Opposites Attract

Story by Barry Shiller

If you stand Professor Phyllis Martinelli and Irvine Fellow and Assistant Professor Dana Herrera side by side, their differences aren't difficult to spot.

They're of different generations—Martinelli earned her bachelor's degree in 1964, Herrera in 1997 (as a Saint Mary's undergrad, Herrera took several of Martinelli's courses). They're of different ethnic backgrounds—Herrera is of Pacific Islander descent, Martinelli is Italian American. And, they've pursued separate, although closely related, academic disciplines—Martinelli in sociology, Herrera in anthropology.

Yet these very different Saint Mary's faculty members are joined at the hip in cutting-edge research on the experiences and societal impacts of first-generation college students. Their work was the focus of a Jan Term course and an afternoon symposium on April 26.

First-generation students—defined as the first in their families to attend college—encounter challenges uncommon to others. They can face unease from friends, fellow students, and even family members envious of their academic success. Many are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Most lack easy access to mentors to help them assimilate to college life, choose majors, and identify career paths.

Herrera and Martinelli both self-identify as first-generation students (although Herrera's parents took some post-secondary vocational courses). Martinelli has another tie to Saint Mary's: her brother-in-law played on the 1945–56 Sugar Bowl squad. Through their merged academic disciplines, they hope to gain insights that can help teachers, counselors, and others provide students with a balanced mix of academic, social, and spiritual support services, and track how they fare after graduation.