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First-Generation Faculty

If you’ve spent some time on a college campus or in a lecture hall, you may have heard someone use the term “first-gen.” If it doesn’t apply to you, then you carry on to your next class or activity. Or, your eyes may have widened knowing that the term very well describes you. At the John Chambers College of Business and Economics, we’re bridging the gap.

According to a National Center for Education Statistics report from 2018, figures showed a third of college students are first-generation.

So, what does that mean?

A first-generation college student is the term used to describe a student who is first in his or her family to attend a four-year college or university, in hopes of earning bachelor’s degree. 

While it’s an accomplishment to be proud of, so many first-generation students often feel socially isolated on a large campus or have a hard time balancing college, work and a social life. 

We sat down with our faculty and staff members who were once in their shoes and asked them what it was like being a first-gen student and why, now more than ever, they want to give back. 

Get to know our Chambers College first-gen community.


Kelly Nix, Ph.D.

Teaching Associate Professor and Organizational Leadership Community Liaison, Management

304-293-7942

kelly.nix@mail.wvu.edu

114Business and Economics Building


What does the term “first-generation” mean to you? A New Beginning.  My parents didn’t go to college.  I’m the youngest of 5 siblings and all but one started college but ended up taking a different path in life and didn’t finish. 

When and why did you decide College was for you? I decided college was for me my Senior year in high school.  My best friend and I decided to do it together.  I knew I wanted to become a teacher. 

Where did you attend College and what made you choose your alma mater? I started at Fairmont State University which is where my best friend’s Mom went to school.  Then I transferred to East Tennessee State University (ETSU) to finish Bachelors and Masters in Education.  The choice to attend ETSU was due to my significant other securing a Graduate Assistantship. I landed back in WV and earned my PhD at WVU!  This choice was due to my employment at WVU as well as love for the State. 

What support did you have as a first-generation college student? My parents were unable to support me financially or otherwise.  They didn’t go to college and didn’t know the system well enough to help guide me with options, applications, etc.  My friend’s Mom was supportive and helped us as we struggled our way through registration, financial aid and housing.       

Do you have a favorite story you can share with students about your time/experience as a first-generation student? When I graduated, my parents and siblings were there and could not have been more proud. 

What inspires you to support these first-generation students?  Anyone can “break the chain”.  It takes inquiry, motivation and hard work but it is worth it.  I want them to know they can do it and in turn help generations to come.  Paying it forward is the best outcome!     

Why do you think it’s important that our College, and our University as a whole, supports the future of first-generation students? It’s important that we build the future with educated and motivated individuals.  It has to start somewhere.   

What are some of the myths and misconceptions about first-generation students that exist and what is your advice for overcoming them? Assumption that my parents were bad or not supportive. 

How early on should you be researching/talking about the cost? Three or more years out. That will help the student understand that financial assistance is available if needed and there focus will be on doing well in HS realizing they can go to college. 

Is there a particular club/center here on campus or at Chambers College that you recommend?  Leadership Development Organization/Club.

What is one thing you wish you would’ve known starting college as a first-generation student? There is plenty of support on campus.  Meet with an advisor a least once a semester and find a mentor - someone that has been through the college system and understood the challenges students face mentally, emotionally, physically, financially, etc.  

What is your advice for a first-generation student?  Find a mentor and don’t hesitate to ask them for advice frequently.  Get involved in activities that bring you joy.  Find friends who are good for you and do not drag you down.  Take care of yourself (exercise, eat healthy, plenty of sleep,….).  Realize that sometimes learning on your own is the best way.  It’s not easy to learn the hard way but it helps build character, stamina and is rewarding to no end to have made it “on your own”.  

Rebel Smith Ed.D.

Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Programs, Dean's Office

304-293-7957

rebel.smith@mail.wvu.edu

402Business and Economics Building


What does the term “first-generation” mean to you? It means you are the first person in your family to go to college.

When and why did you decide College was for you? My mother worked in factories when I was young. She wore coveralls and steel toed boots. She worked so hard, often having to do evening shifts. This was difficult for a single mother. There also wasn’t job security and she was laid off a time or two, resulting in financial distress. I remember thinking that I wanted something different as early as fifth grade. I also knew that if I wanted to go to college that I was going to have to get there on my own. My family simply didn’t have the resources to pay for college. I graduated first in my class and had a good ACT score. 

