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First-Generation Panel Encourages Students to Find Mentors

The key to success in college is seeking out mentors and stepping outside of one’s comfort zone, according to panelists at a University of St. Thomas event for first-generation students held Sept. 25 in Jones Hall. 

 UST’s student organization Campus Community hosted the University’s first-ever panel discussion for first-generation college students, according to Vice President, senior international studies major Samaria Hebert with about 30 students attendance. 

Panelists consisted of UST alumni, faculty or current students, and each told about his or her experience as the first member of their family to attend college.

 UST biochemistry alumnus (‘12) David Torres said he remembers the impact various mentors had on his education. 

“The professors really were amazing mentors,” he said. “They helped instill a sense of self-confidence in myself.”

Today, Torres does research for a biotech start-up company based in Boston while also working in Houston on immunotherapy and cell therapy trails. 

He thanked his mother for always encouraging him in school, but said the financial struggles of his childhood, constant relocations, and an absent father created a rough environment for him going into high school. 

“My parents finished high school and had one year of college each before the unexpected happened: me,” he said. “They made the sacrifice to basically go to work and be able to provide so that I could have the opportunity that they didn’t have.”

Torres said UST was not his first choice, but that the school’s location and financial aid package made it the best option for him. 

“Seeing the professors and the programs and everyone here made me never want to leave,” he said. 

Torres was able to secure a position at the Summer Medical and Undergraduate Research Training program at Baylor College of Medicine in 2011, introducing him to cancer research.

Moreover, professor and chair of communication Livia Bornigia thanked Campus Community for hosting the event, and said she wished there had been a similar event when she had started college to provide her with a sense of guidance. 

“The thing that helped me the most was the role of mentors,” she said. “I now work with the same people who mentored me and got me to where I am today.” 

Bornigia was the first in her family to get a U.S. college degree after her father was transferred to Texas for work from Italy. She said she was anxious to make her parents proud, both of whom had given up on the opportunity to attend college and had gone into the workforce to support their families. 

“I had a ton of anxiety about academics and social interactions, and then I had a really hard time wondering if I was going to make it academically or not,” she said. 

 Bornigia said she was lucky to have long-time UST communication professor Robin Williamson as one of her mentors.

“I really want to stress the importance of mentorship,” she said.

Bornigia referenced studies that draw a connection between mentorship and first-generation students success. However, she also said that students have to make the choice to step out of their comfort zones and ask for help. 

The other faculty member on the panel, UST assistant professor of biology Edward Nam, said his undergraduate experience was very different from that of his peers at Duke University.

“They were wealthy and grew up differently than I did,” he said.

He recalled the time his fellow classmates were discussing their spring break travel plans. Many of them were planning to vacation at the beach, but Nam, had to stay behind and work.

“This is something that I see a lot with my students,” he said. “Many of you guys work along with keeping up with your courses.”

Nam said that when his students reach out to him for help, his background makes it easier for him to understand ways to provide assistance.

The two students on the panel, sophomore business and psychology major Jackie Pena and junior psychology major Diana Vidal, both said they felt unprepared when coming into college, but knew attending would fulfill their parents’ “American dream.” 

Pena said when initially starting at UST, she felt guilty about not working anymore to help her family. 

“I had a talk with my mom; she said that she and my dad did not struggle for such a long time to not have one of their children succeed,” she said.

She said she regrets not reaching out for help during her freshman year, but added that becoming social and creating a solid on-campus support system helped make the transition easier.

Vidal said that some of the best resources for first-generation students on campus are their own professors. She urged students not to be afraid to seek help, and to visit the Counseling and Disabilities Center to learn helpful tips on topics such as stress management. 

When asked what resources they wished were available during their high school careers, both students said they would have appreciated a more in-depth discussion about the Federal Application for Student Aid. FAFSA is an application used to determine a student’s financial need and which need-based loans and grants they qualify for. 

Herbert thanked students for attending the discussion and thanked the speakers for their time and insight. 

“This is hopefully the first of many first-generation student events that we will be having,” she said.

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