Spring on the York College campus

Educational Trailblazers: York College's First-Generation Students

By by Jennifer Hindley '17
First-Generation Students
Left to Right: Aerial Kendrick '19, Alberto Mateos '21, and Professor Ron Kaltreider '94

Being the first in one's family to graduate from college is likely one of the most difficult, yet rewarding, experiences a student can have. With approximately 30 percent of every York College freshman class carrying that "first-gen" designation, a significant number of YCP students are currently confronting and overcoming the unique set of challenges that come with acting as their family's educational trailblazers. For Aerial Kendrick '19 (York, PA) the struggles began long before she even chose to attend YCP. "I didn’t really know about college tours or applications, so I randomly applied to colleges without actually visiting them or doing that much research into them," said Kendrick. The college application process was equally as difficult for current Student Senate President Thomas Gaudet '18 (Fairfield, CT), who explained that he relied on Internet searches and friends for

For Aerial Kendrick '19 (York, PA) the struggles began long before she even chose to attend YCP. "I didn’t really know about college tours or applications, so I randomly applied to colleges without actually visiting them or doing that much research into them," said Kendrick. The college application process was equally as difficult for current Student Senate President Thomas Gaudet '18 (Fairfield, CT), who explained that he relied on Internet searches and friends for information because his parents didn’t have the knowledge necessary to guide him. Describing her college-prep experience, Ashley Reid '09 said, "I had no idea what to do when it came to loans, SAT prep, scholarship searches, or application essays. Because no one in my family had been through the process before, it was like the blind leading the blind." According to Kia Kuresman, M.Ed., Director of Academic Advising, one of the greatest obstacles first-generation students face surrounds their inexperience with college conventions. "Understanding college and university culture can be hard; the words and terms we use as well as where things are located can be tough to grasp," said Kuresman. Unaware of what constituted a proper

According to Kia Kuresman, M.Ed., Director of Academic Advising, one of the greatest obstacles first-generation students face surrounds their inexperience with college conventions. "Understanding college and university culture can be hard; the words and terms we use as well as where things are located can be tough to grasp," said Kuresman. Unaware of what constituted a proper courseload, Cal Spivey Cochrane '11 took just 12 credits both semesters of his freshman year. This led to an unnecessarily challenging end to his college career when he had to take several credit-heavy semesters to catch up and graduate on time. Meanwhile, Kendrick had never been taught the proper designations of college instructors, which made for a very confusing first day of classes. "I didn’t know that teachers in college were referred to as 'Professor X' or 'Dr. X,' so I said 'Mrs. X' until someone informed me that was wrong," said Kendrick. Mary Meisenhelter '80, Ph.D., Professor of Management in the Graham School of Business, said that "for the most part I had to learn the system on my own. Luckily, I'm not afraid to ask questions … I think I read the catalog from cover-to-cover because I didn’t want to look like a rookie!" She added, "When I met my husband Chris '80 [who is Associate Professor of Management] in my senior year, he was also a YCP 'first

Mary Meisenhelter '80, Ph.D., Professor of Management in the Graham School of Business, said that "for the most part I had to learn the system on my own. Luckily, I'm not afraid to ask questions … I think I read the catalog from cover-to-cover because I didn’t want to look like a rookie!" She added, "When I met my husband Chris '80 [who is Associate Professor of Management] in my senior year, he was also a YCP 'first timer,' so we helped each other navigate the system." Her immediate family was very supportive and her grandfather incredibly proud of her achievement. But some aunts and uncles made passive-aggressive comments, such as, "she’s too smart for us now." Meisenhelter came to understand that these hurtful words reflected the opportunities they didn’t have. She is able to help her own students and advisees when they tell her about similar experiences. 

