University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Pioneers

Navigating the myriad mysteries of college— applications to financial aid forms, dorm life to choosing a major— first-generation college students blaze trails within their families.

Adrian Burnett ’19;  Tracy Ballysingh, assistant professor in Higher Education and Student Affairs ;  Krya Peacock ’20;  Bill Falls, professor of psychology  and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Navigating the myriad  mysteries of college— applications to financial aid forms, dorm life  to choosing a major— first-generation college students blaze trails within their families.

By Thomas Weaver

As Bill Falls traces his family history and personal path to college, he evokes a place and time far removed from the stately, wood-paneled office of a UVM psychology professor and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Falls’s parents were both shift workers at the General Electric plant in Lynn, Massachusetts. His father—who dropped out of school at eleven, enlisted at seventeen, married at eighteen—was a pipefitter, working on large turbine engines for the Navy at G.E.’s Riverworks. His mother, daughter of Sicilian immigrants, left school after the sixth grade.

Jacqueline and Vincent Falls, raised their four children in the old red-brick mill towns north of Boston. All three of Bill Falls’s older siblings took directions in life that didn’t involve college—beauty school, auto body trade school, and the military. Up until junior high, Falls says he doesn’t remember considering continuing his own education beyond a high school diploma. “If I thought at all about what I was going to do, I was going to go work for G.E. like my parents,” he says.

Then Uncle Dom spoke up. More worldly than the rest of his family, Dominic Marino, had taken some college courses, lived in Rome for a number of years, read voraciously. He saw the intellectual spark in his nephew Bill and told his parents that their youngest should consider college. “What would you like to do? What could you be?” he asked his nephew, kindling the aspiration that would eventually lead Bill Falls to a bachelor’s degree from Bates College, a doctorate from Yale University, a full professorship and that dean’s office on College Street at the University of Vermont.

The stories of first-generation college students—17 percent of UVM’s current undergrad enrollment—all have their singular plot turns. But there are commonalities: the individual who first opened that sense of the possible regarding higher education, the challenges of pioneers navigating uncharted territory within their families, and, for some, the struggle to believe that they truly belong on a college campus.

 

Kyra Peacock is a young woman with a plan. It begins with the UVM bachelor’s degree in animal sciences that she began work on last fall, followed by veterinary school, work as a large animal D.V.M., traveling globally to work with large exotic species, and, along the journey, earning a PhD. Her lofty aspiration is rooted in the hard economic realities of her upbringing in Frederick, Maryland, where her parents’ unemployment and health challenges made for constant financial strain.

“Those are the reasons why I want to succeed so much,” she says. “I don’t want to be financially dependent on people like my parents or my grandparents. I want to be able to do it myself,” she says. Yes, like any aspiring veterinarian, there’s a love of animals that motivates her, but also a keen sense of a clear career path that can provide a solid living.

With an admissions postcard that arrived in the mail, the University of Vermont, five hundred miles north, became the first step on the path to realizing that dream. “I got to see a little glimpse of the campus. Just the way it looked in the pictures started to draw me in,” she says. As her career focus sharpened, UVM’s strength in pre-vet and the CREAM Program, a student-managed dairy operation, deepened Vermont’s intrigue.

Peacock sighs when asked how she handled the college search and application process. “I guess I really took it day by day,” she remembers.

“Every three days I would panic, text a friend, this one kid who was in college at the time. I’d go to him for advice, like during sophomore year when I was freaking out. He assured me that I had time.”

Though Peacock’s parents didn’t have personal experience with college, they nurtured her aspiration. “My dad is the one who really pushed me since back to fifth grade. ‘I didn’t go to college; I want you to go to college. You need to go to college in this day and age in order to have a decent job and a decent living, you need to have a degree.’ He kept supporting me, kept me on track.”

When the family made an “Admitted Students’ Day” visit to Burlington last March, the allure in that initial postcard was confirmed. “Inside my gut, my soul, I just felt like I needed to be here,” she says. Peacock’s first semester has had its challenges, from roommate issues to illness to a tough chemistry course, but she’s weathered them and remains firm in that draw she felt to UVM.

Peacock acknowledges sensing a socio-economic divide with some of her classmates. But instead of despair, she takes inspiration from it.

“Sure, I get a little jealous when I hear people who don’t have to worry about loans, their parents are paying the whole tuition,” she says. “That kind of annoys me, but it doesn’t ruin friendships. Everyone gets the stick they got. It’s what they do with it to make it better.”

Like Kyra Peacock, Adrian Burnett knows the bottom-line financial challenges that are part of college life for many first-generation students. After completing two years at UVM, the environmental studies major, is taking this year off from school to work, saving up enough to pay the rent and continue his education next fall.

Burnett has balanced multiple jobs with paid roles on Senator Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and David Zuckerman’s successful run for Vermont lieutenant governor. Considering his aspirations after he finishes his degree, Burnett says, “I’d like to be involved in policy work, whether that is continuing working for non-profits or getting a job working as staff for government leaders. I think policy has to play a huge role in tackling climate change,” he says. “I’d like to be part of that.”

Burnett’s path to UVM was one of special challenge. Raised by his family on a religious commune in Pennsylvania, he was outed as a gay man in high school, expelled from school and the community because of it. He found his way to St. Johnsbury, Vermont, via another past-member of the religious community, completed high school at St. Johnsbury Academy, then enrolled at the state university.

While many first-generation students face college challenges without the benefit of parents who have been through the same experience, Burnett faces them with no support and very little contact with his family. “Figuring out the financial aid process, figuring out registering for classes, moving forward with a degree, it is all done on my own and with the help of people like Cara (Chinchar) in the counseling office and TRIO,” Burnett says. “So I get help from the university, which is awesome. I wish more first-gen students would know about the help that is available.”

