First-Gen Students Receive Alumni Advice

Being a first-generation, low-income or under-represented minority college student can be daunting. Relocating to a different socioeconomic environment, not knowing how you are going to afford books or a laptop, or figuring out who to ask for help are just a few of the challenges faced while navigating college. Having a support network and resources are critical for success.

As part of the helpful programming of the Lehigh student-established club F1RST (First-Generation Initiative Represented by Students and Teachers), seven alumni panelists shared advice and experiences about being first-generation college students. After the presentation, the conversation continued in small groups over dinner. About 50 students attended the Nov. 16 event in the Clayton University Center.

F1RST was created in 2017 by three first-generation college students Kevin Ly ’19, Sydney Yang ’19, and Jocelin Gregorio ’18 to provide activities, resources and an inclusive community for working class students, underrepresented minorities and those who are the first in their families to attend college.

According to Ly, president of F1RST, membership is open to all students.

“We encourage the entire Lehigh community to engage with our club and become more aware of the first-gen identity,” said Ly.

“I've lived in Philadelphia my whole life, so having a community and a panel like this to understand where I can go helps show that it isn't as scary as my head makes it seem,” said Gabrielle Effendi ’22, who has not yet decided her major and lives in the first-generation-college-student-themed residence hall Congdon House in Upper Centennial.

“I knew as a first-gen student that I had barriers set against me that other students do not have,” said Will Constant ’21, a political science and international relations/economics major from New Jersey. “But there are resources and connections you can have to achieve your goals.”

Reach for Life Lines

Personal experiences shared by the panelists showed that the college and career journey is attainable. Recurring advice was to communicate with others when trying to figure things out.

Diana Quinones Shepherd ’10G ’15P ’17P, program director, Lehigh’s Iacocca Global Entrepreneurship Intensive, explained that it wasn’t easy for her as a first-generation student. She said hard work and following the guidance of caring mentors who pushed her have been secrets to her success.

“My father had a second-grade education, and my mom had a fifth-grade education. I grew up in the projects in Brooklyn,” she said.

After high school, Quinones Shepherd worked full-time as a secretary to help provide for her parents and family while attending night school to earn a bachelor of arts in business administration from Interamerican University of Puerto Rico. Later, a married mom of two teenagers, she relocated to the Lehigh Valley. She knew furthering her education would open new professional doors and again went back to school while working full-time. She juggled her job, family life and night classes to earn her master’s degree in global education leadership from Lehigh in 2010.

“Your opportunity here is a blessing. Take it with full force,” said Quinones Shepherd. “You have resources and faculty who do care. You have people who want to help.”

Sarah Bombard ’06 ’08G, senior associate director, Lehigh Office of Undergraduate Admissions, said that being a first-gen student, she had to figure almost everything out on her own.

“As first-gen students, you don’t have someone grooming you to do whatever it is,” said Bombard. “One of the best things you can do is leverage the amazing alumni network...go to the Center for Career and Professional Development…get connected to alums who have careers in what you would like to do. The Lehigh family told me what to do. Talk to your professors. Ask questions. Network with alumni.”

During the Q&A, students asked specific questions that included how to choose a major and what kind of a job to pursue.

Nancy Duchesneau ’11, Spencer Fellow, The Education Trust, told the students to follow their passions and not what someone else thinks they should do because it appears to be a lucrative field.

“Your field is not going to determine how successful you are; it is what you do with it,” she said.

Junior Dan Palomeque ’20 said it was difficult deciding on what major to choose. He eventually chose civil engineering and environmental studies and was accepted into the IDEAS (Integrated Degree in Engineering, Arts and Sciences) program.

“I was fighting that internal fight that most first-generation students fight which is whether you want to do something you're passionate about or do something that's safe and provides financial stability,” said Palomeque.

Karl Ludwig Fetzer ’07 earned his bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Lehigh. He said that nearing the completion of his degree, he was not sure what he wanted to do and was encouraged by Professor Herman Nied, department of mechanical engineering and mechanics, to consider graduate school. He earned a master of science in aerospace engineering from Purdue University and is currently in the mechanical engineering doctorate program at Villanova University.

“Graduate school is a great option for someone passionate about a field of study or needs the degree as a pre-requisite to get a certain type of job,” said Fetzer, research scientist, Siemens Corporate Technology.

Kira Mendez ’83, director of Lehigh’s Iacocca Institute, said that it is ok to let yourself change what you want to do in life, and it is important to have conversations with others to help figure it out. After earning undergraduate and graduate engineering degrees and working as an engineer, she realized that she wanted to pursue a field in marketing. She went back to school to earn a master’s in business administration.

Majoring in bioengineering, Angela Andree ’08 admitted that it wasn’t until she was a senior and took the Integrated Product Development course that she had an idea of what she wanted to do after graduation. She went to the Career Center (now the Center for Career and Professional Development) for advice.

“I went to the Career Center and said that I was interested in this class that I was taking and that I will soon have an engineering degree,” said Andree, senior product manager, Lower Scopes and Procedures at Olympus Corporation of the Americas. Because of her combined interests and education, she entered the medical device industry and has stayed in the field since graduating from Lehigh.

Tom Hoh ’75 ’79G, retired controller, Pipeline Petroleum, Inc., said he never had an ambition to go to college, but his teachers saw his potential and influenced his parents to send him. He earned both a bachelor of science in business economics and a master of business administration from Lehigh. His education provided him with the skills to manage finances at a mid-size company and retire early. He told the students to get engaged and meet people while at Lehigh.

“You will learn more outside of the classroom than you do inside,” said Hoh. “Meet people from all over the world and absorb what they have to tell you because it will be a major influence in your life.”

Story by Dawn Thren ’21P 

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