When Nathally Torres first arrived on the Montclair State University campus to participate in the University’s Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) Program over the summer, she cried. It was the first time she’d ever stayed away from her North Bergen home.
“I didn’t know if I was going to go to college, honestly,” says Torres, a junior Family Science and Human Development major. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the desire or the grades but rather the financial means. Torres grew up in North Bergen in a working-class household; her mother worked in food production at Red Lobster and her father in the parts warehouse of a Mercedes Benz dealership.
Moreover, Torres – like many first-generation college students – didn’t have a family member with an undergrad or graduate degree who could show her the academic ropes.
Fortunately, EOF, which she learned about from her high school counselor, provided her the path she needed to get into Montclair State, which was her “first and only choice.”
“If not for EOF, I wouldn’t be here,” she says.
Torres and other first-generation college students, graduates and staff gathered Monday to celebrate National First-Generation College Student Day with a “First in Family” conversation. It was a day to mark successes, breaking barriers and realizing dreams – not just their own but those of their parents, many of whom sacrificed so that the next generation could accomplish audacious academic achievements.
Known also as National First-Generation College Celebration, the day was first marked in 2017 as a joint effort of the Council for Opportunity in Education and the Center for First-generation Student Success. Today, it has become an annual event across American college and university campuses.
National First-Generation College Celebration is marked on November 8 to coincide with the signing of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965. Part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, the HEA was designed to help level the educational playing field for people of color or from impoverished backgrounds. On Monday, leaders in Congress introduced a bipartisan, bicameral resolution (SRES437) expressing support for officially designating Nov. 8 as National First-Generation College Celebration Day.
Montclair’s First-Generation College Student Day was sponsored by EOF and the Office for Social Justice and Diversity. An alumni panel discussion also is planned for Wednesday, November 10 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. virtually via Zoom.
As part of the first-gen celebration, EOF shared some videos of first-gen students sharing their thoughts on the day on Instagram. In one, Anyelina “Angie” Diaz, EOF counselor, said: “Being a first-generation college graduate…means that I am my mother’s wildest dreams turned into a reality…and a physical representation for her sacrifices.”
While not exclusively a first-gen-centered program, EOF serves 700 first-gen students, says Angela White, EOF counselor and academic advisor and a doctoral student in counseling. A state-funded program, EOF is a flagship program of the new Future College Graduates Academy and provides access for motivated New Jersey residents from underrepresented populations that meet the income criteria and exhibit the potential for high achievement.
White says she can relate to the students she serves. “I was first gen, and I didn’t know what things I should do or should have done,” she says. “I did not have a lot of guidance.”
As a result, White started a peer-to-peer counseling group for University students. “It’s important they know that other students are experiencing what they’re experiencing,” she says. “They can help each other.”
Like Torres, Jessica Pichardo ’06, ’22 MA had never set foot in a dorm until she arrived on campus. Now the project coordinator for the Center for Community Engagement and an EOF alumna, Pichardo said she, too, cried.
“I remember crying when I got my books, with my book waiver, at the student center because I was so grateful for the opportunity,” Pichardo says. “Being first-generation and never having seen it done before, I felt so grateful. EOF provided so much guidance to me. It was a godsend.”
She and other staff members say they feel a responsibility to share their stories with students.
“My experience here has made me indebted to the students and to our opportunities here to continue to give back,” Pichardo says.
Evelyn De Jesus-Quiles, executive assistant to the dean for the College of Education and Human Services, shared her experience of feeling lost and as though she didn’t belong at Columbia University while working toward her undergraduate degree there.
“First-gen students need to know that there is help, that there are individuals at all different levels that had the same type of experiences that they’re going through,” she says. “There are people on campus who genuinely want to make sure you succeed.”
Jason Williams, associate professor of Justice Studies, said it was essential that he mark first-gen day.
“It’s important to give a sense of empowerment to students, especially students from historically colonized and disadvantaged communities…and impoverished white students to underscore those commonalities amongst these groups,” he says. “It’s often a hidden institutional barrier that we don’t talk about. I know for myself, I had to navigate it alone for the most part.”
Staff and students expressed the importance of representation.
Temeshia Lemons, assistant director for University College advising, said that while a student at Ramapo College of New Jersey, she immediately felt a connection with her EOF advisor because she looked like her.
“That was very important for me to feel connected being a first-gen going to a predominantly white institution…it was very refreshing to see a woman of color in her role, being very knowledgeable,” she says. “So, every time I get an opportunity to share my story, I do.”
The significance of representation cannot be overstated, she says.
“Coming from an inner city where I had teachers that didn’t look like me, it was motivation and evidence that I could do this,” Lemons says. “It may seem so simple for someone to say just looking at someone that looks like them gives them that motivation but it’s so, so real. A lot of students when they are entering an uncomfortable environment and they can’t relate to their professors, to their advisors, or even to their peers, that’s very intimidating. That can affect how a student learns, their progress, retention, the list goes on. I can’t stress that enough.”
Williams added that those situations often serve as an impetus for imposter syndrome.
“Inside you may know that you belong and that you know you can do it but the psychological impact of being in a space that makes you feel like you don’t belong is sometimes strong enough to push you out,” he said.
He and other first-gens want to make sure that doesn’t happen to Montclair students.
Amarisa Torres, 21, a senior Journalism major, (no relation to Nathally) says programs such as EOF helped ease her parents’ minds and prepare them for the transition of “having to let go of me, me going to college and becoming a new person.”
Torres, who grew up in Union City, is now an EOF peer leader and strong advocate for first-gen students. A former University tour guide, she is also the communications coordinator for Student Life at Montclair. She credits EOF, her counselors, advisors and peers with giving her the confidence to be an active advocate for fellow students.
Nathally Torres says she, too, is “more confident of who I am. I am proud of being a first-gen student and making my parents proud.”
Another common theme expressed by first-gens is gratitude. Nathally says her parents do not want Christmas or birthday gifts from her.
“They only ask for a hug and kiss and tell me that graduating is the biggest gift that I can give them,” she says. “Everything I work hard for is for my family.”