A celebration of first-generation students at St. Olaf
St. Olaf will celebrate students who are the first in their family to attend college by hosting a series of events November 6-10 as part of the National First-Generation College Celebration.
The National First-Generation Day is celebrated each year on November 8. The date commemorates Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of The Higher Education Act (HEA) in 1965. This act created federal financial aid programs as well as the TRIO programs that promote postsecondary access, retention, and completion for first-generation students. TRIO programs identify and assist low-income students, first-generation students, and students with disabilities from middle school through post-baccalaureate programs to achieve their educational goals.
The First-Generation Week activities at St. Olaf will include speakers and panels to celebrate and raise awareness of the first-generation community.
On Monday, November 6, several first-gen members of the community — Athziri Marcial Rodriguez ’24, Jacky Tapia ’24, and Assistant Professor of Chemistry Cassandra Joiner — will speak during chapel. Their talk, which will begin at 11 a.m., will be streamed and available for on-demand viewing online. Other events include a Piper Center open house for first-gen students on Tuesday and an alumni panel discussion and dinner with first-gen and BIPOC Oles on Wednesday evening. The full schedule for the week and additional resources can be found on the St. Olaf First-Generation Students web page.
Assistant Professor of Chemistry Cassandra Joiner is a first-generation student who went to Madonna University in Michigan for her undergraduate degree.
“While my parents were super supportive of me going to college, they were not able to help me when I struggled with my course material or other college things, like deciding what classes to take or who to go to for help. I never felt comfortable sharing that I was a first-generation college student, especially in my science courses, in fear that everyone would find out that I didn’t belong,” Joiner says.
College was a difficult adjustment for her.
“There were many nights my parents would find me asleep on top of my textbooks,” Joiner says. “I had to find a way to juggle working three to four jobs at a time starting sophomore year to afford my books and gas to drive to campus, with my coursework. To overcome these struggles, I asked for help any time I needed it — I leaned on supplemental instruction leaders and upperclassmen to help guide me in my courses and through a STEM major.”
While she originally wanted to be a forensic science major, Joiner ended up majoring in chemistry and minoring in biology. She found that getting involved helped her find support networks.
“I was a TRIO SSS student, and the TRIO office was extremely helpful in guiding me through the hidden curriculum of college. Additionally, I searched for opportunities to get involved all over campus,” she says.
“As a first-gen student, sometimes I still can’t believe that I am a college professor in the Chemistry Department at St. Olaf. … I have the most amazing job that allows me to work with students from all different backgrounds and share loudly and proudly that I am first-gen.”Assistant Professor of Chemistry Cassandra Joiner
Joiner has always liked working with and helping others learn. She worked in Admissions, as a mentor to other students, and as a supplemental instructor and tutor. She also worked in the Nursing Department and Chemistry Department.
Now Joiner is an assistant professor of chemistry at St. Olaf. Since joining the faculty in the fall of 2020, she has worked with 25 students in her research group, including a TRIO McNair Scholar, and has mainly taught biochemistry courses.
“Truthfully, as a first-gen student, sometimes I still can’t believe that I am a college professor in the Chemistry Department at St. Olaf. I never imagined this when I started at Madonna University,” Joiner says. “This has been a dream come true for me as a first-generation student. I have the most amazing job that allows me to work with students from all different backgrounds and share loudly and proudly that I am first-gen.”
Brenda McCormick ‘89, a member of the St. Olaf Board of Regents who chairs the Alumni Board, is also a first-generation college student who went on to develop an impressive career as the chief financial officer and senior vice president of finance at Children’s Minnesota.
“I’m an only child. I had wonderful and devoted parents, who grew up during the Great Depression with little means to advance their schooling. My parents saw education as the gateway to a meaningful career and life, and they felt it was important that I was exposed to a lot of different activities when I was young so that I could not only gain knowledge, but the confidence in what I wanted to do with my life. I was a good student and always knew I had their support to go to college. When I reflect back, I feel fortunate that I didn’t follow in anyone’s footsteps. I really was able to forge my own way and pursue my interests fully,” McCormick says.
Jenna Castillo ’19 found strength through community. After struggling the first few quarters at St. Olaf, she reached out for help.
“My mom always taught me to ask for help from anyone who would listen, and that is what I did. I ended up receiving acceptance into the TRIO program, and it was one of the happiest and most relieving moments I experienced in undergrad. Just to have the space to be around students with stories similar to your own, to have the support not only of your advisor but all of the staff and students there, meant the world,” Castillo says.
In the spring of her first year, she applied to live in the Diversity Awareness House and was accepted as a member. “I attended events where I met my core friend group that stayed with me throughout all of my time at Olaf. I don’t think I would have made it without the people surrounding me. Your community is one of the most important things you can have as a first-gen student. I am so thankful to my mentors and professors who supported me and continue to support me,” Castillo says.
Castillo is now at the University of Washington as a third-year Ph.D. student.
“The challenges of being a first-gen student continue on in graduate school, but I know that my strength and the unique perspective I bring are also some of my greatest strengths,” Castillo says. She will be participating in the alumni panel on November 8 from 5:30-7 p.m.
