back and see that I didn’t take advantage of the resources that were available to me. I never went to the career center once. I didn’t know that was a thing I was supposed to do. I did go straight into grad school, so I was getting a lot of advising from my academic advisor. But I remember standing outside her office for our first meeting—when I was going to ask her to be my advisor—and almost being in tears because I didn’t know what I was supposed to do or say. I had just never had a conversation like that with an adult.
I’ve just started working in student success and career readiness at Sewanee. We’re broadening the idea of career readiness to think about how we’re helping students from the moment they come here to understand how what they do at Sewanee will help them succeed here and beyond. A real focus of my work is going to be on the students who do not come here with a sense of how to network and what it’s like to go to college. We’re hiring three student success and career-readiness coaches, and those coaches will contact students as soon as they put in their deposit. Students will come in with a sense of who their team is, and their coach in many ways will be the point person.
Natalie Price, C’23, Loganville, Georgia
I knew my dad didn’t finish college and my mom finished her two-year degree, but I have two older half-siblings who did go to college and graduate with four-year degrees, so I felt like my parents expected me to go to college. I was always told to focus on my studies. Even when my high school friends were getting part-time jobs, my parents discouraged me from doing that. They always said, “This is high school. You don’t need a job. We support you.” Still, I was pretty apprehensive about the application process.
I was kind of bad at looking at my options, so my dad was looking for top liberal arts colleges in the South, and Sewanee came up. I was scared of Sewanee when I first heard about it. I felt like Rory Gilmore stepping on the campus at Yale. I was like, “Uhhh, I don’t belong here.”
One difficulty was knowing that once I go to college, it’s all on me. I’m not in this safe little bubble anymore. Sewanee has really challenged me in a lot of different ways, but it’s also changed me for the better. I've experienced the most personal growth here, especially in gaining independence, because I feel like I'd always really depended on my parents for most of my life. Because my parents didn't finish college like they want me to, there’s been a lot of academic pressure. But I’ve always thought that college is your turning point as a character—it will shape your entire life.