Tuesday, October 19, 2021

1st-generation college students share their histories and hopes

November 19, 2020
<p>Design by Emily Maze.</p>

Design by Emily Maze.

Photo by Emily Maze | The State News

Sitting quietly in the back of his favorite high school teacher’s classroom, Dylan Catalano tried hard not to disrupt the lesson. But when he got an email that would change his life, he couldn’t help but stand up and look at her.

“I just got accepted to MSU," he said during the lesson.

Catalano and his teacher couldn’t contain their excitement and started jumping up and down together. He went to the hallway to call his mom, who started crying tears of joy at work. Catalano is a first-generation student, so this was an important milestone.

Now, a senior majoring in social relations and policy, Catalano said a big factor of his MSU experience was getting involved. He joined ASMSU and a few other clubs around campus as a freshman.

“Getting involved in those places, especially as a first-gen student, just kind of helped you get comfortable in the larger campus by giving you smaller communities that you could feel tied to,” Catalano said. “ASMSU and the James Madison College are both places I found friends, and I found community in that was able to help me when I had a lot of questions.”

The hardest thing for him was getting comfortable asking questions. Although his older brothers went to college, his parents were just as new to MSU’s process as Catalano.

“Since they hadn’t had that experience, it was unique and challenging in some ways just because the people who have guided you through your whole life are now with you trying to figure it out alongside you,” Catalano said.

Dietetics and neuroscience senior Rachael Stohlin said she remembers feeling nervous to speak up to ask questions and would often pretend she understands to avoid embarrassment.

“We’ll just try to pretend we know what we’re doing,” Stohlin said. “It’s really important for first-generation students to have support whether it be through staff or professors.”

Her parents have been a system of support from the beginning.

“When you have a family that hasn’t had that experience yet, they’re both supportive and then it’s kind of living vicariously through your experience,” Stohlin said. “So, they were just excited to see what journey they were going to take, too, as I was going to college.”

Psychology and criminal justice sophomore McAna Craft recalls her parents’ encouragement to her and her older sister as well.

“My parents said, ‘we want you to go to college; we want you to be successful, but if that’s something that you really don’t want to do, we still need you and want you to have a plan for after you graduate high school,’” Craft said.

Craft chose to go to MSU after high school while her sister went into a career. Now, Craft is living and working with her parents at home. They provided her with a quiet, individual space to work.

“They want me to be successful on my own, and I think it’s almost like a lesson,” Craft said. “Like, look what you can do without us having to intervene. Look at what you set up for yourself rather than what we’ve done for you.”

Although it can be frustrating at times, she said she still appreciates their support.

“Having to switch and be home with them all the time, they want to know what’s going on, they want to know what I’m learning, when my tests are and stuff like that,” Craft said. “They’re proud of me, and I know that they are. They just want to be involved.”

Stohlin has a similar atmosphere with her parents who enjoy watching her work at home.

“Occasionally, they’ll look over my shoulder and say ‘I couldn’t do that’ or if I’m overwhelmed, they’re like ‘I’ll let you get to your homework,'" Stohlin said. "They’re very supportive. They give me my space, but they’re still proud to have a college student.”

Despite the struggles these students face occasionally, they have ambitious futures ahead. Catalano isn’t fully decided, but he wants to take a gap year and potentially pursue law school. 

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“I want to go to law school to hopefully specialize in civil rights and constitutional law, so something definitely in the legal field,” Catalano said. “But I came to MSU thinking I was going to be a human bio major and that all changed, so I could see myself going to law school with certain ambitions and all of that changing as well.”

Craft wants to use her education to attend graduate school, possibly at another school, to work with behavioral analysis in a big city.

“(I’d like to) talk to people who have been arrested or have been in jail and kind of understanding their motives behind what caused them to commit their crimes, how they’re feeling, their experiences and how that’s influenced them,” Craft said.

Stohlin hopes to work entrepreneurially with dietetics or progress to medical school to earn a high salary.

“When you grow up on low income, the first thing you want is to not be in adulthood with that income,” Stohlin said. “So, I’m striving for things that have those higher income levels.”

All of these different dreams are a reflection of their upbringings as first-generation students.

“I do think that first-generation college students ... are destined for really good things because they are kind of just being dropped into an unfamiliar setting,” Stohlin said. “They might come from lower-income backgrounds or backgrounds that might not fulfill their dream, so they just go on to college and really strive for the careers that they want.”

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