The college experience challenges every student. For first-generation students, generally defined as those students whose parents did not obtain a four-year college degree, those challenges can be especially unique and sometimes daunting.
Without guidance from their families on the admissions process and campus life, for example, first-generation students are often navigating these moments independently, while also attempting to meet and exceed rigorous academic standards.
La Salle University historically has maintained a commitment to enrolling and supporting its first-generation students. With first-generation students comprising 30 percent of its student body, La Salle typically exceeds the national average of 24 percent.
“Having the opportunity to engage first-generation students inside and outside of the classroom and provide them with professional outcomes when they graduate from our University is at the core of what we do every day,” said Dawn M. Soufleris, Ph.D., La Salle’s vice president of student affairs and enrollment management. “For many of us within La Salle’s faculty and staff, including myself, we identify as first-generation students and collectively have dedicated ourselves to supporting those students every day and in all that we do.”
La Salle joins other universities and colleges across the country in celebrating National First-Generation College Celebration Day on Saturday, Nov. 8. This initiative, established by the Students Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, represents an opportunity to honor the achievements of first-generation students.
Let’s get to know some of La Salle’s first-generation students:
Finance and Management and Leadership double major
Having moved in and out of foster care throughout her youth, Vanessa Green’s upbringing wasn’t easy. Though in hindsight, Green acknowledged the lack of domestic stability during her formative years helped prepare her for the obstacles encountered by a first-generation college student.
“I had to grow up at an early age and become independent and learn a lot of new things,” said Green, a senior from Folcroft, Pa. “It’s been a difficult journey, but it was worth every hardship or obstacle that I faced along the way. It definitely helped prepare me for college.”
The youngest of five siblings in her biological family, Green has shown resiliency and resourcefulness throughout her time at La Salle. She saved enough money from work studies and internships to rent an off-campus apartment after her sophomore year and raised funds to cover expenses for a travel study trip to Chile last year.
Green also has made the most of her opportunities outside of the classroom. Two internships with KPMG resulted in a job offer with the Big Four accounting firm as a tax associate in the economic and valuation services practice, which Green will begin in the fall of 2021—not to mention the skills she can use to support her community.
“Learning how to do taxes for individuals—that’s something that not many foster children have the opportunity to do,” said Green. “Being able to learn these things and share it with people I know and the people in my community is wonderful.”
Green credited the La Salle community with easing her transition to higher education and helping her to reach her potential.
“There have been a lot of faculty, especially in the School of Business, that know my background and have offered any kind of help or advice I needed and have made me feel welcome,” said Green. “I’m very grateful for those people in my life.”
As a minority first-generation student, Emanuel Ocasio had serious doubts entering college.
“Being a Hispanic person, there were a lot of challenges I had to face,” said Ocasio, whose father, a native of Puerto Rico, never completed high school. “I kept thinking, ‘What am I getting myself into?’ What am I going to get out of this?’”
A longtime member of the La Salle community helped Ocasio, a senior from Reading, Pa., overcome those doubts.
While interning with the Philadelphia-based HVAC service company Elliott-Lewis, Ocasio developed a relationship with company executives including president and CEO, William Sautter, ’71. Sautter, the former chair of La Salle’s Board of Trustees, and other executives encouraged Ocasio to pursue an accounting degree at La Salle. The company has covered Ocasio’s tuition balance after financial aid as part of his benefits package with Elliott-Lewis, where Ocasio works as a database coordinator.
“Trustee Sautter is investing in my education to provide a different perspective within the workplace,” said Ocasio, who transferred to La Salle prior to his junior year through La Salle’s dual-admissions partnership with Community College of Philadelphia. “I’ve been able to climb the ladder there while pursuing my accounting degree.”
Ocasio hopes his journey inspires other members of his family to follow his lead.
“Motivating future generations in my own family to do the same thing is what motivates me,” said Ocasio. “What inspires me is being able to show my nephews, nieces, and cousins, ‘It’s a tough road to take, but there are a lot of benefits and opportunities that come with it.’”
Social work major
Life can get in the way of your pursuit of a college education—and inspire you to earn your degree many years later.
Both hold true for Andrea Harris, a 50-year-old part-time continuing education student from Philadelphia.
After experiencing what she described as a “defining, life-changing event” at age 40, Harris decided it was time to go back to college. She graduated high school and completed only one semester at another city university before departing.
“I always wanted to continue my education, but then life happened, and I started living it,” said Harris, the youngest of six siblings. “Between a life-changing event and entering another decade of life, it was time for another change and that became the catalyst for seeking out what La Salle had to offer. It was the perfect fit at the perfect time, and I have been able to maintain my Dean’s List status going on 10 years now.”
Harris’ schedule involves not just her classes, but a part-time job in the social work field as a therapeutic staff support (TSS) worker for children with autism. She admitted the workload has left her feeling, at times, like she’s taken on more than she can handle.
“There have been those semesters where I said, ‘Why am I doing this? What is the point?’” said Harris. “But the mental fortitude that it takes to endure this is something that I am very proud of. That keeps me going.”
Eventually, Harris said she would like to support first responders in processing the workplace trauma they have experienced.
“I want to work with people who wake up in the morning to go deal with trauma,” said Harris, who is expecting to complete her degree in social work by 2022. “Where do they go when they have to deal with their own trauma? I would like to help those people in a capacity that will provide a safe space for them to release.”
Undeclared health major
Diamond McClain’s mother made it perfectly clear to her daughter: If she wanted to attend college, she would have her mother’s support—but it would be up to her to make it work financially.
“My mom had me when she was a teenager, and college wasn’t her thing,” said McClain, a first-year student from Philadelphia. “She always told me that if you decide to go to college, that’s going to be something that you do. She said, ‘You have to work hard and get the scholarships.’ She wasn’t taking a loan out and if I took a loan out, I’d have to take one out in my name.”
McClain took the initiative academically and administratively to be able to afford college, and now finds herself working toward becoming a nursing major at La Salle. Ultimately, McClain would like to pursue a master’s degree in nursing. For now, she’s focused on—and thankful for—the opportunities she is receiving as a first-generation student.
“It’s really personal for me,” said McClain. “Once you get your education, no one can take that away from you. That’s something that will stay with me forever. For me, going to college is about making new pathways, meeting different people, and doing different things.”
“If I ever feel like I’m struggling or I really need help, I know where to go or who to ask for help,” she added. “I can’t ask my mom, or an aunt or uncle, for help with nursing assignments, but I can go to my professors or academic advisor, who are here to help and are becoming my La Salle family.”