Where did you attend College and what made you choose your alma mater? I began my undergraduate career at the University of Tulsa (TU) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s a small, private, liberal arts institution and I loved it. As the daughter of a single mom with two kids, I was fully funded through scholarships, grants, and a very small Perkins loan. My mother had been laid off the year before I graduated. She went to a local technical school to get her clerical skills so that she could leave factory work and move into office work. My mother remarried and I lost my funding. Due to federal regulations, I had to claim my step-father’s income on my FAFSA, even though he was not contributing to my education. My family’s income tripled and I lost everything; now I was only eligible for loans. I transferred to a regional state school with tuition I could afford, without taking loans. I worked full-time every summer and then part-time during school.

What support did you have as a first-generation college student? I received no financial support from my family. We didn’t have the resources. While they didn’t understand higher education, they were supportive in other ways.

During my first two years at TU, I did not have a car. I depended on my roommate for rides home. When I had to transfer, my grandparents allowed me the use of one of their vehicles so that I could get to work (from campus) and back home to visit. 

Do you have a favorite story you can share with students about your time/experience as a first-generation student?  I just want to stress that things aren’t always going to go your way. It’s hard. I was devastated when I had to leave the school that I loved. But I didn’t give up. I didn’t quit. I found a place I could afford and transferred. We have to be resilient. To get this far, we’re fighters. Don’t ever quit. 

What inspires you to support these first-generation students?  My best friend from high school and I went to the same college and were roommates. She was much more privileged. Her experience was nothing like mine. She was not first-generation. I’m not sure you can understand what it’s like to be low-income and first-generation if you aren’t low-income and first-generation. These students have a lot to overcome. They need to know it’s possible. Others need to understand what they are going through and what they are dealing with.

Why do you think it’s important that our College, and our University as a whole, supports the future of first-generation students? As the flagship institution of the state, we bear a responsibility to the citizens of this state. Many of our incoming freshmen continue to be first-generation. We owe them every opportunity to succeed. 

What are some of the myths and misconceptions about first-generation students that exist and what is your advice for overcoming them? I’m not sure about myths and misconceptions. I think it’s probably pretty common to make assumptions, one being that someone who is poor and from an uneducated family is stupid. Or to say it in nicer words, unintelligent. Or simple. You should never underestimate someone who is determined to make a better life for themselves and their future family.

Why do you think it’s important that these students get connected with other students, find a club, and attend campus-wide events? Engagement is important for all students. Students who are not connected to campus will leave at higher rates than those who are involved. It’s a catch 22. Students who are working often don’t have time to be involved on campus. On the one hand, they are making the money necessary to pay for tuition. On the other hand, they are often not connected to peers outside of classroom activities. First gen students need the opportunity to talk to others like them – their age and mentors as well. They need to see that it can be done. They need to know they are not alone.

What tips do you have for students to check the costs of college and what opportunities are available, such as scholarships? Pay attention to your email. I know you get a lot of emails from WVU, but this is how you will learn about scholarships and when the deadline is. There are also announcements on digital boards. Pay attention! When it comes to scholarships BEFORE coming to WVU, your high school guidance counselor has this information. Don’t be afraid to ask.

How early on should you be researching/talking about the cost? As a high school senior, some deadlines are as early as November 1. For college scholarships for those already here, those deadlines vary. Again, pay attention. This info will be on the emails and the digital boards. 

Is there a particular club/center here on campus or at Chambers College that you recommend?  Student’s should choose one college specific club/org to join. This is very important. Many networking opportunities are available through our student orgs. This social connection is also important to student success.

Any specific resources you recommend?  Don’t be afraid to use your advisor as your resource for all things academic. If they don’t know the answer, they will know who does. Our advisors have walk-in hours every day. Get to know your advisor. He/she is your best resource. 

What is one thing you wish you would’ve known starting college as a first-generation student? I wish I had understand the consequences of student loans and the impact of choice of major. My B.A. is in psychology, and while I loved my classes, job prospects are limited without a graduate degree. I enjoyed school, so this thought didn’t bother me. However, since graduate school is loans only, I racked up student loan debt. I didn’t know anything about graduate assistantships – that they waive tuition and provide a stipend. That knowledge would have been life changing. Especially if I understood the ramifications of student loans. As a young student on my own, of course I knew I would be paying them back. As a young student on her own, of course I knew I would be paying them back. I didn’t understand the total amount that would be due – that it would be so much more (double) than I borrowed. My family lived very simply in a small town in Oklahoma. They were unable to guide me or offer advice. This was way outside their realm. I tell students now, every chance that I get, not to burden themselves with more loan debt than they can manage. When I refer to choice of major, what I mean is that no one told me what my career prospects would be with a psychology degree. Selecting a major that allows you to earn a livable wage with a bachelor’s degree – that would have been a great conversation – important info to have. Overall, my path led me to where I am and I cannot complain. I LOVE working in higher education. I believe strongly in the power of education, and I get significant satisfaction from helping students. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

What is your advice for a first-generation student? Higher education is life changing. I am proof of that. Some days are going to be hard. Nothing worth having comes easy. It’s part of the journey and the struggles make us who we are. They make us strong.

