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First Generation in College at Siena

As the first person from a family to venture off into the ever-daunting realm of higher education, first-generation students face unique, and often greater, challenges than their peers. On Thursday, March 7, 2019, Rosetti Hall was home to the 4th installment of a lecture series centered on the the experiences of first-generation college students. “First Generation in College at Siena” welcomed the campus community to the life stories of two of our very own professors: Dr. Lucas Tucker and Dr. Jodi O’Donnell of the Chemistry and Biochemistry departments.

The event was hosted by Siena’s Diversity Action Committee and sought to share stories about critical moments and factors that shape our paths to and through college. Dr. Todd Snyder, a professor of English on campus, opened the discussion by explaining that he feels it is important that Siena’s own population of first-gen students know that there are people on campus that have been through what they are experiencing. He noted that these stories are beneficial to non-first-gen students as well: “I think it’s so important to tell these stories even for folks that aren’t first gen, so that they can understand that not everyone experiences college the same way.” Dr. Snyder then gave the floor to Dr. Tucker to tell of his college and life experiences as a first-gen student.

“The first year I went to college, tuition was more money than my parents’ income the year before I went to college,” Dr. Tucker told the audience in describing his undergraduate years. Growing up, his family lived comfortably off of trade work in a rural community until his father was injured and could no longer work. He started working at 12 years old and, in order for his family to pool together enough funds for his older brother’s education, he was paying for his own school supplies as a sophomore in high school. He had a number of jobs during his undergraduate career, working more than 20 hours a week along with trying to keep up with classes. After failing an exam, Dr. Tucker realized just how much he was going to have to sacrifice to pass his classes. He elaborated in saying,  “I was spending about 75 hours a week studying, 20 hours in class, and 20 hours working and then I slept and ate. That was it.”

Dr. O’Donnell had much overlap in her story, although she does not consider herself technically a first-generation student. She received a full-tuition scholarship to Drew University but still had to work multiple jobs while going to school to pay for room and board and other expenses. “Fitting in means something. I did not fit in in ritzy suburban New Jersey,” Dr. O’Donnell explained about the feeling of being outcasted in college. Eventually, she did find a social group that made her feel as though she belonged. While trying to cope with the social stressors of college, she was also working a number of jobs. At one point she was denied an additional on-campus position: “They told me I already had too many jobs to add being a tour guide and I was like ‘But I need another job!’” She provided some advice for the audience members struggling to find a balance between meeting both financial and academic demands: “Find work that supports your learning.” Dr. O’Donnell stressed the point that students in similar situations to hers and Dr. Tucker’s still need to carve out time every week to take care of themselves socially and emotionally and to find a support system.

This event emphasized that for first-generation college students on campus, there are supportive faculty members here that can emphasize with your struggles in navigating higher education. While the lecture portrayed the experience as a more challenging one, both Dr. Tucker and Dr. O’Donnell acted as examples for Siena first-gen students that success in higher education is possible with the proper support.