At this year’s Commencement, Wesleyan hosted a reception for a small contingent: students who are the first in their family to earn a college diploma. President Michael S. Roth ’78, along with Dean Marina Melendez ’83 MALS ’88, offered personal congratulations. That the Wesleyan president and dean of their class were first–generation graduates themselves was not lost on Toni Zosherafatain ’10, a member of the WSA who first proposed this event last winter.
While these students report financial responsibilities that affect their time management—the need to take on additional jobs while still pursuing studies, sports, and volunteer work—they are also apt to note the less tangible ways that set them apart. For some it’s an understanding that the diploma is beyond personal achievement; it validates the family’s sacrifice. Others speak of the guidance they wish an experienced family elder could have offered.
English is not Zosherafatain’s first language; she is the child of Iranian and Greek immigrants and learned English in elementary school. At Wesleyan, she majored in government, earning a certificate in international relations. She was also elected to the Wesleyan Student Assembly, with a platform to represent students of color, LGBT, and diversity.
“My passion is that someday I want to run for political office, motivating people and bringing people together around social justice issues,” she says.
Stephanie Quainoo ’10, whose family emigrated from Ghana, is aware of the importance of her degree to her family. “My grandmother, who still lives in Ghana, has a fourth–grade education; it makes her really happy to see me. My entire family—the ones who are in the States—came to graduation. They accosted me in my apartment when I was putting on my robe, all 13 of them. My mother cried. She is so proud of me.”
Quainoo, a sociology major who held as many as three jobs during some semesters, found informal mentors in other students. They introduced her to the Health Professions Partnership Initiatives program, coordinated by Professor of Biology James Donady, which helped shape her educational career.
The result: “I learned to be more of a go–getter, ready to take on any challenges. My big goal is to be a pediatrician,” she says.
“One of the greatest challenges I had was how to deal with professors,” Noel Flores ’10 says. “I put professors on a pedestal: I didn’t realize I could go to them for help. It took a while for me to humanize them. That happened when I met Professor [of Mathematics] Wai Kiu Chan. From then on, I became a real college student.”
With his increased confidence, Flores applied to the McNair Fellows Program, which funds student research with a stipend. “The program made me realize that a PhD was an appealing goal; as a child I’d never had a role model who encouraged me, through example, to consider anything beyond a master’s degree,” he says.
Next fall he begins engineering courses at Columbia in its 4–2 program, after double–majoring in math and Italian studies, with a semester abroad.
Now at home for the summer, he misses campus life. “Everyone was excited about being intellectually stimulated,” he recalls. “You could be talking about the Yankees and all of a sudden, you’d be talking about physics.”
But with this in mind, he is eager to tutor his cousins and younger siblings. “I don’t think college is something that they thought about before, but they see the change in how I carry myself and how I speak and they are fascinated to know more.”
Kelley Miller’s ’10 impetus to attend college came when her sister Katy, 12 years her elder, a runaway diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder, came back home and sat the two younger sisters down, saying: “You need to get out. You need to go to college.”
Miller’s parents neither attended college nor expected that their daughters would. She applied to Wesleyan, was accepted, and arrived in Middletown without ever having been on campus.
“When I got here, I had no idea what a PhD was, and at first I was embarrassed to ask,” Miller recalls, but she dropped the fear in preference for information. She majored in neuroscience and calls the McNair Program one of her three “saving graces.” The other two: Dr. Philippa Coughlan, director of the university’s Behavioral Health services; and Miller’s work with Associate Professor [of Psychology] Matthew Kurtz at CVH in the schizophrenic ward.
“I really loved working with patients,” she said. “It was not only a learning experience but also a healing experience.”
Her long–range plan includes medical school, with the goal of expanding mental health services within underserved communities. “I want to dedicate my life to patients with mental and neurological disorders,” she says. Additionally: “It’s a dream or hope that I might be able to pay for college for my kids, to be the mother who has health insurance so my child could be hospitalized if she needed it.”