I was a full professor and a department chair before it occurred to me to tell anyone my own story. One day, several years ago, I met with a first-generation college student who was also a first-generation American citizen. She had just won our department’s top academic award and expressed her perception that she wasn’t “good enough” to continue on to graduate or medical school. During this conversation, she specifically pointed to me as an example of “what it took.” For the first time, I realized that the official version of me – my visible academic achievements – was presenting a limited view of who I actually am. When I told her about my own background, she was stunned.
I was the first in my family to attend – and graduate from – college, an achievement made possible by a Pell Grant, student loans, a campus job as an RA, and scholarships. When I started college, I had no frame of reference; my father didn’t graduate from high school, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. I ultimately became a scientist, but when I entered college, I had no idea that becoming one was even a career path. In important ways, serendipity – and my approach of trying things to figure out what I should be doing – made all the difference. I found out about undergraduate research by accident when a friend, whose parents were both medical doctors, started working in a lab. I had no idea what research was, but it sounded interesting. I found a faculty member who was willing to have me join his group. Quite unexpectedly, I discovered a passion for experimental science that I didn’t even know that I had.
My path through college was anything but straightforward. When I decided to change my major from pre-dentistry to molecular biology, I suddenly had to fit four years of requirements into three. My parents were unconditionally supportive, but they were anxious about the unknown and as a result frequently asked me if I was doing the “right thing.”
But my college advisor met with me regularly to make sure that I was on track, one semester at a time. Bolstered by her constant support and mentorship, I decided to apply to graduate school, and went on to build an academic career as a biochemist, teacher, program director, department head, dean and provost.
I want to be clear that, other than a strong streak of stubbornness, there is nothing particularly remarkable about me. I ended up here today because I have benefitted immensely and consistently throughout my entire education and career, even to this day, by a whole team of mentors. They believed in me when I couldn’t see it myself and supported me when I didn’t know what I needed.
Along the way, my background and gender set me apart, and these differences were made apparent to me by my peers and colleagues – everything from a professor asking me why I was enrolled in his course to a department chair asking me if my pregnancies were planned.
As I relayed this story to the promising undergraduate student, I realized what a difference mentors can make. Over the next few years, I took an active role in mentoring her as she worked in a lab, took a few of my classes, applied to and was admitted to an M.D.-Ph.D. program, and was awarded an NIH fellowship for her dissertation work. She had all of the talent in the world to achieve these things; she just needed someone to help her to navigate her options and to cheer her on. She was also amazingly talented outside of science, and she painted a picture for me, which hangs in my office now as a reminder of what’s important.
November 8th is National First-Generation College Celebration when we celebrate the success and presence of first-generation students, faculty and staff on all of our campuses. More than 30 percent of UW undergraduates are first-generation students, and each of us contributes to their success, whether we teach introductory courses, provide student support services or maintain academic spaces. As my story shows, even the smallest of actions can have a significant impact by helping first-generation students to realize more quickly that a difference in experience is not an impediment to achieving their aspirations given their ability, talent, creativity, dedication, and passion.
The trajectory of my life was transformed by my opportunity to earn a college degree, and the key aspect of that transformation was finding a passion for science. For me, this work is about paying forward the gift that I have received. Through my own experience, I know that whenever we teach, mentor or guide a first-generation student, their lives and our world will be changed for the better.
When I’m asked who was my most influential role model, I never hesitate. It was my dad, who always supported me and grounded me in realistic expectations. Whenever I was struggling, he would ask if I was doing my best and would remind me that my best was all that could ever be asked of me. I’ve learned over the course of my life and career that the support of others expands what my best looks like and the great joy that comes with serving in that role for others.