CBS Celebrates #FirstGenStories

November 06, 2020
#FirstGenProud Stories

CBS celebrates #UMNFirst and #FirstGenStories! Read more or share yours.



Ben wearing an orange shirt against a gray background

Ben Mai

Fourth-year student, Biochemistry major

#FirstGenStory | Growing up with parents that did not attend college, I was taught very early in life about the value of education. As someone who immigrated to the United States at the age of six without speaking English, I had to learn quickly how to adapt to American life. As I was going through high school, the thought of attending college always seemed like a far-off dream. My grades weren't an issue, however I had no mentor to help navigate the admissions process. As I grew up in a lower-middle class household, I also wasn't sure that attending college would be something that is even financially feasible. 

However, I knew that I wanted to go to college due to my love for life science. As a subject that is so applicable and open to discovery, I knew that I would never be truly happy if I did anything else. After countless all-nighters working on college essays and scholarship applications, I am here three and a half years later on the verge of becoming the first person in my family to graduate from college with a Bachelor's in Biochemistry. I am extremely proud of what I have accomplished thus far and I am only getting started. 

#UMNFirst Advice | As first-generation college students, we face similar roadblocks in order to get to where we are. As attending college was one of the hardest things that we've ever had to do, nothing should deter us in the future from realizing our full potential. You are entitled to shape your future in any way you want and don't let anyone tell you any less. Be proud of what you have done so far, you are killing it!

Efrata Feleke

Third-year student; Biology major, Sociology minor

#FirstGenStory | I was born in Ethiopia and my parents had the opportunity to come to the US about 15 years ago to provide my family a better life. It has always been instilled in me that education will bring change in my life, so I am grateful that I am able to get my college education. In doing so, I hope to make an impact on my life, my family's life, and hopefully make a difference in the world.

#UMNFirst Advice | My piece of advice for other first-gen students is to always be true to who you are and never forget where you started and where you want to be. Even though there may be obstacles that stand in your way, remain resilient and keep pursuing your goals and dreams!

Justin Dunnell 

CBS Class of 2018

Genetics major, now at the University of Minnesota Medical School 

#FirstGenStory | For pretty much as long as I remember, my mom always told me that I need to go to college and get a degree. My mom has always been a huge influence in my life and being the momma's boy that I am, I wanted to make her proud so getting a college degree became a huge goal of mine. She always joked that I should go on to be a doctor so that one day I can fix her bad back. I wasn't always so sure I wanted to be a doctor, but she supported me and my decision to pursue several different avenues outside of medicine regardless. 

Funny enough, after exploring several different prospective career paths, I ended up deciding that a career in medicine was ultimately the only career I was really interested in. After taking a couple of gap years, I started medical school here at the University of Minnesota Medical School and I couldn't be more excited to not only be in the process of fulfilling my dream of becoming a doctor, but also being the first doctor in my family. My first year has been difficult and sometimes isolating, but I am grateful every day for the opportunity and the continued support of my friends and family who helped me get this far.

#UMNFirst Advice | Explore your options! A college degree opens up so many doors for us that were not open to our parents. Find what gives you energy and pursue that, even if it's not directly related to your major or what your parents wanted you to do. Most importantly, don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it; you might be surprised how many people are willing to help you with whatever it is you might need. Getting involved in different clubs and organizations provided me with an invaluable support system and numerous mentors that I will always look up to and I firmly believe that I would not be in the position I am today without their support and guidance.

Mikael Hocine Elias

Associate Professor Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics

#FirstGenStory | With parents leaving the war in Algeria during their childhood, I grew up in a modest socioeconomic background. As a first gen student, I faced the challenges of many students: the necessity to combine a professional activity with my studies, as well as the complete absence of references to guide study orientation. Indeed, for my first two college years, I started to study geology and gradually drifted to biochemistry after I enjoyed mandatory organic chemistry classes. Simultaneously, I joined at the end of my freshman year a physics laboratory to perform undergraduate research. I met PhD students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty and research professionals and these interactions were key to help me navigate through my curriculum and career.

#UMNFirst Advice | Among many others, the lack of references to figure out what to study is a key challenge for me. In my case, interactions with more senior students and professionals were key. I would encourage students to use available resources to ask other students about curriculum, and use internships, conferences, symposium or job fairs to interact with professionals and learn more about career paths that are appealing to you.

