Get to know La Salle’s first-gen students

Each year on Nov. 8, La Salle and other colleges and universities around the country celebrate National First-Gen College Student Day—a date reserved for recognizing the successes of those who were and are the first in their families to attend college. La Salle’s student population exceeds the national average, with first-gen students making up more than 30 percent of the University’s student body. Here are the compelling stories of three La Salle students who are the first in their families to pursue college: Nhi Nguyen, ’22

The write stuff

Writing your name defines who you are. That seems intuitive, right? As we learn to write, we use vertical, horizontal, and swooping lines to make letters that comprise our identity.

Writing your name is also an academic cornerstone, one of the first lessons for any child, that allows them to place their mark on schoolwork or artwork. And for Nhi Nguyen, ’22, it represents the bridge to better educational experiences and outcomes.

In August, Nguyen authored, illustrated, and published a children’s handwriting workbook aimed at teaching prewriting strokes and encouraging proper form on capital and lowercase letters, numbers, and more. “Hello, My Name Is” promotes visual memory and bilateral coordination, assists with school readiness, and reinforces knowledge, while improving handwriting.

Nguyen, a biology major and the first in her family to attend college, did not have to look beyond her personal experiences to find inspiration for writing “Hello, My Name Is.”

“Writing was a challenge for me, and that’s part of my motivation for writing the workbook and wanting to become an occupational therapist,” said Nguyen, a Northeast Philadelphia native. “I would have benefited from OT services as a kid. I hold my pen in an unconventional way and it hinders me from writing for long periods of time. Is it functional? Yes, but it’s not the standard tripod grip.”

Occupational therapists, or OTs, are healthcare practitioners who work with people across all ages, and through various injuries, illnesses, and disabilities, to encourage, promote, and improve their function in daily activities.

An intervention into a child’s physical and motor skills to grasp a pen or improve hand-eye coordination (or visual-motor integration) is one example, Nguyen said. Her 132-page workbook marries functional relevance with colorful illustrations, pictures, and shapes to keep a child engaged and stimulated while they are learning. Nguyen has participated in pre-professional shadowing experiences with occupational therapists and their clients. She noted, in these settings, that the handwriting workbooks currently in print lacked input from therapists who specialize in early-intervention care.

“Handwriting is the start of a child’s education,” Nguyen said. “The book is for children who are learning through disability or injury, and those who need help with executive functioning. As I enter into the professional phase of my career, I want to share what an OT can do while also supporting children in this way.”

Nguyen is set to pursue a doctorate in occupational therapy, with a focus on research in assistive technology, policy, and procedure—with future editions of “Hello, My Name Is” to follow.

Nick Barbella

Overcoming the odds

Nick Barbella’s life changed in the fifth grade. At the time, he was reading at a second-grade level. An academic evaluation with a therapist would follow. The meeting lasted 30 minutes.

“He got frustrated with me, then he said I would never graduate from high school,” Barbella recalled. “In fact, he said I was incapable of achieving any success in life.”

Through degradation, Barbella found inspiration.

Barbella—a first-generation college student—is a graduating student in La Salle’s Class of 2022. He is set to receive a bachelor of social work degree and a minor in sociology. The Northeast Philadelphia native has earned a cumulative grade-point average of 3.88.

Barbella lives daily with dyslexia, ADHD, and executive functioning processing disorder—just a few in a series of disorders and learning disabilities that inhibits his abilities to read, focus, and comprehend information. His elementary school, he said, had failed to deliver the resources he needed in order to keep pace with his classmates.

“My parents stepped in and assembled an amazing team of professionals, and they got me into the school I needed,” Barbella said.

It hasn’t been easy, Barbella said. His father, Joe, has worked professionally as a private chauffer and a truck driver. He is the family’s lone wage-earner, said Barbella, whose mother, Kelly, is unable to work due to a physical disability. (Conceiving children, she was once told, was unlikely.) For Barbella, the family has sacrificed summer vacations and more to ensure their only child received the educational support he needed.

National statistics suggest that Barbella is an anomaly among students with learning disabilities. Students seldom disclose their learning disabilities to their post-secondary schools. And only one in five learning-disabled students graduate from college within five years of finishing high school—a significantly lower total than their peers without disabilities.

The odds have been stacked against Barbella his entire life, he said. When choosing a university, he knew he would need one that helped shift the odds into his favor.

“I don’t know if, four years ago, I would be able to say I am a senior in an undergraduate program if it wasn’t for La Salle,” said Barbella, who will begin La Salle’s Master of Social Work program this fall after wrapping an internship with a nonprofit agency that supports low-income single mothers in Philadelphia.

Andi La, ’23

“A true Explorer”

What’s it like being the first in your family to attend college? Just ask Andi La, ’23.

“It didn’t go exactly according to plan,” La said, “and that’s OK, because everything worked out in the end.”

La had only a basic understanding of the college application process. She didn’t know what her major would be or at which university she would end up. A first-generation American born to Vietnamese immigrants, she didn’t have anyone at home with first-hand experience to fall back on, either.

Her senior year of high school was winding to a close and, in her mind, La had decided upon a college that she said didn’t feel like home. Then, she toured La Salle University.

“I visited La Salle on college signing day, I bought a shirt from the school store, and I committed to La Salle that same day,” said La, of Willow Grove, Pa.

Fast-forward nearly three years, and La is as involved in student activity and ingrained in the campus culture as anyone at La Salle. She’s enrolled in the La Salle Honors Program, working toward undergraduate degrees in computer science and mathematics. She tutors fellow students through La Salle’s Center for Academic Achievement. She is an engagement leader, connecting with University alumni through the Ambassadors Program. And just last summer, she served as a Senior Explorientation leader for the University’s new-student orientation program.

“Andi is a true Explorer,” said Br. Michael J. McGinniss, FSC, who directs the Honors Program. “She owns her university and wants to share with others who, like her, possess enthusiasm and grit. … Andi fits right in with the generations of La Salle alumni who have preceded her.”

La credits Br. Mike with helping motivate her through what she calls “my first-year crisis.” She questioned whether college was the right path for her. She wondered if she would be able to keep pace with her classmates.

It was the Honors Triple, a staple of La Salle’s Honors Program, that simultaneously created doubt and instilled in La a sense of belonging. The Triple brings together first-year Honors students in a year-long cohort for three courses—in philosophy, history, and literature. The students inevitably form bonds as they study together and push one another to excel in ways they never thought possible. 

—Christopher A. Vito 

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