First-gen Blue Hens
Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson, Evan Krape and Ashley Barnas and courtesy of Guadalupe Guevara and Vanessa Phillips | Illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase November 07, 2023
UD student, alumna and faculty member share first-generation experiences in honor of annual First-Generation College Celebration
One of the biggest reasons Guadalupe Guevara wants to get a college degree is so she can provide for her parents later on in life.
Immigrants from Mexico, her parents came to the United States when they were 20 years old for a better future and to make a life for themselves and their children.
“Since I was little, they've always prioritized our schooling and education and have even worked double shifts to make sure that we get the right resources, have school supplies and are prepared,” said Guevara, one of about 2,380 students at the University of Delaware Newark campus who are the first in their families to attend college. “I've always dreamed of having a successful career and making my parents proud and providing for them later on in life like they did for me when I was younger.”
First-Generation College Celebration, held Nov. 8, is one of many ways UD recognizes the courage and determination of its first-gen student population.
“Being the first in your family to go to college is an important milestone and an exciting experience, and as a first-generation student myself, I know it can also be a very rewarding opportunity,” UD President Dennis Assanis said. “I want our first-gen students to know that we support them with the resources they need so they can succeed here at the University of Delaware, earn their degree and pursue incredibly fulfilling careers.”
There are myriad challenges that can accompany being a first-generation student, including what Student Diversity and Inclusion (SDI) Director Rachel Garcia refers to as the “hidden curriculum” of higher education: navigating financial aid forms, the purpose of office hours with professors, the power of academic advisement and how to connect with co-curricular opportunities — to name a few examples.
“This is a growing population of students that we're seeing in higher education, and often they need different things and different supports,” said Garcia, a 2008 UD alumna and first-generation college graduate. “We have to shift our mentality from students being college-ready to us being student-ready and us being ready to support students across their identities, including being first-gen. It's important that we show that we recognize that the first generation college student experience can be very different, and we want to make sure that we’re providing you with the resources here at UD that you need to be successful.”
The University will hold its annual First-Generation College Celebration event on Wednesday, Nov. 8, from 12 to 2 p.m. in the Center for Intercultural Engagement. Hosted by SDI, the event will offer first-gen students a chance to connect with campus partners and enjoy camaraderie with peers.
“While I was here at the University of Delaware, I was a first-generation student, and I had to really lean on the campus resources,” said 2019 graduate Aliyah Nelson, assistant director of programming for SDI. “Not through any fault of my parents, but when they don't carry that experience, you really have to lean on those campus supports. I think the beauty of this First-Generation College Celebration is really allowing those students to get connected to those supports.”
Examples of those resources include a First Generation Student Programming and Support graduate assistant who works specifically on first-gen student success, a position that was created last academic year. A first-generation college student committee brings together folks from across the University to ensure UD is holistically supporting its students. And a mentorship program pairs upper-division first-gen students with first-year first-gen students to help them navigate their new environment.
“We often talk about first-generation students as if they're at risk, and it's not that first-gen students are at risk — it's that often institutions are at risk of not recognizing that we need to have unique supports for communities like first-generation college students,” Garcia said. “We need to recognize that first gen-students may have different experiences and struggles than continuing-generation students, and it’s our responsibility to create environments where they can be most successful.”
‘If I can do it, you can do it, too’
Guevara, a senior sociology and global studies double major at UD, applied to seven schools and got into each one of them. Ultimately, UD was her top choice because it was close to home and the sociology program aligned with her career goals.
“I really value my family and have a strong, family-oriented sense of identity, so being near my family was a really important factor that played into what school I was going to,” said Guevara, who is from Wilmington, Delaware.
One out of three higher education students today are the first in their families to attend college, according to the U.S. Department of Education. But frequently, first-generation students can feel like they’re navigating the college experience on their own.
