By Casey S. Elliott
In working with college students every day, Associate Professor of Psychology Julie Suhr finds it second nature to reach out to those who struggle, with a soft spot for those students that are the first in their families to get a college education.
Suhr, a first-generation college student, learned about college as she went through it, rather than having someone to turn to when she had difficulties.
"Nobody in my family had ever done this before," she said. "I didn't know what to ask."
For students coming into college from a similar perspective, Ohio University recently launched a first-generation faculty and staff Web site, which showcases stories of those who were the first in their families to graduate from a four-year institution.
The site, developed by Greg Lester, assistant director of the College Adjustment Program in the Academic Advancement Center, includes the stories of 18 faculty and staff members ranging from Vice Provost for Diversity, Access and Equity Brian Bridges to Health Research Associate Susan Isaac. The narratives are designed to provide mentoring opportunities for students and raise awareness of the number of first-generation employees on campus.
"These are the people that teach the classes, run the university, that make it all happen," Lester said. "They've been where you are now.
"This site is particularly relevant here, because we are in Appalachia Ohio and first-generation graduates are all around us," he added.
Lester developed the site after reading an article a couple of years ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article talked about a similar Web site for California State University in Fresno, Calif., and how it highlighted the accomplishments of its first-generation faculty and staff.
Lester has been working on the site since the end of 2007. He sent out a survey to faculty and staff to see if they would be willing to contribute their stories to the site, and also if they would be interested in helping mentor students. Of the 643 people who responded to the survey, 56.9 percent (365) indicated that neither parent graduated from a four-year college or university -- the Department of Education definition of a first-generation individual. Of those 365, 79 percent indicated that they would be willing to share their experience with the university community.
Suhr, who grew up on an Iowa dairy farm, is one of the contributors to the site. She notes that for her family, worrying about keeping the farm was a daily occurrence that made it hard for family members to consider the costs of college for their children. She noted in her narrative that the family feared losing their farm, but they were able to secure loans and grants for her to go to college because of their financial status.
The difficulties for her centered on her inability to do what her classmates were able to do.
"I had never been around so many people who had money in my life," she said. "For many of them, their parents were paying the tuition bills. I remember being shocked all the time with how much money people spent on things."
Suhr said she thought about money all the time. She was working her way through college, and did not have spare change to go with her friends to things they wanted to do, such as going to a concert or shopping.
"They always had everything, so it was an eye opener for them to see someone make a decision based on whether they could afford it," she said.
This background makes her especially able to help students who have never had to face financial fears, coupled with the recent economic downturn. Suhr advises students on academic probation, who often are faced with leaving school because they cannot afford to re-take a class.
"If I had been in that boat, there was no way my parents could come up with the money to make up for it. Those were big points for students -- they are so happy that somebody like me would recognize that reality for them," she said.
Higher education came later for Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Sue Simon Westendorf, who did not go straight into college from high school, but started her undergraduate degree at age 34, left because of financing and went back at age 44 to get her undergraduate degree by the age of 48. She later received her graduate degree at age 53.
For Westendorf, her family -- who lived through the Great Depression -- thought sending a girl to college was a luxury, since they could not afford it and she would be getting married and having children anyway. So Westendorf focused on getting the skills to be employable. She applied her typing and mathematics abilities to her position as an actuarial clerk and business manager.
While Westendorf always wanted to re-enter the halls of higher education, she expected she would have trouble relating with the students attending who were just out of high school.
"I felt the younger students would be much more knowledgeable than I, that they knew all the things that I didn't -- because they went to school right out of high school," she said. "I was mistaken. I learned a lot more in life, and had that background to connect that information to what I was learning in college -- it wasn't just abstract knowledge."
Westendorf benefited from a class that returning students could get that other students likely would not need -- a class that refreshed concepts for her. It focused on note-taking, math skills and other core necessities that she had lost in her time away from an educational environment.
The financial struggles and adjustments Westendorf endured ring true for other first-generation students she has helped, she said.
"Many students come to talk to me because their parents just don't understand the difficulties they are having," she said. "They don't know the major adjustment from high school to college."
Westendorf added that in high school, most learning is done in class, or by reading the textbooks. In college, however, there's very little time in the classroom devoted to studying what's in those books -- the major stretch of learning comes from outside the classroom, from individual studying and applying the concepts outlined in the classroom.
With her acquired knowledge from her journey, Westendorf hopes students will gain much from her experiences, and the others on the First Generation Web site.
"We had the same insecurities, the same fright of walking onto campus and not knowing what to do, who to ask questions of," she said. "These people can tell you how they felt, and they may have the information that you need."