I am First-Gen
“T-shirts are just for students, sorry,” a staffer at the national conference said, surveying a group of University Without Walls students alongside senior lecturer Lisa Modenos ’02MA, ’10PhD. Even at a conference for first-generation students, her students were facing stigma at the registration table. “I had to explain that the participants were indeed students—nontraditional in age, obviously,” Modenos recalls. Indeed, nearly 25% of today’s UMass Amherst undergraduates are first-generation college students, defined by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators as students whose parents have not yet earned a bachelor’s degree.
Lisa Modenos ’02MA, ’10PhD
Senior Lecturer, University Without Walls
Modenos herself was the first in her family to get a degree—in her case, three. “Going from GED to PhD was not easy, but I didn’t lose who I was prior to earning that PhD,” she says. A native of Queens, New York, Modenos has published about the grit of first-generation (or first-gen) students being overrated. Rather than undermining the reality that first-gen students have to work harder—and oftentimes longer—than their peers, she intends to highlight the systemic nature of their experience. “The idea is not to say, ‘First-gen students, just be a little grittier,’” she explains, noting that while increased programming and resources around first-gen status is a positive, “it just goes to show that academia was not built for us.” Modenos really does emphasize the us, often sharing her personal story to help attend to what she describes as students’ long-held shame. In sharing her own experience working retail and food service jobs for almost a decade before returning to school, she has seen students realize that their prior unsuccessful college days were more about a lack of resources than some internal deficit. “So many carry the baggage of failure that they internalized for years, but when they learn more about first-generation experiences, see that they weren’t—and aren’t—alone, and recognize their own knowledge and strengths, it can be transformative.”
UMass has mainstreamed support for this resilient demographic. Over the years, the university has acted as a springboard for so many, and the faces of first-gen students are varied, resilient, and more empowered than ever.
Shanazi Jackson ’23
At Commencement 2023, Shanazi Jackson is slated to be the first of 13 grandchildren in her family to graduate from college. Her grandparents came to the United States from the Caribbean. The nutrition major has transferred schools twice in her collegiate career, with UMass being her third campus experience. Along that journey to Amherst, Jackson was motivated by her younger siblings looking up to her. “I don’t know if it’s pride or ambition, but I just felt like I needed to get this done. I knew failure was not an option for me.” Jackson adds that professor Claire Norton of the nutrition department has been a key force in her development, pointing out that Norton just seemed to put in more effort than advisors past. Jackson says, “When I took classes with Claire, that’s when I fell in love with the major.” Along with Norton and the nutrition faculty, Jackson credits her success to passion for community work and holistic health and wellness shared among the major’s students. After graduation, she plans to pursue a career as a dietitian.
Cam Boylan ’24
Landscape Contracting Major
Cam Boylan ’24 has adapted to the culture shock of being a first-year student in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture by getting right to work. “Honestly, I just kind of put my head down and went right into it,” Boylan says of his fall semester, when working as a bus driver helped him get familiar with the layout of campus before classes began. As a transfer and commuter student, Boylan has leaned on the example of his late grandmother, Mary-Jean Fontaine, who was an integral part of his upbringing. “She had probably the most level head I’ve ever seen,” he said, recalling being tempted to join a fight during a high school football game before thinking, “If she were still here, I would never hear the end of it.” Ultimately, Boylan would like to own a landscape contracting business as well as work in the sustainable food and farming industry. He credits what he calls a tight-knit Stockbridge faculty and staff for their friendliness and support during this time of transition.
Jessie Carredano Esq. ’13, ’16MA
Trial Attorney, Committee for Public Counsel Services
Attorney Jessie Carredano built an attitude of fearlessness as a student at UMass. A Guatemalan American who is among only 2% of lawyers nationwide who identify as Latina, she encourages students fighting long odds to take chances. “Not everyone succeeds,” the Lynn, Massachusetts, native points out. “You could be third generation. Your dad and your grandpa could’ve all gone to college and had successful careers, but that doesn’t mean that you’re also going to succeed. So you just have to have this fearlessness.”
Carredano is a first-gen student, and she is also a first-generation American. English was Carredano’s second language as a child. She recalls professors pointing out that she was writing in passive voice, while her mind was actually translating from Spanish, a passively structured language. Today, her bilingual ability helps create trust with clients in her work as a trial attorney with the Committee for Public Counsel Services. She has also used her experience to mentor UMass students. “Take advantage of what is there,” she tells them, “These resources don’t always exist in the outside world.”
