11/19/2010 Libby Sternberg

One Degree of Separation

Eighty-four pioneers stepped onto Franklin & Marshall's campus this fall. Representing about 16 percent of the incoming class, they are the first in their immediate and extended families to go to college. At least one is the first in his family to have finished high school.

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While these students have faced different challenges from other students, they have also encountered new opportunities born of undefined expectations for the undergraduate experience. Once on the F&M campus, they have also encountered kindred spirits—faculty and administrators who have walked the same path as the first generation in their families to pursue a higher education.

No Expectations, Great Explorations

One of those administrators is Alan Caniglia, senior associate dean of the faculty and vice provost for planning and institutional research. How did the son of New Jersey shoe-store owners make it to the provost's office?

"Growing up, there was never a question I'd go to college," Caniglia says. "My parents exemplified many in their generation. They wanted a better life for their kid."

They might have wanted the better life that a college education could provide, but Caniglia was on his own in researching what school to attend. He landed at Bucknell University, after a somewhat haphazard hunt for the right institution.

"I remember it as kind of random," he says, describing the college-search process. "There wasn't a whole lot of readily available information. There were a few guidebooks, and at my school there was a place where you could look through college catalogs. I didn't have a particularly good understanding of the landscape."

Nonetheless, he had a "wonderful experience I wouldn't have traded for anything" during his undergraduate years. Because his parents had no experience with college—and his father passed away prior to that time—there was no expectation he would go into one field or another. He did not really know what he wanted to study when he arrived on campus, but eventually found he liked economics and the academic life. He majored in the former and set the latter as his career goal, going on to the University of Virginia for his Ph.D. and then into college teaching.

Lack of expectations is a theme that other first-generation faculty and administrators stress, emphasizing how it allowed them to explore a variety of subjects without feeling pressured to focus early in their academic lives.

Tamara Goeglein's parents were small-business owners in Indiana, and they told her and her three brothers to study what interested them. They felt that whatever followed from college would be guided by their own talents.

"I took this to heart," says Goeglein, associate dean of the faculty. "It was a great experience. My parents had little idea about majors and jobs and careers and the supposed connections among them."

For Goeglein, this meant she could pursue her interests, which eventually led her to a Ph.D. from Indiana University in British literature with a medieval studies certificate.

Lack of expectations also gives today's first-generation students latitude as they consider what to study and what career path to choose after F&M.

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"I felt as if I had a lot less pressure," says Stavros Floratos '12, an economics major from Philadelphia. "Because my parents were unfamiliar with the college-application process, they weren't constantly pushing me. They were encouraging, but I was under much less stress [than my peers]."

Floratos' experience mirrors that of many in this pioneering group. His parents are solid middle class. His mother works in a bank, his father in real estate. Growing up, he says, his father always told him he would go to college.

"There's no two ways about it," Floratos remembers his dad saying. His sister is now at the University of Richmond, and his brother graduated from Drexel University.

When Floratos' turn came, he received plenty of information from high school, but he was pretty much on his own during the selection and application process. He wanted a school not too far from home, but still "far enough away." When he visited F&M, he knew it was the place for him.

Unburdened by parental expectations, Floratos felt free to take his time in declaring a major and deciding on a career.

"When I came in my freshman year, I was completely open," he says. "During the first three semesters, I took almost all introductory courses, a wide variety of subjects, before deciding my major."

Experiencing the Liberal Arts

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This kind of sampling before settling down to specialization is a hallmark of the liberal arts experience. But some professors who were first-generation college graduates see some of today's students missing that piece of their education if the students' parents went to college.

"More and more, students are focused on careers," says Timothy Sipe, associate professor of biology. "They all know they have to go to college if they want a decent life or a career. When I went, it was a privilege to go, an honest-to-goodness achievement to be accepted."

When Sipe went, he was a Midwesterner. He was born and raised in Indiana, where his father was a small-business owner and his mother a factory worker. He grew up in an agricultural area where most of his high school peers went on to work on farms or in industry locally.

Of Sipe's 23 first cousins, in fact, he and his younger brother were the only ones to go to college. His brother went to a two-year institution, studying to become an aviation mechanic. None of their grandparents, uncles or aunts had gone to college either.