Indeed, Guevara felt that way when she started at UD. As a first-year student in 2020, Guevara began her college career living at home and taking virtual classes because of the pandemic. She struggled to make friends and find people who shared similar experiences, and it wasn’t until her junior year that she started to get involved on campus with registered student organizations (RSOs) like We’re First, HOLA and Campus Alliance de La Raza.
“Fitting in and finding your crowd takes a while, but organizations like these were great in helping me integrate into college life and find people with similar experiences and backgrounds and people who I can relate to,” she said.
Guevara is now on the executive board of We’re First, an RSO that connects first-gen students to each other and to campus resources. Through activities like scholarship workshops, career fairs and social events, it aims to help students access tools for collegiate success.
Guevara is also a teaching assistant for the Disasters and Society class with Professor Tricia Wachtendorf and an undergrad research assistant for UD’s Disaster Research Center. After graduation, she plans to attend graduate school — UD is her top choice — and then pursue a career in disaster recovery, working with low-income and Latine communities.
As the oldest of seven siblings in a blended family, Guevara sees herself as a role model for her brothers, sisters and extended family members.
“Seeing my parents’ faces when I walk that stage is going to make everything worth it,” she said. “I hope it inspires my siblings to continue going to school and get a degree. I hope to be an inspiration for other first-gen Latine students as well. If I can do it, you can do it, too.”
‘Do not give up on your dreams’
When Vanessa Phillips was an undergraduate student at UD in the late ’90s, she invited her school-age twin nieces to spend a week on UD’s campus during their spring break — staying over in the dorm, attending classes and spending time at the Center for Black Culture.
“I wanted to give them that experience so they could see people who look like them going to college,” Phillips said. “I wanted them to see that going to college is something they could do also.”
And that they did. A few years ago, the twins graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University. As the first in her family to attend college, Phillips said she was proud to be able to set an example for the kids who came after her.
The path to college wasn’t easy. Phillips’ mom, who was a Washington, D.C., police officer, wanted her to work for the U.S. Postal Service like her older sister. But Phillips had bigger dreams of becoming an attorney.
Her seventh grade science teacher made her believe that dream was possible.
“No one in my family had ever gone to college, so it seemed like something that was not attainable,” Phillips said. “But she made me believe in myself and believe in my ability to be able to be the first one in my family to attend college.”
In pursuit of that dream, Phillips enrolled in the Howard University Upward Bound Program for first-generation prospective college students, taking enrichment classes and living in a residence hall. She said the experience was life-changing.
“That experience was really beneficial in terms of knowing what college life would be like and knowing that I could actually be successful as a college student,” she said.
Phillips applied to 13 schools and got into all of them — but UD wasn’t on that list. She enrolled at the University of Richmond because the school gave her a merit scholarship, which helped convince her mom that college was attainable.
“Once I got the letter from University of Richmond and saw that I got the merit scholarship, it was a life-changing feeling because I actually felt as though my dream of becoming an attorney was attainable — that it was within reach,” Phillips said. “I knew it was going to be a life-changer not only for me, but for my family.”
But at the start of her first semester, she realized the school wasn’t the right fit. She visited a friend at UD and decided to transfer. UD matched the scholarship she was receiving, and she started her Blue Hen journey that spring.
After earning a bachelor of science degree in leadership and consumer economics from UD in 2001, master of business administration degree from Wilmington University and law degree from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, Phillips began her career as an attorney in Washington, D.C. Since 2018, she has worked as the chief administrative officer for New Castle County, the highest-ranking non-elected official in the county.
At UD, Phillips found a community in the Center for Black Culture and Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Having those support systems was critical to her success, she said, especially at a time when many doubted that she deserved to be there. At the time, Phillips said many students thought affirmative action was the only reason many first-gen students were there.
“Trying to prove that you're just as smart and just as capable of attending a prestigious college like UD can be challenging because people do assume that you've been given some opportunity that they didn't receive,” she said. “Having to prove in class that you have ideas to contribute to meaningful discussions and your life experience is not a negative — it’s actually a positive in terms of contributing to those spirited discussions in class — that was the biggest challenge for me.”
