Dreams Come True

By Erin Hallissy
Photography by Mimi Chakarova

A Growing Number of Saint Mary's Students are the First in Their Families to Attend College

Potential. We believe each baby is born with it — their tiny fingers, their soft skin and their wide eyes put us in awe of the miracle of life and the promise of the future. Parents dream of all the good that will happen in their infants’ lives; they hope their children will become strong, capable, loving women and men who will have the opportunity to achieve more than they did. They share the sentiment that Louis Armstrong voiced in “What a Wonderful World” — “I’ve heard babies cry, I’ve watched them grow, they’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know.”

Yet some babies don’t get the chance to learn more than their elders. In war-torn countries like Uganda where daily life is a struggle; in inner-city ghettos like Richmond and Oakland where despair beats down hope; in the poor towns and farms of Mexico where children must abandon school to help their families put food on the table, babies may never have the chance to fulfill their parents’ hopes.

The impoverished, neglected street children of France were suffering similar fates when, more than 300 years ago, Saint John Baptist de La Salle decided he needed to improve their lives. Himself a child of privilege and schooling, he believed that an education provided the pathway to Christian salvation both in this life and the next. The schools he founded stressed not only academics but also manners and catechism. The setting was collegial — students were treated alike, no matter their background or skills, and they addressed the Christian Brothers whom De La Salle had trained as “Brother,” not “Master.” The schools were free and open to all, poor or rich, and social justice was an integral part of the learning experience.

Now, hundreds of years later, the Christian Brothers, including those at Saint Mary’s College, continue to emphasize the value of educating those who may otherwise be left with little hope of improving their lot in life — first-generation college students.

Take, for instance, Irene Serwanga. Her parents fled war-torn Uganda and moved to the United States. Her father, who was in the banking business in Uganda, started out as a dishwasher in their new city of Sacramento; her mother was a maid at a Motel 6. But the Serwangas, like many of their relatives who also settled in the state’s capital, were focused on future generations.

“It’s a common idea for parents to think there’s more opportunity in America,” says Irene, a 19-year-old sophomore at Saint Mary’s, who adds that her parents, aunts and uncles all encouraged their children to go to college. “It’s basically something you have to do.”

Irene’s role model is her older sister, Annette, who went to Patten College in Oakland and is now a teacher in Danville. Irene was also inspired by a teacher at Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento who “told me I could make it.” She is majoring in psychology and plans to be a psychiatrist, a profession she never dreamed of pursuing before she arrived at Saint Mary’s and heard other students’ aspirations for medical careers.

Opening New Doors

Many first-generation college students are just like Irene — they don’t really know what opportunities await them, and they aren’t always prepared for higher education. Their parents may talk about college, but they don’t know the details of how to apply or get financial aid. They can’t prepare their children for what it’s like to live in a dorm, relate to professors or juggle courses with jobs. And many parents who may understand the value of vocational training to become a nurse or teacher are mystified about how a liberal arts education may prepare their children for a job.

“I met people of color who are going to be doctors and nurses,” she says. “I didn’t know I could do those things.”

Throughout its 144-year history, Saint Mary’s has taken in untold numbers of first-generation students, many of them children of immigrants like Irene, whether from Ireland or Italy, Africa or Latin America, Australia or India. Many first-generation students, although not all, come from poor families, and can benefit from the College’s goal that 25 percent of incoming freshmen be eligible for Pell Grants, the main source of college financing for low-income families.

Carole Swain, Saint Mary’s vice president for mission, says welcoming first-generation students fits with the College’s Lasallian mission of social justice and education.

“The Christian Brothers and their colleagues have always taken special notice of students who need to be cared for,” she says. “Within the last decade, all of the Lasallian institutions were called to find ways to return to the charism of teaching the poor.”

Currently, 35 to 40 percent of SMC freshmen are first-generation students, says Mark Figueroa, director of institutional research.

Some of those students get support even before they enter the College through Saint Mary’s High Potential Program. For three weeks before their freshman year, they attend an “academic boot camp” where they learn time-management skills, study habits and teamwork, and they engage in their first Seminar experience, reading The Iliad. They are assigned peer advisors, and ultimately are asked to mentor younger students. Staff and faculty members, many of whom were the first in their families to go to college, also mentor some students.

The College has increased other support services, such as counseling programs and writing workshops. Still, going to college can be daunting for students, even those who’ve dreamed about it for years.

A Struggle to Succeed

Jamelia Turner’s father was beaten to death when she was 6, and her mother died when she was 10. Jamelia and her older sister and younger brother were bounced from one relative to the next in North and South Richmond, and eventually ended up in a group home. As a teen, Jamelia wanted desperately to escape Richmond, where she saw little hope for a brighter future, and she decided that going to college was the only way she could succeed.

“I struggled so hard to get out of Richmond,” says Jamelia, a 20-year-old sophomore. She applied to 10 colleges, was accepted by eight and chose Saint Mary’s over schools like the University of San Francisco and UC Davis.

