Celebrating first-generation college students at Marymount University


From November 5-9, the Office of the Dean of Students at Marymount University invited the entire campus community to raise awareness and support for first-generation college students, coinciding with a national celebration of students who are the first in their family to attend a higher education institution.

Several events were held virtually and on campus, beginning with a fun-filled hour of music, trivia and prizes online with DJ Faro on Thursday evening last week. The Dean of Students then held a first-generation tabling event the next day in the Berg Hall cafeteria to share important resource information about being a first-generation student, and also handed out free “first-gen” swag.

The first-generation celebrations concluded with Monday night’s “Real Talk, Real Change: Black and Brown Abroad” event, featuring Dr. Devin Walker. Participants engaged in a thoughtful conversation about access and inclusion in the field of education while abroad.

Marymount is committed to increasing the visibility of our first-generation students, faculty and staff in order to inspire and encourage others about the possibilities of success. Below are a few personal stories of several Marymount “first-gen” students.

Tait Brooks: Director of Student Living, Waco, TX

What motivated you to go to college?

I wanted to leave my hometown and decided to apply for college my senior year without any guidance. Also, television shows like College Hill, It’s a Different World and Clueless motivated me.

Any words of wisdom for MU first-gen students?

Being a trailblazer is never easy, but it is worth it. The investments you make today – you will reap tomorrow. So make good investments and trust in yourself.

What are the most valuable lessons you learned as a college student?

Community is key. It truly takes a village to stay in school and to be motivated. Find your tribe and know that it is okay to ask for help.

Keia Brown: Director of Financial Aid, Abingdon, MD

What was the best part about your college experience?

I enjoyed getting involved on campus at Marymount. Becoming engaged in the many activities on campus was instrumental to my work ethic, networking and building friendships I have to this day. I was a member of the Dance Team, Fashion Club and a Portfolio in Motion Specialist. I was also a student employee in the Residence Life Office.

What inspirational/motivational quote helped guide your college experience?

“You never know until you try!”

Any words of wisdom for MU first-gen students?

Ask questions and get involved! The possibilities in college are endless. Be a bit vulnerable and ask questions to staff, faculty and alumni about the opportunities and support you need in order to be successful. The experience as a first-gen student may be overwhelming for them and their families; however, when the community works collaboratively to support them, we all succeed!

Bethanie Constant: VP for Advancement, Shokan, NY

What were some of the challenges you faced in college?

Figuring out the financial burden of college. I needed the support of Pell Grants, Hope Scholarships, Stafford Loans, donor scholarships and a little help from my parents and grandparents. Being a first-gen student, I struggled my first year because I was in a new place with no guidance from parents or family members who understood the system.

Any words of wisdom for MU first-gen students?

As a first-gen to another first-gen, believe in yourself. I know you can do it.

Ayana Gaskins: Sophomore at Marymount, Bethesda, MD

What motivated you to attend college? 

My mother has always been a big influence when it comes to attending college. She would always tell me at a young age that the best way to get anywhere in life is with knowledge. I am very motivated to get my bachelor’s in nursing, and am very excited to start clinicals next year.

What have been some of the biggest challenges you faced in college? 

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is going through the entire college process on my own. Having parents who did not understand CollegeApp, standardized tests, applying for FAFSA and many of the other exhausting parts about the college process made me feel very alone and fearful. Aside from my friends and the college counselor at my high school, I did not have that many people to ask for help when I was going through the process.

How has Marymount supported you as a first-gen college student?

Marymount supported me by giving me merit scholarships, and opportunities I would not be able to find at another university. Before I even started my freshman year, I was able to study in Québec City for a week with a couple of my classmates during my Discovery class. It was a very cool start to my college experience.

Susan Grunder: Director of Ministry & Spiritual Life, Staten Island, NY

What motivated you to go to college?

My parents were committed to education for their six daughters and I wanted to be a doctor.

What was your family support like in college?

I have five siblings and my parents were both employed full time and both worked a lot of overtime. I spoke to my parents once a week and I worked both on-campus and off-campus jobs to help pay for school. My parents were supportive, both emotionally and financially, but they had many other responsibilities.

What was the best part about your college experience?

Making friends that I still have today, including my husband.

John Grundy: Head Strength & Conditioning Coach, Haymarket, VA

Any words of wisdom for MU first-gen students?

Honestly, just be proud. I never thought of being first-gen as a big deal because I always thought my parents made the right choices for them at the time and both had successful careers. You should be proud because you have a goal and have the courage to take the risk and go to college to reach that goal.

What inspirational/motivational quote helped guide your college experience?

My old lacrosse coach always said, “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it.” You can’t control everything, but you can always control how you respond to it. I love this and still use it today.