Her advice to other first-gen students: Don’t give up.
“I had one semester where I basically came to a crossroad where I could have dropped out and started a full-time job at the postal service or stayed in school and tried to get my grades back up, and I’m so glad I didn’t give up on myself,” she said. “One bad grade doesn’t ruin your chances of obtaining the degree. That would be my advice to any first-generation college student: Do not give up on your dreams, no matter how hard it gets.”
‘When I graduated, I felt like I could tackle anything’
Esther Biswas-Fiss, chair of the Department of Medical and Molecular Sciences at UD, was the first in her family to graduate from high school, much less college. Her dad, a cab driver, worked 14-hour days six days a week, and her mom was a stay-at-home mom.
“Even though my parents couldn’t teach me how to position myself to be successful academically, they taught me a lot about hard work,” Biswas-Fiss said. “Both my parents had challenges. They grew up during the Great Depression, which led to their inability to finish their education, and they overcame those challenges. So those kinds of lessons really served me well as I moved forward.”
When Biswas-Fiss graduated from high school, she realized that although she was interested in science, she didn’t have the necessary prerequisites to attend a four-year institution, so she attended community college.
The transition from community college to the University of Washington was challenging. In her first year, she was on academic probation because she was taking calculus, biology and chemistry all at once, and it was the first time she’d ever taken those subjects. This was 1980, a time when there were far fewer resources for first-generation college students.
“I don’t think people really understand how overwhelming a lack of college readiness can be,” Biswas-Fiss said. “My parents had no idea what I would need to take in high school to set me up for success in certain careers. Those sorts of things are barriers.”
Despite all the trials and tribulations she went through in the beginning, Biswas-Fiss graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. She then worked as a chemist for Barns-Hind/Hydrocurve, conducting stability testing for pharmaceutical products. She found the career not intellectually stimulating enough for her, so she went back to school to obtain her master’s degree in biochemistry at the University of Maryland. She then pursued her doctorate in Molecular Pharmacology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. After earning her doctorate, she accepted a full-time faculty position at Thomas Jefferson University. She served as the founding director of the university’s biotechnology program and initiated her longstanding research program to understand the role of genetic mutations in inherited blinding disorders. Throughout her career, her research has been funded by the NIH and industry partners and is currently supported by the Foundation Fighting Blindness. Her research laboratory has provided opportunities for other first-generation students to engage in undergraduate research.
In 2016, Biswas-Fiss became UD's Medical and Molecular Sciences Department chair. Since then, the department has experienced tremendous growth under her leadership.
“We all understand, unless we're independently wealthy, that we're going to have to work for a living, and I looked at education as a way to be able to work at something that I enjoyed and I liked instead of just having a job,” she said. “And I do enjoy what I do. It sounds corny, but it's true that I don't work a day in my life, because I enjoy what I do.”
According to the Higher Education Research Institute, only 27% of first-generation college students complete a bachelor’s degree in four years.
Recognizing the challenges of transitioning to a four-year institution, Biswas-Fiss established pipeline programs at both Jefferson and UD with community colleges and underserved high schools so students could seamlessly transfer.
“Today in my career, I try to make a difference,” she said. “I think the things that I have done in that regard — I look back on that as my biggest legacy. Even though I’ve made many contributions in my scientific field, I feel like these pipelines that I’ve been able to create for students and the ability to make a difference are my biggest contributions to academia.”
Biswas-Fiss said her parents never expected her to go to college. Telling them she was going to go to college, she said, was like telling them she was going to go to the moon.
“I think it can be a very scary thing, but it can also be a very self-affirming thing when you complete it,” she said. “When I graduated, I felt like I could tackle anything.”
Student Diversity and Inclusion provides several identity-based resources, including for first-generation students. To learn more, visit https://sites.udel.edu/studentlife/firstgen/.