With National First-Generation College Celebration Day approaching on November 8, I’ve found myself reflecting on my own experience as a first-generation college student, particularly within a STEM field. Thinking back, I had always known I was the first in my family to attend college, but I didn’t understand that there was a name (and substantial barriers) attached to that identity. Becoming a college student was uncharted territory that I was excited to dive deeply into, blissfully unaware of what I didn’t know.
I attended the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, a decision that my family and I made strategically. It was the most affordable of the colleges I was accepted to, and it was a large institution that provided a wealth of resources for students—the only problem was that I didn’t actually know how to take advantage of them. During my time there, I wasn’t involved in any co-curricular experiences. I didn’t secure any internships, join any student organizations, study abroad, or volunteer. I also failed to proactively seek out the advice of career coaches or academic advisors. Truthfully, it’s because I had no idea I should’ve been doing these things or that there were dedicated professionals on campus who could assist me on my journey.
Despite my lack of involvement, I succeeded academically. By sophomore year I was accepted to Commonwealth Honors College, and by junior year I was doing research with the Chair of the Biology Department, studying the role of prolactin in the development of osmoregulatory tissues in embryonic zebrafish. I wrote a senior honors thesis and successfully defended it in front of a faculty committee, ultimately graduating in the top 10% of my class with a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a minor in Chemistry.
I felt pressure to do well in college because the stakes seemed higher. This was my chance to prove that I could really “make it” in the academic world, and I attribute my success to two key factors – having a strong support network of peers and a mentor in my field. As a first-generation college student, these were critical in my journey to pursuing a STEM degree, and my personal experience is backed by a growing body of literature. For example, studies have shown that a student’s ability to establish and maintain satisfying relationships with peers can play an important role in predicting their academic performance and persistence. Additionally, research has found that academic integration through faculty interaction had a positive impact on STEM degree attainment, and in some cases, the findings were stronger for women in STEM majors. While the latter study is informative, keep in mind that many people can serve as a mentor throughout your professional life. For instance, if you’re looking to connect with first-generation Boston College alumni, Eagle Exchange is an excellent platform to facilitate that communication.
My experience as a first-generation college student in STEM was an incredible learning opportunity, and most importantly I came away from it with a renewed sense of pride about my identity and all that it encompasses. I feel privileged to be serving in my current role as an Assistant Director in the Career Center and head coach for the Science, Technology, and Engineering career cluster. My position allows me to be an advocate for all students, and especially underrepresented communities pursuing STEM degrees, who may be struggling with some of the same barriers that I experienced.
To all first-generation students at Boston College on November 8—I hope you share the same sense of pride that I do. You were accepted to this institution because of your strong record and academic promise, and you are here because you belong. If I can offer any advice, it would be to take advantage of as many resources as you can on campus, build purposeful relationships, and view your identity as a source of strength. I also invite you to schedule an appointment with me or another staff member in the Career Center to discuss how your interests, skills, and values can translate to a meaningful professional life after graduation.
About the Author: Kayla leads the Science, Technology, and Engineering career cluster. As a first-generation college student and undergraduate STEM major herself, she shared her first-hand experience with the challenges of navigating higher education and why she is proud of her identity.