 

UVM trustees David Daigle ’89, chair,  and Ron Lumbra ’83UVM trustees David Daigle ’89, chair, and Ron Lumbra ’83 were both first-generation college students from northern Vermont.

The TRIO student support services office that Burnett references is a key institutional resource for first-generation, low-income, and students with disabilities. Beyond TRiO, UVM students often find advocates among staff and faculty throughout the university. Cara Chinchar, a counselor in UVM’s Center for Health & Wellbeing, a first-generation college student herself, is sympathetic to their challenges and knows their potential.

Considering Adrian Burnett and another student who recently took a break from school for financial reasons, she says, “They are amazingly resilient. They are recognized by their teachers, by their employers, given multiple awards. The word of the last few years is ‘grit.’ These students have it.”

Chinchar adds that helping first-generation students requires an “it takes a village” mindset throughout the university. “It’s not one person’s job. This is everyone’s job. Everyone needs to take that extra five minutes, everyone needs to take that time to help a student make that phone call or figure out a question,” she says.

From staff member Cara Chinchar to academic dean Bill Falls to undergrad Adrian Burnett, a common refrain for first-generation college student success is finding the courage to seek help and simply ask those questions.

Tracy Arámbula Ballysingh, assistant professor in Higher Education and Student Affairs, includes first-generation issues at the core of her academic research, an interest that traces to her own experience. Ballysingh grew up in Collinsville, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. An immigrant from Mexico, her mother worked at Home Depot for twenty years and also ran a Mexican food truck; her father was a self-described “jack-of-all-trades.” Ballysingh estimates her parents’ combined income was around $16,000 when she applied to the University of Illinois in 1992.

The future professor might have never taken that leap to college if she had accepted a “gearhead” track a guidance counselor had placed her on, likely due to her mother’s thick Spanish accent. An engaged student, Ballysingh soon sensed she was in the wrong courses and made a change.

Looking back at her college years, Ballysingh says the differences she felt were more due to economics than purely that her parents had not been to college. “The concept of ‘first-generation’ wasn’t something I had heard or embraced until graduate school at the University of Texas when I began working with these students who had experiences that were similar to my own,” she says. “I thought of myself as different because my friends on my dorm floor were from affluent suburbs of Chicago. They had computers in their dorm rooms, and I had never touched a computer.”

Not all first-generation stories are necessarily rooted in financial hardship. The parents of David Daigle ’89, chair of UVM’s Board of Trustees, were both from large Vermont families and chose paths other than college. For Daigle’s father that meant, after years working for IBM, building his own successful small business, a feed and farm supply store in Richford, Vermont. Based on his own life, he didn’t see college as sole path to career success.

But David Daigle was a bright student, who began to get encouragement to go to college from his high school teachers. At UVM, he would find more mentorship from professors and went on to an MBA from the University of Chicago and a successful career in the financial industry. Daigle’s brother Robert ’97, found his own way to UVM and, after some bumps along the way, success with an MBA from Columbia and a career in international security. “My father got behind our college,” David Daigle says. “He’s a huge advocate for higher education now.”

In Montgomery Center, Vermont, the other side of Jay Peak from where David Daigle was raised, Ron Lumbra ’83 grew up and charted his own first-generation path to the state university. Today, Lumbra, who is regional leader for the Americas with Heidrick & Struggles, an executive search firm, joins David Daigle on the university’s Board of Trustees.

Looking back on his UVM years, Lumbra says, “The exposure to out-of-state kids—new friends from Cleveland, Seattle, Syracuse, Silver Springs, Philadelphia—for a kid from small-town Vermont, it was the best possible thing I could have had. It flipped my script, that access to different ways of thinking from students with more urban backgrounds.” A mechanical engineering major, who would go on to an MBA from Harvard, Lumbra says he felt his confidence grow as he found he could hold his own when the academic going got tough.

Lumbra’s adoptive parents in northern Vermont hadn’t attended college themselves, but encouraged him as he excelled in both academics and athletics. For the nitty-gritty of what was next and how to get there, Lumbra found help from guidance counselors, teachers, and friends.

Today, from the perspective of a UVM trustee, Lumbra celebrates how providing opportunities for first-generation students synchs with the mission of a public university. It’s a thought that fellow trustee and son of Vermont David Daigle echoes. “Kudos to the first-generation kids, because they are breaking new ground within their family context and social structure,” he says. “That takes courage. And universities have a responsibility to encourage these students to take that leap.”

 

Removing Barriers

First-generation college students will be among those to benefit from UVM’s new Catamount Commitment program, guaranteeing that all Vermonters receiving federal Pell grants will pay no tuition and no comprehensive fee to attend the university, beginning with the class entering UVM in the fall of 2017.

Pell-eligible Vermonters currently pay no tuition to attend UVM, because of institutional, federal and state grants, but do pay a comprehensive fee, estimated to be $2,259 in the next academic year. They also pay an acceptance fee of $495.
Under Catamount Commitment, both those fees will be paid by the university.

“The Catamount Commitment further removes financial barriers to higher education that many limited-income students and families in Vermont face,” UVM President Tom Sullivan said in announcing the program. “This further demonstrates the university’s strong commitment to providing
financial access and support to an excellent education for high-achieving students with financial need who want to
succeed at college and achieve their goals in life.”

In the fall of 2016, 26 percent of all Vermont undergrad-uates attending the university were Pell-eligible.

Read more about the Catamount Commitment.

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