First-generation college students received advice and insight from successful alumni.

First-generation college students received advice and insight from successful alumni.

Alumni to First-Gen Students: You Can Achieve Your Dreams

Lehigh alumni who were the first in their families to attend college share personal stories and tips for success.

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Being a first-generation college student builds character and grit, Lehigh alumni say.

“I think there are legitimate assets that are inherent to first-generation students. We are resourceful. We are tenacious. We have a legitimate track record of working with challenges,” said John Lim ’19, advisory associate, KPMG.

Lim and seven other Lehigh alumni who were the first in their families to attend college shared personal stories and tips for success with first-gen students and let them know that they have the ability to achieve their dreams.

“It is not where you start, it is where you finish,” said Jennifer Mann ’91, president, JL Mann Consulting. “If you believe in yourself, you are going to finish strong. You are going to meet your goal. Take what you learn at Lehigh and apply it to everything you do. You will come out ahead in many, many ways.” 

Held on Nov. 22 in the Clayton University Center at Packer Hall, the third annual alumni networking event was sponsored by the student-run group F1RST (First-Generation Initiative Represented by Students and Teachers) and featured alumni who spanned six decades since graduating from Lehigh. F1RST provides activities, resources, and an inclusive community for working class students, underrepresented minorities, and those who are the first in their families to attend college. Providing access to a Lehigh education and the resources for success is a top initiative of GO: The Campaign for Lehigh, a $1 billion-plus fundraising and engagement initiative. 

First-Gen panelists

Panelists, from left, are Reginald Jennings ’70, co-executive director of Lehigh’s BALANCE (Lehigh’s Black and Latino Alumni Network for Community and Equity); Eddie Ramos ’89, Lehigh University Board of Trustees member; Bob Haines ’67; Jennifer Mann ’91; Michelle Koch ’98G ’00G; Mario Paredes ’11, co-executive director of BALANCE; and John Lim ’19. Missing from photo is Daniel Moncada ’18.

“The F1RST club has been a big part of teaching me all of the different career and college things that my parents don’t necessarily know about — like resume building, networking, and what to look for in an internship,” said Andrew Principato ’22, a computer science major in engineering.

F1RST Vice President Jenny Lin ’21 thinks connecting with first-gen alumni who know the struggles and have been in the same shoes is very important. 

“Half of the students attending the event this year are actually first-year students,” said Lin. “I think they will get a lot out of getting exposed early on with a network of alumni.”

The panelists ranged in various stages of their careers from semi-retired to just starting out. Advice included the importance of seeking out mentors, asking people for help, taking advantage of Lehigh opportunities, being open to change, and preparing for life after college. Several alumni discussed their professional paths and encouraged students not to feel locked into whatever they major in for the rest of their lives. 

“You are not going to have it all figured out. I had a solid sense of myself, and I knew what I didn’t want,” said Daniel Moncada ’18, technical business analyst, 2U. “Don’t be too stressed out about your first job. This part of your life should be developing your personal self and starting your career.”

First-Gen alum talk with students

After the presentation, alumni joined the students for dinner and continued the conversation.

Overcoming the stigma of being a first-gen student was discussed by several panelists. Michelle Koch ’98G ’00G, associate director, Lehigh University Disability Support Services, said that coming from an adverse situation made her work harder, be more creative, and be flexible in obtaining her goals.

“I paid for my own education and worked two to three jobs. At the time, I thought it was really difficult, but it gave me grit,” said Koch. “Being a first-gen has been an asset rather than being something that is negative.”

Lim challenged students to communicate that they are first-gens — on their resume, to their peers, to alumni, and to future employers. “The message says, ‘I am a better candidate because of who I am.’”

Dealing with expectations from family to succeed in both college and career are common struggles that first-generation students experience. 

“It is an on-going struggle — first-gens carrying the goals of our family on our backs. We are our own individuals. You are allowed to find your passion. I am not in the highest-paying field working at a non-profit, and that was a struggle for my parents,” said Mario Paredes ’11, attorney, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and Prisoners’ Legal Services, and co-executive chair of BALANCE (Lehigh’s Black and Latino Alumni Network for Community and Equity).

Reginald Jennings ’70, co-executive chair of BALANCE, shared that there are certain things that go with taking your own path, but that persistence is key.

“You do belong. You have every chance of success that everyone else does. No self-pity. You would not have gotten into this place if you were not qualified. There is a path that leads to your wildest dreams,” Jennings said.

“To be told, ‘You are here because you worked hard to be here’ is a mentality that I am still adapting to,” said Mayra Arnoat Peréz ’23, a computer engineering major who wants to work with robotics and artificial intelligence. “To hear from other people who made it and have similar backgrounds as me … and telling me their own experiences and what they gained from coming to Lehigh is impactful to me.” 

Story by Dawn Thren ’21P

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