Speaking from experience

Mount Wachusett Community College students Janice Bergeron and Nicole Leeper were part of a first-generation panel that shared its experiences as part of National First-Generation College Students Day. (Photo: MWCC)

For Margaret Jaillet, being a first-generation student made her “scrappier,” which she says was a good thing.

“Maybe I am not as polished, and maybe I take a few more risks,” said the assistant dean of health professions at Mount Wachusett Community College (MWCC) in Massachusetts. “I think there’s a benefit there. We had to work a little harder. We had to claw a little bit.”

Jaillet was part of a panel of students, faculty and staff who were the first among their families to attend college. The group shared its experiences with MWCC students earlier this month as part of National First-Generation College Students Day. First-generation students comprise nearly two-thirds of students at MWCC.

Advice to share

The panel members addressed not only how being a first-generation college student had impacted their education, but also what current students could do to make their education easier and what drove them to get an education.

“What made me go back to school wasn’t just myself but for my daughter,” said student Nicole Leeper. “I finally got to the point in my life where I couldn’t put it off any longer. I’m glad. I love this college and I love school.”

Other panel members also had strong reasons to get an education, which also helped them to persevere. Train Wu, the college’s academic counselor for Project Healthcare, said there were numerous times he wanted to quit, but he continued on for his family.

“You have to know your ‘why’ when you want to quit. It has to be big enough to make you stick through. My why had to be so big that I couldn’t quit,” said Wu said.

For Janice Bergeron, that motivation was her 16-year-old daughter and four other children. She wanted to get her college degree not only for herself, but to set an example for them to follow. It has worked. That daughter, who is successful in school but was talking about not going to college, saw her mom go to school, and after visiting MWCC she changed her tune and wants to go to college herself.

“She wants to be a nurse. She’s going to be a nurse,” Bergeron said. “I’m thankful that I came back to school and was able to make that impression on my daughter.”

The right supports

But there are times when self-motivation isn’t going to be enough, the group said. That is when it is important to get support. Wu said he did this through the group Slightly Older Students and TRIO, while Jaillet found the support of a friend’s mother, who knew the pitfalls of college and could walk her through. The advice from the panel was to find what works for each student and run with it.

“Believe in yourself and find your support system, whether it’s professors or family. We all have our own style,” said Briana Peña, a career development coach at the college.

Bergeron encouraged students to push through those tough moments by using those supports.

“Ask for help. Don’t quit. There are so many people on this campus,” she said. “If I can do this as a single mom of five children, anybody can do this.”

About the Author

Sam Bonacci
is a communications specialist with Mount Wachusett Community College in Massachusetts.