“The challenges of being a first-gen student continue on in graduate school, but I know that my strength and the unique perspective I bring are also some of my greatest strengths.”Jenna Castillo ’19
Feelings of loneliness are a common occurrence for first-year students. TRIO McNair Scholars Program Associate Director Melissa Melgar ’04 comes from a first-gen, low-income, single-parent household. She has six siblings, so being alone was an unfamiliar experience.
“On my first day at St. Olaf, I was dropped off at college and my family couldn’t stay. I felt alone. I didn’t know a single person on campus. But I found family by participating in the TRIO programs, and the staff and students helped me find my place at St. Olaf. They helped me navigate the college processes that can be confusing or intimidating for a first-generation college student. Through their support, I built my confidence, found resources, mentors, and lifelong friends, as well as accessed the many wonderful St. Olaf opportunities. Thinking back, I think that it is essential for all students to connect to support systems like advisors, faculty mentors, or TRIO programs. Without it, as a first-gen student, I am not certain I would have found a home at St. Olaf like I did,” Melgar says.
“I think that it is essential for all students to connect to support systems like advisors, faculty mentors, or TRIO programs. Without it, as a first-gen student, I am not certain I would have found a home at St. Olaf like I did.”TRIO McNair Scholars Program Associate Director Melissa Melgar ’04
TRIO Educational Talent Search Program Director Juan Telles says he struggled with loneliness and culture shock as a first-generation college student. He struggled with school, and even got suspended at one point.
“The loneliness was challenging because I left my community, friends, and familia. I was already independent and resilient, but trying to be a college student was challenging. I had to navigate a new language and terms, and I had to study, learn the new environment, and learn how to talk with professors and attend office hours. I couldn’t do all these things, so I eventually got suspended from the University of Minnesota,” he says. “I was heartbroken and mad at myself because I failed. Going back home was hard. I was not the same person as when I left. My friends and familia thought that I thought that I was better than them and left them behind or I was too smart and a ‘college boy.'”
“The loneliness was challenging because I left my community, friends, and familia. I was already independent and resilient, but trying to be a college student was challenging. I had to navigate a new language and terms, and I had to study, learn the new environment, and learn how to talk with professors and attend office hours.”TRIO Educational Talent Search Program Director Juan Telles
Telles found his path through connecting with people.
“I worked hard to build connections with people for the short time I was on the University of Minnesota campus the first time around. Those connections led to becoming part of a mentoring program, being part of TRIO, connecting with the Latino faculty and staff for new knowledge and guidance, finding college friends who I am still connected with to this day, and eventually finding my wife. It is because of her that I had the opportunity to make school right. After suspension and life, she encouraged me to return and finish my bachelor’s degree and master’s degree. Eventually, I did,” Telles says. “I am grateful for those connections because without them, I would not be where I am today.”
One beneficial Academic resource for first-gen students at St. Olaf is the Academic Success Center.
“Our services can be particularly beneficial for first-gen students. For example, St. Olaf Orientation to Academics and Resources (SOAR) is an extended orientation program required for all incoming and first-year students,” says Student Success Coach Sophia Strommen, who is also a first-generation college student. “While the SOAR content is beneficial for everyone, it can help level the playing field for first-gen students or those who may not have had family support to navigate the adjustment to college.”
Strommen also notes that many of the college’s SOAR leaders, tutors, SI instructors, and other student staff are first-generation students themselves. The Academic Success Center has 20 professional staff members who have gone through training specifically on how to support first-generation and other underrepresented student populations.
“St. Olaf Orientation to Academics and Resources (SOAR) is an extended orientation program required for all incoming and first-year students. While the SOAR content is beneficial for everyone, it can help level the playing field for first-gen students or those who may not have had family support to navigate the adjustment to college.”Student Success Coach Sophia Strommen
Lori Tran ’21 says students can also play an instrumental role in creating resources and support networks for first-gen students. While a student at St. Olaf, she worked in the Wellness Center, where she gave presentations about coping with impostor phenomenon, and was a staff member in Residence Life, where she helped create strong first-generation BIPOC leadership and a sense of belonging in housing.
“I dedicated most of my time at St. Olaf to advocating for first-generation, working class, BIPOC students,” she says. “As my senior passion project, I created a book called Voices of the First Generation: Letters from First-Gen Oles to Their Parents, where first-gen students wrote letters to their parents addressing their growth, thanking them and other resources across campus, and giving advice to future first-gen students at St. Olaf. Copies of this book were gifted to first-gen centered spaces, including TRIO SSS, TRIO McNair Scholars Program, TRIO Upward Bound, The Taylor Center, and major advisors in departments of Psychology, Writing, Education, and Family Studies.”
Tran is now an academic advisor to business students in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota, where she is also pursuing a master’s degree in higher education. She wants to continue this work with a focus on first-generation, working-class, BIPOC college students. “I am grateful for my time at St. Olaf, because it equipped me with the tools that I needed to continue advocating for first-generation college students today,” she says.
First-Gen November Challenge
All students are invited to join “The First Gen Challenge,” hosted by the Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion. Participants must complete at least 4/7 community engagement activities listed here to win a $20 gift card.
First-generation students, faculty, and staff are invited to share what it means to be first-gen. The first 100 entries will win an “I’m First” T-shirt. Stories will be shared anonymously in the Buntrock Commons/Boe Chapel hallway and on social media with #CelebrateFirstGen.