Nicole Thue

Third year at the UMN, graduating spring 2021

Biology major, Computational Biology minor

#FirstGenStory | I am the first one in my family to attend a University and work towards a Bachelor's degree. Both of my parents attended tech schools and received certificates for their particular program and my three siblings went on to work after high school. It is very stressful navigating college life without an experienced family member to give you advice or walk you through how to finance the expenses of college. I have always put extra pressure on myself when it comes to academics, because I wanted to be the first one in my family to break this cycle. I did PSEO in high school so I could not only get a headstart on my degree, but complete in less than four years. Over the past years, I have come to realize that my parents are truly proud of me no matter how long it takes me or what my GPA is. Which I wish I could have realized earlier, it would have saved me so much stress. Nevertheless, I am very proud of how much I have grown throughout this experience.

#UMNFirst Advice | My advice for other FirstGen students is to stay focused on your own path. It can be really easy to compare your journey to others and think you are not doing enough, but being here is such a huge accomplishment in itself. So it is ideal to keep hope in yourself and surround yourself with others that will lift you up and help you grow.

Phuong Geiger

CBS Academic Advisor

#FirstGenStory | I went into college with a declared major that I did not know much about and completely failed my first semester. I thought it was the end of the world. However, after my first semester, I registered for different classes that I was interested in and was able to explore different majors and found a major that fit me and what I wanted to do as a career.

#UMNFirst Advice | Find and use campus resources! Please do not be afraid to ask questions. There are no such things as silly questions because many times advisors or instructors do not know what students already know or do not know.

Stefanie Wiesneski

Assistant Director and Chief of CBS Staff Student Services

#FirstGenStory | I'm from a small rural community, where my family has deep roots. Not all graduates from my high school went to college at that time, and most who did were first-generation students. Even though they knew little about the process, my parents were so supportive. I went to a large, public school, and my freshman class was multiple times bigger than my entire hometown. It took awhile to get used to, but I made really good friends that I cherish. My college experience taught me so much and shaped who I am today, and I am so grateful for that. I believe education can transform individuals and communities, and that's why I was motivated to go to graduate school, work with students, and work for greater access to the undergraduate experience.

#UMNFirst Advice | Build and invest in your support system. Whether that is keeping close ties to folks at home, and/or building new friendships, find your people. The people in your support system will be there for you on  days that are hard, and there to cheer for you in all of your victories.

Terra Brister 

Student Engagement Coordinator, CBS Student Services

#FirstGenStory | I will never forget the moment I received my offer from my first “big girl job.” I was getting ready for my hooding ceremony (the celebration for your Masters) and my whole family was squeezed into my studio apartment getting ready and of course I am the last one to get ready. My phone rings about an hour before the ceremony, I am screaming hello, and trying to quiet down my family. I leave my apartment and I am sitting outside with just my hair done and my mom comes out *insert crying as I am writing* and was trying to ask me questions. I pointed to my phone and mouthed, “it's them!!!” I was so nervous and they said, “we want to offer you the job” and continued to talk. They started talking details and going in depth, I was nervous to interrupt them, “hey, um can we discuss this on Monday, I am actually headed to my hooding ceremony.” They apologized and said of course. 

I hung up and my mama said, “What they say?” I started crying and said, “We got the job Ma, we got it, we made it!!!” My mom and I hugged and cried outside for like 5 minutes. I remember my mom repeating “I am so proud of you! The entire time” *insert crying again.* Then she said, “You did that, now girl go get ready, we late!” I called my sister as I was getting ready, cried again about how I got the job. I would not be who I am without my mom and sisters sacrifices, thank you!

#UMNFirst Advice | This is always hard because I hold we experience the world differently. Rather here is a gentle reminder, you deserve to experience joy in the moment. You have the right to laugh and smile until your stomach hurts and you have tears in your eyes!

Trevor Wardill

Assistant Professor Ecology, Evolution and Behavior

#FirstGenStory | My dad did not finish high school (left at grade 10), but my mum did. My dad did art school at night while sweeping floors in a factory. In that same factory he worked his way up the ranks and 40 years later ended up running it completely as the manager of a VISY packaging & can making factory with around 70 employees and millions of dollars of equipment. My mum had four children to deal with and was a successful secretary and accountant for many businesses as time allowed. They are now retired and in their 70s and running braford cattle that weigh over 900 kg in remote areas in northern New South Wales in Australia. 

#UMNFirst Advice | Work hard, be self critical, think smart and ask for advice. Seek good mentors. Don't be afraid to learn new things. Nobody will hand you the position you seek, you need to earn it, and you need to beat the privileged with more money, time, resources, connections, support and better mentors. It can be done and you might even be better trained given all you learnt along the way. But you need to be dedicated.