ESU Project Aims to Help First-Generation College Students
Josie Kraemer struggled so much in one of her psychology classes during her junior year at East Stroudsburg University that she almost quit school.
A native of the Dominican Republic, Kraemer was a first-generation college student who had enrolled at ESU after years of working and raising a family.
“You always have in the back of your mind, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this, I don’t belong here,’” said Kraemer.
Thankfully, Assistant Professor Irina Khusid, Ph.D. kept encouraging her and she ended up with an A for the semester. Kraemer graduated in 2015 with her four children, husband, relatives and friends in the audience cheering her on. She is now director of Institutional Research at ESU.
To help first-generation college students like Kraemer, ESU launched its “1st Gen” project in September. Faculty and staff who were in the first generation of their families to go to college will be invited to wear buttons that say “1ST GEN” to identify themselves on campus for current first-generation students who have questions or just want to talk to someone who was once in their shoes. As of Fall 2016, first-generation college students made up 28.5 percent of ESU undergraduates.
Associate Professor of Mathematics Olivia Carducci, Ph.D., who is spearheading the project, got the idea when she was reading up on ways to help transfer students, as part of the $4 million National Science Foundation grant that she and ESU professors Bonnie Green, Ph.D. and Michelle Jones-Wilson, Ph.D., obtained in 2016. The grant — the largest ever awarded to ESU – is aimed at ensuring students in science, technology and math fields who transfer in from community colleges graduate on time.
Carducci read how the University of California at Irvine had t-shirts made to identify faculty who had been first generation college students. She brought the idea to ESU Provost Joanne Bruno, J.D., who was enthusiastic but suggested buttons would be easier for faculty and staff to wear in class and for other occasions. David Mazure, associate professor of art + design, developed the button design and ESU ordered 250 for less than $300.
Faculty and staff will be invited by email to self-identify as first- generation and volunteer to wear the button.
Pratik Patel, a senior majoring in computer science and computer security and a first-generation college student from Bensalem, Pa., said he thinks the button is a great idea.
“If the students know that then they’re more likely to ask questions instead of being discouraged or feel like they are being judged,” Patel said.
ESU junior Zikiye Odubo arrived in the United States from Nigeria when he was 14 years old and had to convince his parents that getting a college degree was important. A math major with a concentration in physics and a minor in Spanish, Odubo said the 1st Gen project could help students like him who needed advice on balancing school, work, and financial obligations.
“To be a student is hard, to be first generation is even harder,” he said.
Some ESU professors who plan to wear the button recall their own struggles as students.
Mary Ann Matras, Ph.D., distinguished professor and chair of mathematics, grew up in a suburb of Chicago and had to pay her own way through the University of Illinois at Champagne.
“My father believed that women did not need to go beyond high school because all they were going to do was get married and have babies,” Matras said, adding that her parents were of “a different era.”
Her high school counselors encouraged her to go to college to fulfill her dream of becoming a math teacher but attending a university with 35,000 students was daunting at times.
“The university itself, especially that first semester, was very overwhelming,” she said.
Laurene Clossey, Ph.D., said her parents never went to college but saved $2,000 for her tuition while the rest of the cost was up to her. Clossey, associate professor of sociology, social work and criminal justice, worked as a bookkeeper and waitress to put herself through college and graduate school.
Arriving at college with no real knowledge of what to expect, Clossey had to learn as she went.
“I was afraid of my professors,” she said. “I didn’t have a clue they would help me if asked.”
As for Josie Kraemer, she says she’ll proudly wear a 1st Gen button and hopes current students feel comfortable coming to her with questions or if they want to talk about their own experiences.
Kraemer’s daughters Eliana and Krystal graduated from ESU before she did, but they and her son Kevin and daughter Emma witnessed her hard-won triumph.
“My son was like “I’m so proud of you mom,’” Kraemer recalls.
“Let me tell you there’s no better feeling than walking down the aisle on graduation day. I still get chills. ”
Those who identify as a first-generation college student can email firstname.lastname@example.org for support. They can also go to the Provost Office, located on the second floor of Reibman administration building for a 1 Gen button.