Saffron Turner ’24
Saffron Turner ’24 had already fallen in love with the Amherst area when they moved to Massachusetts from Florida with “a U-Haul and two cats.” In 2018, Turner had visited local friends for a commencement. “It made me so happy to be here, and it made me feel like this is where I belonged,” they said. After leaving their first college in 2016, Turner spent time discovering that they are autistic and creating new frameworks for self-care. That period was a turning point. “I just simply didn’t care what other people thought of me anymore. I was like: I’m here to get my degree, I’m here to get as much out of my classes as I can, I’m here to pick my professors’ brains, I’m here to pick any students’ brains who would like to talk! And that is something that I’ve carried with me.”
Entering the university well into their 20s has not slowed Turner either. At a New Student Orientation & Transitions event in fall 2022, they were surprised at how staff reframed first-generation status as a strength. “I feel like first-gen students are the kinds of students who go to professors’ office hours,” they reflect. Turner now researches disability studies, with a particular emphasis on autistic self-advocacy, and finding ways to incorporate the voices of autistic people who are not well-represented in current research, such as nonverbal people. Turner pointed out how in moments of doubt, first-gen students can look to many faculty and staff at UMass who are also first-gen graduates themselves and have been in their shoes before. “It’s one thing to know in the abstract that you aren’t the only person who has had similar experiences,” they said, adding, “It’s something completely different to actually meet people and ask them how they’ve dealt with a specific situation.”
Adam Ruales-Godoy ’24
Adam Ruales-Godoy advocates for work-life balance among fellow students, and he would know. In addition to being a preveterinary major with a biology minor, Ruales-Godoy serves as president of the university’s First-Generation Low-Income Partnership (FLIP), social event coordinator for the University Programming Council (UPC), a Resident Assistant, a Mullins Center event staffer, and an intramural volleyball referee. As president of FLIP, Ruales-Godoy works to make space for first-gen and low-income students to come together after long days. “I have heard of students having to go from class to class and then to work and back to their off-campus housing daily,” he said. Ruales-Godoy views his studies as representing not just himself, but his supportive Ecuadorian parents and brother. He’s also found ways to share happiness with his family using his contributions to campus outside of the classroom. “Although parents appreciate grades, they feel joy seeing pictures or stories of unique experiences at UMass,” he says, remembering how his work with UPC at the 2022 Spring Concert landed him a group picture with artists Cash Cash, Tems, and headliner Jack Harlow. “I showed the photo to my parents,” he recalls. “They were excited to hear about it, and felt pride that their son was experiencing this life.”
Brian Tse ’07
When Asian American, Canada-born U.S. Air Force veteran Brian Tse transferred to UMass Amherst in 2004, first-gen student status was not quite the campus conversation it is today. Military service helped him to get by. “Nothing on campus really compares to the vigorous aspects of basic training,” Tse said, adding that a recruit can land in trouble for the slightest imperfection. He remembers fondly the long, relaxed walk from Sylvan residential area to Isenberg.
Tse successfully balanced life as a management major and an enlisted senior airman before graduating during the Great Recession. Undeterred, Tse went on to earn his MBA from Boston University and today works as a Rating Veterans Service Representative, guiding decisions around fellow veteran disability support using fact-based assessments and federal law.
Ivana Alecio ’24
Before Ivana Alecio ’24 landed on campus, the Lynn, Massachusetts, native spent her first year of college on Zoom. While the pandemic made what is often a rocky transition for first-gen students that much stranger, Alecio has since transitioned smoothly to campus life as a sociology major. She credits the Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success with helping her during this critical period. “As the oldest daughter in an immigrant household, going to college is a big deal for my family. In many instances, I have struggled being away from my family, but they have always instilled the importance of what I am doing and demonstrated how proud they are of me—even if they don’t fully understand what I go through.” She feels other students don’t always understand “how important it is to be a college student for us first-gen students,” but she always feels supported by professors and staff. Along with a sociology degree, Alecio is pursuing certificates in social work and civic engagement/service learning.
Supporting Student Success
UMass has proactively created many avenues of support for first-gen students, including:
A student organization whose mission is to build a community that allows first-gen and/or low-income students to encourage each other and support each other’s overall academic success. FLIP also educates the campus community on the first-generation low-income student experience and advocates for targeted supports.
CMASS supports the academic success and sense of belonging of first-generation students, students of color, multiracial students, and low-income students.
This team gathers and alerts first-gen students to resources available across campus to help them approach personal finance, logistical challenges, and how to celebrate as part of the larger first-gen community.
Founded by Linda Ziegenbein ’13PhD and the late Tracie Gibson, this Residential Academic Program brings together first-year students who identify as first generation and are pursuing life sciences majors. Bio-Pioneers community members live together in Southwest’s Emerson Hall, take select coursework as a group, and receive mentorship opportunities.
In this virtual community, first-gen students can connect with each other and with UMass alumni who are open to sharing their own first-gen experiences. Students and alumni can join the community online.