Gary LeDonne

Executive in Residence and MAcc Coordinator, Accounting

304-293-7864

galedonne@mail.wvu.edu

308Business and Economics Building


What does the term “first-generation” mean to you? The opportunity to achieve something important that your ancestors didn’t have the opportunity to pursue.

When and why did you decide College was for you? It was never an option not to attend in my mind.  My parents encouraged college even though they didn’t attend.

Where did you attend college and what made you choose your alma mater? Fairmont State College undergrad, immediately followed by WVU master

What support did you have as a first-generation college student? Minimal – my parents didn’t have the financial means or knowledge about majors etc. I figured it out and paid my way.

Do you have a favorite story you can share with students about your time/experience as a first-generation student? When my intermediate accounting professor offered me an internship. It changed my life.

What inspires you to support these first-generation students? Giving back – it’s why I teach at WVU – paying it forward

Why do you think it’s important that our college, and our university as a whole, supports the future of first-generation students? The young people in WV need higher education to launch quality careers.

Why do you think it’s important that these students get connected with other students, find a club, and attend campus-wide events? They need a support system that their’s families can’t provide.

How early on should you be researching/talking about the cost? Sophomore in high school – need to build resume to secure opportunities

What is one thing you wish you would’ve known starting college as a first-generation student? Need to start early to get internships with large firms.

What is your advice for a first-generation student? You can compete with anyone. Don’t be concerned that you are not attending an ivy league school

Laurel Cook Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, Marketing

304-293-0753

Laurel.Cook@mail.wvu.edu

203Business and Economics Building


What does the term “first-generation” mean to you? To me, first-gen means that you’re the first person in your family to attend & graduate from college with either a 2-year or 4-year degree.

When and why did you decide College was for you? I was fortunate to attend an academic magnet high school in Nashville, TN called  Hume-Fogg. The school had a college-prep orientation that helped me realize the (A) feasibility and (B) necessity of a college degree. Plus, I had several teachers who inspired me to think of college as a way to safe-guard my future.

Where did you attend College and what made you choose your alma mater? I attended Union University in Jackson, TN. I chose Union because it’s a liberal arts-based university with values I share. Plus, I was attracted to the small(er) student-to-faculty ratio and the 100+ programs of study the school offered.

What support did you have as a first-generation college student? There was no recognition of my role as a first-gen student. However, I received a number of resources designed to help me pay for and complete my degree. Many of these resources included scholarships and faculty mentorships within the business school. Plus, my entire family gave me the emotional support I needed to finish my degree on time.

Do you have a favorite story you can share with students about your time/experience as a first-generation student? Day 1 of my college experience began in the un-coolest way possible. I had jaw surgery a few weeks before the fall semester began, so my mouth was still wired shut. Plus, I was assigned to dorm with upperclassman. I didn’t know many people at Union, so I realized that I would have to force myself to embrace the *very* awkward position I was in. I’m naturally introverted, so my discomfort was at an all-time high. I relied on humor as I attended campus events and introduced myself with clenched teeth. As I joked with others about my embarrassing situation, I quickly realized that I wasn’t the only person with anxiety about school. I used this realization to help me adopt a service mentality. Helping other people made me more comfortable and confident. While my first weeks at college weren’t ideal, I think of that time in my life with fondness and gratitude.

What inspires you to support these first-generation students?  I embrace a pay-if-forward mentality. I was helped by mentors who patiently and generously shaped my life. I have always wanted to play a similar role for today’s students.

Why do you think it’s important that our College, and our University as a whole, supports the future of first-generation students?  First-gen students are uniquely vulnerable, but no less capable of getting a degree. Avoiding a one-size-fits-all strategy for first-gen students will increase student motivation and decrease attrition. The Chambers College should recognize how valuable first-gen students are to the business world. These students often have characteristics that, when coupled with the training and guidance our faculty can offer, will provide a substantial competitive advantage. First-gen students are resilient, creative, and hard-working. They have diverse backgrounds and offer diverse perspectives to business problems. First-gen faculty that serve as mentors will make goal-pursuit more salient.

What are some of the myths and misconceptions about first-generation students that exist and what is your advice for overcoming them? I’m not aware of any myths or misconceptions about first-gen students. Generally, the attitude about first-gen students has been very positive.