When Sipe looks back, he realizes he might have done things differently. He knew he needed financial aid in order to go to college and stayed in Indiana to take advantage of the state's scholarship support. But he also chose to perform with his barbershop quartet in The Music Man rather than sit for the Merit Scholarship examinations and interviews. "I deeply regretted the whole situation because I felt I could have competed successfully for significant scholarship aid," he says. "But I really didn't have much of a choice. What's a quartet without a baritone?"

A mentor at Wabash College helped him navigate his undergraduate years and pointed him toward graduate work. But here, too, he found he was not as knowledgeable as some at determining how best to proceed.

"I was genuinely naïve later when applying to M.S. programs in ecology. I had been turned down by three of the four universities I applied to, but then I received a highly competitive National Science Foundation predoctoral graduate fellowship," he says. "I didn't realize this was my ticket to go just about anywhere I wanted, so I never called back the programs that had turned me down to see if they would let me come with my own funding. They would have. So one of my strongest goals in advising students is to help them understand what graduate school is all about, why to go, how to prepare for graduate school while here at F&M, how to apply and get into good programs, and how to succeed once they get there."

Now, when he senses students might be first generation or he learns they are from a rural community, he feels a special connection when advising them. "These students are less likely to know what is special about a liberal arts college than students whose parents or siblings have gone to college," he explains. "So I feel like I can help them come to appreciate earlier than I did in my college years what the adventure is that lies before them and how to take advantage of it."

But whoever the student is, he strongly encourages him or her to take advantage of the transforming impact of a liberal arts education. He tries to help students understand that they have the best of both worlds at F&M.

"The greatest contribution of a private college like F&M is to graduate students whose world views have been transformed and enriched for a more meaningful life and who are well-prepared for continuing toward a professional career of purpose and consequence."

"We Are a Country of Immigrants"

Breaking away but making a better life through career preparation is the road that first-generation student Paul Zamorano '13 is traveling. Perhaps that is because he is not only the first in his family to go to college, but also the first to graduate from high school. His father and mother are Mexican immigrants who did not even have the opportunity to finish elementary school. His dad is a construction worker and his mother a textile factory employee. Both have instilled in Zamorano and his two siblings the need to improve themselves through education.

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Zamorano attended a magnet school in Los Angeles. There, he found Franklin & Marshall with the help of the One Voice Scholars Program, a California-based organization that helps inner-city students go to college by providing, among other things, the guidance they might not be able to get at home because of a lack of knowledge about the college-search and application process. With the help of One Voice, Zamorano was able to navigate the process, landing far from home at F&M, partly because he wanted to experience what his father had felt traveling from home when he emigrated.

Zamorano, who wants to be an architect, has nothing but respect and gratitude for his parents who, even though they knew nothing about the college-application process, did everything they could to help him, including making sure tax papers were ready on time.

"I didn't know what to expect," Zamorano says of the college experience. "But my parents supported me and made sure I was one of the best students in class (in high school). When I made the decision to come all the way here, I talked to my dad and he said, 'You have to live your life. It's up to you.'"

His parents taught him to be tenacious, something he hopes to pass along to his younger siblings, one of whom wants to go into criminology and the other into medicine or law.

"It's been a huge honor for my family to see me transition from high school to college," he says.

"Franklin & Marshall is not just educating Paul, but it is educating his future family, including his grandchildren, as well and giving them all an entry into mainstream America," explains Susan Zolla P'00, a longtime supporter of One Voice. Her father, Michael Penecale, was the first in his family to go to college, attending F&M for three years and graduating from Temple University. "The scholarship from F&M to a son of Italian immigrants made all the difference," she says. "I remain forever grateful."

An administrator familiar with the One Voice program as well as the first-generation journey is Michelle Lui '04, director of admission at F&M. Lui came from a Philadelphia family in which her dad worked as a contractor and her mother in a restaurant. Like Zamorano, she attended a magnet school, one that had a good college-preparation track and one that led her to F&M.

She loved her time at F&M, coming back to the College after doing some consulting. Now she is in the distinctive position of helping students discover the benefits of F&M and also identifying first-generation students like herself.

"We work with One Voice in California," she says. "They're fantastic. We also work with several other similar organizations: Street Squash in New York City and the Posse Foundation." Students are more likely to succeed in college if they have a good support system. These organizations help provide that support, especially for students who are breaking ground by being the first in their family to pursue higher education.

