When Saint Mary's College senior Brenna Biggs was in elementary school, one of her teachers told her she was "dumb" and would never go to college. Due largely to the urging of her ninth-grade mentor, who convinced Biggs of her intellect and potential, Brenna will be the first in her family to graduate from college. After receiving her diploma this May, she plans on pursuing a doctorate in developmental psychology.

Biggs shared her story at the college's inaugural First Generation Conference on April 26. She was one of the 32 students enrolled a Jan Term course initiated this year called "Setting the Foundation: Articulating the Experiences of First Generation College Students."

During the conference, college President Brother Ronald Gallagher, FSC, praised the course as "an important component of what we understand as Lasallian education."

Professors Phylis Martinelli and Dana Herrera, of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, created the course as a way to understand, support, and celebrate the challenges faced by first-generation college students at Saint Mary's College. Participants in the First Generation Conference discussed the project, providing insight not only on the success of the first Jan Term class of this kind, but also announcing the continuation of the course for next year.

Martinelli and Herrera explained that the original coursework consisted of demographics, bios and readings about first-generation college students that primarily discussed the disadvantages faced by these students. The professors shifted their focus to emphasize the positive qualities the students bring to the college, rather than just their disadvantaged backgrounds.

Biggs and fellow student, freshman Elizabeth Cruz, shared their experiences as the first in their families to attend college. Cruz explained her guilt for not being able to be home for her family, but also her pride in overcoming challenges and returning to her former schools as a college student. Both noted the relief they experienced in the Jan Term class when they realized they were not alone as first-generation students.

The class developed a Web site (http://firstgeneration.stmarys-ca.edu) to share the students' narratives as well as those of several Saint Mary's College first-generation faculty interviewed by class members. The narratives highlight the impact of family, teachers, and other advisors on their motivation to attend college.

Also mentioned at the conference was a collaboration between the class and Jaime Epstein of the Counseling Center to create a brochure titled "You're not Alone: What you should know about being a first generation college student" that provides resources and insight to help guide future students.

In addition to continuing the "Setting the Foundation" project next Jan Term, Martinelli and Herrera plan to host another conference in the spring of 2007. Herrera continues to update the Web site with narratives, so anyone interested in participating in the project should contact her at {encode="dherrera@stmarys-ca.edu" title="dherrera@stmarys-ca.edu"}.

--Brianna Hardy
Office of College Communications

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