Why do you think it’s important that these students get connected with other students, find a club, and attend campus-wide events? Acclimation and involvement are key predictors for motivation- both intrinsically and extrinsically. First-gen students generally tend to already be motivated intrinsically. However, connections with other students/staff/faculty lead to a supportive environment. Social support offers the extrinsic motivation first-gen students need early in their college career. Involvement in student organizations and other campus events is an easy and low-risk way to develop this social support structure.

Is there a particular club/center here on campus or at Chambers College that you recommend? I recommend attending at least one meeting at  all Chambers student orgs. Check them out online and listen to the representatives who come to your classes (i.e., usually during a freshman’s first semester) to describe their clubs. Try to see which organizations will align with your future career goals. For marketers, there’s no better club than the American Marketing Association (AMA). A club like AMA has international recognition and memberships at the collegiate and professional levels. It’s also the premier organization for those with interest in marketing. Marketing students entering the job market with AMA on their resumes have a strong advantage. Plus, many clubs like the AMA have a host of scholarships that first-gen students might find especially helpful.

What is one thing you wish you would’ve known starting college as a first-generation student? I wish I had known about a network or group of other people like me. At the time, no such network existed. I felt alone and struggled to find my identity as an aspiring business woman. For this reason, I’m incredibly grateful and encouraged to see an institutional effort at WVU (and in the Chambers College of Business) to include and support first-gen students today. I want to do everything I can to help with this effort.

What is your advice for a first-generation student? When you’re having a hard day, for whatever reason, talk to someone you regard as a mentor. The act of talking is cathartic, but- more importantly, you’ll receive the understanding and encouragement you need to regain your focus & motivation. At the end of the day, you’ll be more likely to recognize how  smallthese bad days really are in comparison to the accomplishments and successes coming your way. Once you finish your degree, you are significantly more likely to achieve self-actualization in your career. Plus, the benefits of your hard work also have important and favorable implications for your future children!

John Mullins

Developmental Advising Specialist, Graduate Programs

304-293-7920

john.mullins@mail.wvu.edu

326Business and Economics Building


What does the term “first-generation” mean to you? The first person to graduate with a degree within a family’s living memory.

When and why did you decide College was for you? In 1999 I realized that I had hit an educational glass ceiling at my company and knew that I would have to get a degree to go further.

Where did you attend College and what made you choose your alma mater? I earned both my BA and MA from WVU.  I attended here because a friend was working on his BS here.  It was imperative for me to have someone here that I could relate to.

What support did you have as a first-generation college student? I was fortunate to work as a work study student in the Fin Aid office.  The staff there guided me away from making several mistakes as far as my fin aid was concerned.  This certainly did help me along.

Do you have a favorite story you can share with students about your time/experience as a first-generation student? As a history major I quickly came to appreciate the research capacity that the university has.  I researched the mining accident that killed my grandfather in 1939, I was astounded that anything was recorded about it at all.  I was also humbled to know that the name of my grandfather is preserved in our library.  This cemented my love of the History department and further engaged me with the institution as a whole.

What inspires you to support these first-generation students? Aside from my co-workers I had very little support as an undergraduate.  I strive to help as many students as I can in the hope that maybe I will be the determining factor in a student’s success at WVU which leads them to a better life.

Why do you think it’s important that our College, and our University as a whole, supports the future of first-generation students? Of all the people that come here the first gen student has the most to gain and the most to lose from their college experience.

What are some of the myths and misconceptions about first-generation students that exist and what is your advice for overcoming them? Myth:  First Gen students are not academically capable of thriving in a higher ed environment.  Advice:  You are here to get an education.  Focus on your classes and avoid the social quagmire that college can be for many students. 

Why do you think it’s important that these students get connected with other students, find a club, and attend campus-wide events?  This is an important aspect of institutional engagement which is critical for the success of any student.

What tips do you have for students to check the costs of college and what opportunities are available, such as scholarships?  Work with the financial aid office, they are very helpful if you actually seek them out.

How early on should you be researching/talking about the cost? Ideally your parents should be thinking about this by the time you’re born.  In reality I think most don’t think about it until they actually apply to WVU.

Any specific resources you recommend? Veterans, who are often first gen now have a really nice vet center and they are eager to see our vets succeed in their degree programs.

What is one thing you wish you would’ve known starting college as a first-generation student?  That I could go!  My parents had no idea that there was money out there to help me with college.  Thus, I was told that college wasn’t something my parents could pay for.  I joined the Navy instead.

What is your advice for a first-generation student? Fight for your degree, let nothing or no one stop you from earning your degree. Life is tough, step back, reevaluate, and move forward.  Seek the advice of the faculty and staff!