Once they arrive on campus, the College lends a hand with its advisers and through the College House system, where dons and prefects come into contact with students on a daily basis, quickly becoming attuned to particular needs.

Goeglein believes nothing beats a small, residential liberal arts education for these students. "Professors get to know you," she says. "They invite you into their personal lives."

She has students at her house frequently. "They cook in our kitchen, they know our children and our dog, and they enter our private space. I know this is meaningful to them, as it was meaningful to me at Earlham College."

Goeglein is passionate about F&M's commitment to first-generation students. "Why wouldn't we be?" she asks rhetorically. "We are a country of immigrants, of first generations and of all kinds of firsts."

Practical Problems

Lack of expectations might relieve some pressure on first-generation students, but other practical stresses can intrude, most of them having to do with money.

"If a student tells me he has to graduate early because his father lost his job or if a student says I can't study abroad because I have to work," says Cindy Yetter-Vassot, associate professor and chair of F&M's French Department, she knows they are most likely first-generation college students. She loves working with these students because she identifies with their challenges.

Raised in Coatesville, Pa., Yetter-Vassot played piano as a child, and "it seemed natural to go into teaching piano." Her father worked in a steel mill and her mother was a stay-at-home mom, neither of whom had experience with the college-selection process. She ended up at West Chester University, she says, mostly because of her own lack of expectations and knowledge of alternatives.

"I'd studied piano since I was about 7," she says. "A piano teacher suggested I take lessons from someone at West Chester. They had an early-admission program with an audition. I got in. I didn't really consider any other college."

Now a professor of French, she says her family probably would have laughed if she had told them she wanted to go to college to study French. That ended up being something of a minor, though, as she worked toward getting her teaching certificate. Her aptitude for the language eventually took her to France on a Fulbright teaching assistantship. When she returned, she decided to pursue language study. Luckily, she had a mentor—Madelyn Gutwirth, her undergraduate French professor at West Chester—who advised her.

"I was going to go somewhere just to get a master's degree," she says. "I didn't think a Ph.D. was possible. It seemed out of reach. But Madelyn said, 'I'm not going to write you a letter of recommendation for any program that doesn't have a Ph.D. track.'" She went on to the University of Virginia, where she earned both a master's and doctorate. After that, she began her college-teaching career.

When she looks back, she sees both the yin and yang of coming from a family with no college experience. She went to West Chester mainly because she and her parents did not really understand what a liberal arts college was. On the other hand, "there were no expectations," she says, echoing others' remembrances. "I could make my own choices about what I wanted to study."

Yetter-Vassot's use of economic indicators to alert her to a student's first-generation status fits what Curt Bentzel, associate professor of German, sees as a socioeconomic challenge more than a college-family problem. He thinks first-generation students might struggle financially to make college work and need more help for those reasonsnot just because no one else in their immediate family walked their path.

Bentzel has walked it, too. Born and raised near York, Pa., Bentzel and his sister both went to college, but their parents did not. His father, a land surveyor, and his mother, a bookkeeper, wanted him to get as much education as he could. But they would not be able to give him the money for it. He attended both undergraduate school at George Washington University and graduate school at Princeton University on full scholarships.

Of German heritage, although no one in his family spoke German, Bentzel felt called to study the language of his ancestors. His proclivity for other tongues led him to study Norwegian and Russian, as well as German.

When he was in college, he did not know which of his fellow students were also first generation. But he did know that he did not have as much money as a lot of his classmates. This awareness has stayed with him.

"I think I identify with financially disadvantaged students," says Bentzel, who turns that identification into mentoring and advising students in the Posse program. "The act of coming to college for first-generation students is liberating. What's confining is the socioeconomic circumstances."

His constrained financial circumstances during college make him acutely aware of F&M's offerings. He is proud not only of the financial aid, but of the extracurricular activities that might be out of reach for financially stressed students at other institutions but are within the reach for F&M students—things such as musical performances, museum shows, guest speakers and films.

Caniglia hopes the College can eventually do even more.

"I do think there's an ethical perspective to this," Caniglia says. "We exist, at least in part, to serve society in our own particular way. That connects to accessibility imperatives. To whatever extent we can, we need to make what we offer accessible regardless of students' ability to pay."

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