“I came to the overnight here and I fell in love with it,” she says. “I liked the smaller classes because I was very shy.”

Yet college was almost too much for her to handle. “The first two weeks I couldn’t eat anything. I couldn’t sleep. If it wasn’t for my roommate, I wouldn’t have left the room,” she recalls. “The classes were really different from high school. All the reading was overwhelming.”

Now, she’s adjusted. She belongs to the dance club and Black Student Union, has friends and works at a doctor’s office in Orinda. She says she still struggles at times, but she’s determined to work hard and pursue a career in social work.

“I didn’t get any help when I was a foster child, and that’s why I want to help,” she says.

Jamelia got support herself when she took a Jan Term class in 2006 about first-generation college students taught by professors Phylis Martinelli and Dana Herrera. Martinelli says she was inspired by students who spoke eloquently at the College’s ethnic graduation ceremonies about being the first in their family to go to college, and realized she shared those experiences.

“They were talking about things they faced that other students didn’t. It was a struggle that they got through,” recalls Martinelli, who graduated from San Jose State in 1964. “When I went to college, I learned that I was different. I was shy at the time. I wasn’t self-confident. I learned to hide that part of myself.”

Trying Harder

What Martinelli had, and what many other first-generation students share, is a strong work ethic and a desire to improve their lives not only for themselves but for their parents and families. Sometimes, that can put students under extra pressure because their families may depend on them for money, babysitting or other reasons.

Some first-generation students face cultural barriers, including those from Latino families who want them to remain close to home. Elizabeth Cruz, a 19-year-old sophomore, was a good student and an active volunteer during high school in Brentwood. She knew she wanted to go to college, and a teacher who was an SMC alum encouraged her to apply to Saint Mary’s. “I had never heard of Lasallian before. When they said it meant social justice for the poor, I said this was the place to be.”

But her father balked when she said she wanted to live on campus.

“He wanted me to live at home,” Elizabeth says. “He was just protective. None of my sisters left the house until they got married.”

Like other first-generation students of color, Elizabeth doesn’t always like the course selection. “I really do wish there were classes where we’re not just reading about the Greeks and dead white guys. I’m trying to promote diversity in the curriculum so I feel like I see myself in it. But I’m finding my place here at Saint Mary’s, as a first-generation student, as a Chicana student.”

Along with handling the school work, she and others grapple with paying tuition — relying on jobs, financial aid, grants and scholarships — while watching wealthier classmates never worry about finances. Elizabeth was pleased recently to be hired as a resident advisor so she can continue to live on campus.

Herrera says it’s not unusual for first-generation students, whether they’re from a minority group or poor, to feel alienated at times. However, she says those students often enrich classes because of their diverse backgrounds and viewpoints.

“We’re hoping to educate the campus about the assets they bring,” Herrera says. “Many of them are independent, self-reliant. They bring a strong work ethic. They act as an inspiration for those around them.”

Bob Lenz ’86, a first-generation student, worked 20 hours a week in food services and held two jobs during summers while at SMC. He was so inspired by the College that after a teaching career, he decided to open charter schools called Envision Schools to prepare mostly inner-city minority students for college. The schools, in Marin, Sacramento, Alameda and soon Fresno counties, emphasize seminar learning, and students read Homer and Dante. Lenz says he notices that while students grow empowered by preparing for college, their parents are sometimes intimidated by the idea.

“The kids are ready to go, but the parents aren’t ready to let go of them,” he says. “The parents are worried about how they’re going to change. They feel they won’t want to come home.”

Such an idea is incomprehensible to Omar Martinez, a 20-year-old sophomore who enrolled at Saint Mary’s after his older brother Cesar graduated in 2004.

“Whether or not my parents went to school, I’m still proud of them,” says Omar, whose parents dropped out of school at a young age in Mexico. “There’s no way I could ever look down on my parents. I would never support anyone looking down at their parents. Everything that I have, I owe to them.”

Omar calls college “a family goal, a family accomplishment.” His father was a dairy farmer when he first immigrated to Marin County, and now works for the National Park Service at Point Reyes; his mother is a housewife. They couldn’t help their children much with schoolwork, but Omar was able to get help from teachers and his brother. Like Jamelia, he “fell in love” with Saint Mary’s, saying “it felt homey, it felt like a place I could live.” He faced academic challenges but got support through the High Potential Program, writing workshops and advice from friends, and he’s now majoring in international area studies and hoping for a chance to study abroad in Italy.

Omar and other first-generation students are finding that college is opening doors. Elizabeth has a 3.7 cumulative GPA, has been on the dean’s list every semester, and is pushing herself to work even harder.“I’m not here to get by. I’m here to excel. All of us realize that if there’s a sacrifice involved, you tend to take it more seriously,” she says. “College is providing me the opportunity to be a critical thinker and to be socially active. I can get frustrated, but I’m up for the challenge.”

Martinelli is collecting stories from first-generation college students. E-mail your story to pmartine@stmarys-ca.edu.