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What Was it Like Being a First-Generation College Student?

Todd McDorman felt very uncertain about life after high school.

As a first-generation student, he didn’t know what a college search should be like, so he didn’t really have one. He only applied to two colleges, and didn’t go on a visit until late in the process. He didn't understand financial aid and all the resources that were available.

Todd McDorman“I thought I was probably going to start at a community college, but then I received a generous scholarship that changed everything and made a four-year private education possible,” said McDorman, Acting Dean of the College and Professor of Rhetoric. After earning a bachelor’s degree in communication studies and political science, McDorman earned a master's from Miami University and a Ph.D. from Indiana University in speech communication.

“Everything was new to me,” said the Butler University ’92 alumnus. “I didn't have a family member who was able to tell me how anything worked — buying books, all the little things.

“I was surprised by how much I liked being in college. I still remember how happy I felt at the end of orientation week and how I felt I was about to have a great experience. It just felt like a whole new and exciting world,” McDorman said. “That probably says something about why I've studied or worked on a college campus every fall since I was 18. ... I think it was probably a fear of failure that pushed me to make sure that I didn't.”

McDorman, and other first-generation college students, faculty, and staff celebrated National First-Generation College Student Day on Monday by wearing red ‘1st  Generation & Proud’ T-shirts. It was a day to mark successes, breaking barriers, and realizing dreams of students who are, or who stand to be, the first in their immediate family to graduate from college.

Here at Wabash, approximately 30% of current students are first-generation. Additionally, 20% of staff and more than half of its deans are first-generation college students.

Michelle JanssenDean for College Advancement Michelle Janssen, a first-generation college student herself, said she always had plans to attend college. But her parents didn’t have the experience or knowledge of what went into pursuing higher education, like picking a major and managing expenses.

“My Mom and I had a deal. She would pay for my tuition and room and board and I would cover the rest,” Janssen said. “My first year, it all worked, but no one told us to anticipate a tuition increase each year, or that the one-time scholarship money I won only helped close the gap for my freshman year.

“I was constantly calculating if I could afford something — pizza with friends, my share of a hotel room at our sorority formal,” she said. “My college friends got monthly allowances from their parents. I knew my folks didn’t have that kind of extra cash.”

Janssen credits her professors for helping her navigate college, and for pushing her to be the best student she could be at Valparaiso University.

“Professor Dennis Guse, my speech and debate coach and advisor, helped me navigate my academic course catalog ensuring that I was getting enough electives at the right levels, as well as ensuring I took the required core courses in the right sequence,” Janssen said. “He saw to it that I graduated on time in four years. I will be forever grateful.”

Kendra CooksLike McDroman and Janssen, Kendra Cooks, the College’s Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer, said she found a lot of things challenging about going to college — from setting up a bank account and understanding the financial aid package to finding a campus job.

“What surprised me was how fast I adjusted after a somewhat bumpy first year,” said Cooks, a first-generation Purdue University alumna. “Academically, classes in high school had come easily, so adjusting to the expectations of college was a real jolt.”

Cooks said she hopes first-generation Wabash students take advantage of the support systems available here to help them succeed.

“I know what it feels like to feel unseen, like you are in a blurry, incomprehensible infrastructure,” Cooks said. “The faculty and staff here are committed to the success of each and every one of our students.”

Steven Jones ’87, Director of the Malcolm X Institute of Black Studies (MXIBS) and Dean for Professional Development, echoed Cooks remarks. Jones said he felt like surviving at Wabash was a long shot as a first-generation college student who grew up in a household with limited resources.

But he was able to do it thanks to the support of his “strong, engaged village,” made up of immediate and extended family members, coaches, MXI brothers, and Martindale Hall residents.

Steven Jones“I relied heavily on my brothers at the ‘Tute and Martindale Hall for four years to show me the ropes and provide insight on how to survive,” Jones said. “In doing so, I created significant relationships that have lasted 35 years.

“In the process, I learned the real value of reaching back and assisting others,” he said. “Initially, I was staying up late to be helped and then as an experienced upperclassman, I was the one showing a freshman how he could plan his work and work his plan to be more effective.”

Jones encourages students to build their own villages, to not be too proud to ask for help when needed, and to take advantage of all the resources available on campus.

“In the end, it will be worth it,” Jones said. “You can and will make a difference in the lives of your family and people you have yet to meet. I am certain of it.”