Many first-generation students face the challenge of family members who can't relate to or comprehend their college experiences. Jennifer Follett, Ph.D., former Director of the Writing Center, has both studied and witnessed the impact that this situation can have on the first-gen population. "Without the family folklore of their parents' experiences, it can seem to first-gen students that they are alone in this struggle," said Follett. Frustrations brewed for Cristal Perez-Rodriguez '16 when her family failed to recognize the increase in workload and responsibility that comes with the pursuit of a college degree; they thought that college was, essentially, the same as high school. Consequently, they expected that she still regularly attend church and family gatherings, something that Perez-Rodriguez simply did not have the time to do. Meanwhile, Katie Reynolds Yutzy '14 explained that although her parents were always incredibly supportive, "They didn't always understand the struggles I faced: the money involved, constantly being tired and studying, the time dedicated."

York College Professor of Biology, Ronald Kaltreider '94, Ph.D., said his biggest challenges as an undergraduate at YCP were associated not with being a first-generation, but rather a commuter to campus. He was fortunate in that he had multiple mentors, including faculty members Lindy Harrison, Carol Bair, and Carolyn Mathur, who "not only helped in my development as a student and researcher, but also helped me decide upon a career path as a college professor." As a professor, he encourages and supports student development in the same ways as his mentors did with him.

Although the role of a first-generation college student is undoubtedly challenging, past and present first-gens have found several ways to mitigate some of that difficulty. Many emphasize the importance of conducting thorough research and utilizing one's resources wisely both before and after arriving on campus. "Do your research! Use every single tool at your disposal to prepare financially, academically, and emotionally. Visit the campus, and reach out to alumni to get unbiased opinions," advised Reid. Meanwhile, Lynn Snell '20 (York, PA), still at the beginning of his first-gen journey, said, "Use every single resource York College offers, and don't hesitate to ask staff any questions you have."

Campus involvement can also be a significant factor in a first-gen's positive college experience. "I find that students who embrace and engage in the community are more likely to be successful," said Danny Green, D.M.A., Dean of Enrollment Management. Singer-songwriter and Professional Writing major Brandi Mummert '17 is a shining example of Green's observations. Partnering with the College's WVYC Radio Station, she became the host of her own weekly show called Brandi L M Radio. Mummert also embraced every opportunity YCP provided for her to develop as an artist and writer, which led to a successful internship and subsequent job with YRK Magazine and YRK Creative. "Get involved with everything you can because just going to class every day is only going to get you a grade. Branching out will get you a career, friendships, and a fulfilled life experience," said Mummert.

YCP's first-generation students recognize that they are setting a precedent for others in their family to pursue a college degree as well. Reflecting on the potential impact of her decision to go to college, Reid said, "It makes me feel good that just maybe I helped pave the way for my little sisters or younger cousins or whomever else might come along someday." Meanwhile, Perez-Rodriguez is already seeing the fruits of her labor. "I'm excited that this upcoming winter, my cousin will be graduating, and he'll be the second in the family. After him, a few more will be graduating the following semester. It's wonderful to see the 'trend' I started," said Perez-Rodriguez.

Although none of their journeys were easy, all of YCP's first-gen students and alumni agree that they wouldn't trade their decision for the world. "Watching my mom cry tears of joy at my graduation made all the late nights and early mornings worth it!" said Reynolds Yutzy. Meanwhile, Seanae Cook '14 will forever cherish the happy memories that her college experience created for her family. "I felt like the star of my family. I always had a funny story, or an interesting fact to share with them," she said.

Incoming freshman and first-gen student, Alberto Mateos '21 (Hanover, PA), is determined to have a successful future, and a York College education is key to his plans. He grew up without a father, and his number one role model is his mom. He said, "My parents, who are immigrants from Mexico, wanted me to have a better education than they had. Both of my parents were forced to work to support their family, and could not attend college. I made a promise to myself that I would be the first to attend college and fulfill the dream my parents never experienced."

The decision for a potential first-gen to pursue that college degree will undoubtedly be scary. However, first-gens, both past and present, encourage everyone to cast those fears aside and, as Gaudet puts it, "Do it! Because you won't regret it, and you're certainly not alone."

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