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First-generation students, graduates are diverse group

| Gary Johnson (story); Jesse Yang (video)

Dr. Harry Jol, Olga Diaz and Dr. Ryan Weichelt — all respected leaders at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire — have dedicated their careers to making sure all their students have what they need to be successful in and after college.

However, as first-generation college graduates, they also know that students who are the first in their families to go to college likely need something more or different from them. After all, they are navigating the complex world of higher education without the kind of help many of their peers can get with a quick call home.

Olga Diaz

Olga Diaz

“What does it mean to be first-gen? It means to be courageous, to be ready to have to figure things out on your own,” says Diaz, UW-Eau Claire’s vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion and student affairs. “It also means you have to be comfortable asking for help when something is confusing. You don’t have to suffer through it. If you ask around there is always somebody nearby who is also first-gen, who has a similar experience who can guide you to the resources you need or help you think through some of the concerns you might have.”

UW-Eau Claire will recognize and celebrate its many first-gen faculty, staff and students on Nov. 8, National First-Generation College Celebration Day.

UW-Eau Claire’s first-generation students and graduates come from a variety of urban and rural backgrounds, as well as different socioeconomic situations. A total of 25% of incoming Blugold freshmen are the first in their families to attend college, and 28% of all students on campus are first-generation students.

“Everyone has a different journey,” says Jaden Mikoulinskii, a senior sociology major and Student Senate president. “People from all realms of intersectionality can be first-generation college students and there’s not really any way to tell by looking at them.”

Blugolds are fortunate they don’t have to look far on campus to find role models who have successfully navigated the often-difficult journey of first-generation students. Many of their professors and campus leaders also were the first in their families to earn four-year degrees.

Harry Jol portrait

Dr. Harry Jol

Growing up, Jol, now a professor of geography, thought university was a distant playground on a mountain that rose above his hometown of Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada.

Diaz’s parents moved from Mexico to the U.S. to work, bringing with them a desire for their children to use higher education as a springboard to a better life.

Weichelt, a professor of geography, was expected to go to college after his older siblings left behind their middle-class Marshfield home to pursue university degrees.

Long before he was an internationally known geography professor and researcher, Jol was a young boy who liked to visit his immigrant father as he worked as an animal care technician at two universities, first in Ontario, Canada, and later in British Columbia. The younger Jol initially thought the campus was simply a great place to ride his bike with friends or to sneak into buildings to see his father. He didn’t see it as an option for his future career path.

“Going to university was not what one does in a blue-collar town with a large port facility — less than 1% of my graduating class went to university — even though we could see the university on the mountaintop above where I went to high school,” Jol says.

High school teachers and friends encouraged Jol to participate in a science lecture series on the campus, where he learned university was an option. He enrolled, took a year off to participate in an immersive international development program in Indonesia, and returned rejuvenated in pursuit of a career in geography.

“Upon returning I was more focused and the departmental faculty, graduate students and undergraduate geography club were welcoming,” Jol recalls. “Soon I was out on field trips, getting involved in funded undergraduate research out on the Fraser River Delta and have never looked back.”

Diaz was an eager student as a child who wanted to attend a university, in part, because it was important for her entire family. Diaz’s mother had a fifth-grade education and her father had six years of schooling in Mexico.

“One of the things they always placed a high value on was education because they didn’t have it and they knew how hard that made their lives,” Diaz says. “They wanted me to have something more and something better.”

While her parents were supportive of her educational endeavors, they had no personal experiences that could answer Diaz’s questions about admissions, financial aid and coursework when she started her undergraduate studies in California. Diaz persevered, working multiple jobs as she obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Today, she is studying for her doctoral degree online at the University of Southern California as she assists first-generation students at UW-Eau Claire.

“The important thing is that you can’t give up,” Diaz says of being a first-generation student. “It’s going to be hard, absolutely it’s going to be challenging, but it’s also very rewarding.”

Ryan Weichelt

Dr. Ryan Weichelt

Weichelt can relate to his Blugold students who are the first college student in their family. He also was a first-generation student who studied at UW-Eau Claire.

“Students like to know that professors are people,” Weichelt says. “I think these experiences make class much more enjoyable for them and much more enjoyable for me to give them that information and know what they’re going through here at UW-Eau Claire. All professors went to college but not all professors actually went to the same institution as an undergrad. I think that helps me to understand what they’re going through here on campus.”

It's easy for first-generation students to feel alone in the process of figuring out college life, says Mikoulinskii, but they are not alone. UW-Eau Claire’s faculty and staff always are available to provide guidance, she says, specifically pointing out the work of the Student Support Services office. 

UW-Eau Claire junior Brooke Hafke, an elementary education major and English language arts minor from Portage, says the Student Support Services office has been integral in helping to make college a positive experience for her.

After Hafke's parents divorced when she was in kindergarten, she saw how her mother had to fight to make ends meet while raising two daughters and working a minimum-wage job.

“I watched her struggle, balancing everything just to try to make things work,” Hafke says of her mother. “I wanted to go to college and become successful. I want to make my mom proud of me for having the opportunity she didn't have when she was younger.”

Hafke recognizes the difficulty and the pressures — both financially and academically — as the first in her family to go to college. She knows there are many Blugolds just like her on campus and encourages them to ask other first-generation students, professors and staff for assistance.

“First-gen students, please know that you are not alone in this experience,” Hafke says. “There are many students who are going through the same thing and we all should be proud of each other.”

Diaz wants students to know that all first-generation graduates struggled to get where they are today.

“Part of the reason I do this work in higher ed is because of my gratitude for the people who helped me through my educational experience,” Diaz says. “I’m paying it forward and paying it back. Sharing the story with students who are first-gen helps them see themselves in me or in my colleagues on this campus who are first-gen as well. We made it. We got here. It’s not impossible.”