Karina Guzman: Director of Wellness Education, Miami, FL

What were some of the challenges you faced in college?

Since middle school, I had always wanted to pursue a career in dentistry. My biggest academic challenge was science courses. I received four D’s in prerequisites for dental school and had to change my career path. This was a very confusing and stressful time where I felt like a failure. With time, I adjusted and now I don’t even remember why I was so drawn to dentistry!

What was the best part about your college experience?

I had such a positive experience. I loved my classes, professors, campus culture, jobs, internships and more. I think the connections I made with my professors helped inform my future. They helped me identify strengths and helped nudge me towards my passion within health education/public health.

Dwayne Latimer: Sophomore at Marymount, Washington, DC

What motivated you to attend college? 

To be the first in my family to graduate college and to major in psychology.

What words of advice would you give to a first-gen student considering college?

Plan ahead. If you have a plan, you won’t fall behind and you will succeed.

What activities are you participating in at MU? 

I am a CA and a member of the Black Student Union, Full Spectrum and the Psychology Club.

Frank Leoni: Head Baseball Coach, Cranston, RI

What was the best part about your college experience?

At the University of Rhode Island, there was always someone new to meet. I grew as a person from encouragement and knowledge from faculty, exposure to all kinds of different people and from competing in DI athletics.

What advice would you give to someone who is also first-gen?

Get out and meet people. Develop relationships with faculty. Be disciplined with your time.

Diana F. Mendez: Junior at Marymount, Hyattsville, MD

What motivated you to attend college? 

I attended college because I want to see more of the world. Marymount has exposed me to various communities and opportunities that I would’ve never experienced otherwise! My main motivator to keep pushing in school are my parents. Since my parents did not go to school, they’ve instilled the great value of education and independence in me. It’s something no one can ever take away from you and you can always count on it.

What have been some of the biggest challenges you faced? 

Culture shock and imposter syndrome are some of the biggest challenges I faced during my transition to college. Being from Prince George’s County, whose demographics are primarily black and brown, and then moving into Arlington, Va., was a struggle for me because it felt like I didn’t belong. I felt out of place and not worthy at Marymount. However, my attitude changed once I opened up and got involved. There are amazing people you will meet during college so don’t forget to branch out and join groups! Another challenge was adjusting to a healthy balance of socializing, work and school. College forced me to get out of my comfort zone, prioritize and test my limits.

What has your family support been like? 

I am blessed to have such a supportive family. My parents are extremely proud of me for pursuing a Computer Science degree and being in the Honors Program! They know that it is not easy and encourage me to work hard. My two older sisters help me relax (breaks are necessary!) and have fun. My oldest sister and I even study together sometimes to keep each other motivated.

Dr. Dale Orth: Associate Dean, Wichita, KS

What motivated you to go to college?

While no one in my family had attended before, my family still understood its value and encouraged me to pursue it. I also knew that I couldn’t likely pursue the careers I was considering without a degree.

Any words of wisdom for MU first-gen students?

Let faculty and staff know that you are first-gen. We can help you navigate the system and identify the resources available. College classes are hard work for everyone, and they should be since they are preparing you for the future. You will have to do that hard work. But you shouldn’t be stopped because you aren’t aware of college processes or where support resources can be found. We want to see you succeed.

Sarah Rose: Alumni Engagement Officer, Palmdale, CA

What motivated you to go to college?

Better career opportunities. My mom and dad always talked about their dream careers; however, they never were able to attend college due to socioeconomic obstacles. I watched them struggle through life financially and emotionally and I knew that I had to strive for myself and my future family.

What inspirational/motivational quote helped guide your college experience?

“The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide you’re not going to stay where you are.” – J.P. Morgan

Jim Ryerson: Professor, Former Dean, Highland Falls, NY

What was your family support like in college?

My parents were very supportive – but they knew nothing about college. From their perspective, getting into college was the goal. From my perspective, succeeding in college was the goal.

What was the best part about your college experience?

Being exposed to different cultures and different ways of thinking.

Any words of wisdom for MU first-gen students?

Get a mentor! Meet with him/her frequently. Ask them for guidance and to “hold you accountable.”

Dr. Sarah Spalding: Associate Dean, Prospect Heights, IL

What were some of the challenges you faced in college?

I was very lucky and received an athletic scholarship, but my parents could not give me spending money or pay for anything additional. That made some social events feel awkward for me or it made participating in “extra” activities a challenge (travel opportunities over the summer related to curriculum, etc.), as I had to go home in the summer and work to make my money for the school year. In addition, I always felt like I was finding out “best practices” information a bit too late (simple things like how to ask for help, advocate for yourself, what resources were available and how important networking is).