Chris Lim knows the challenges of being a first-generation student.
Growing up in Malaysia with seven siblings and parents who did not finish high school, it was a struggle to find the money to attend school from the time he was a youngster. He often worked to help pay for tuition which dragged down his grades. But he overcame that and other barriers to eventually earn a PhD in Anatomy and Neurobiology from Boston University School of Medicine.
“As a first-gen student, we can have the mindset that we don't want to ask for help, that we can push through it all by ourselves,” said Dr. Lim, who has been an assistant professor of physician assistant studies at the MGH Institute since 2019. “But as a faculty member, I know it’s important to see if our first-generation students are having difficulties and dealing with things as soon as possible.”
That’s what he’s doing with first-year PA student Dinangile Aulet. A native of the Dominican Republic, Aulet was nine years old when her family immigrated to Puerto Rico. Like Lim, she was a trailblazer in her family, the first one to attend college when she earned an associate degree to become a licensed practical nurse. She eventually married and moved to Boston, where a combination of scholarships and part-time work helped her earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology and biology from the University of Massachusetts Boston. After graduation, she worked in research at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, a pediatric office at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, and for a medical device company. But the pull to directly help people continued to tug at her, so she decided to become a PA at the Institute where Lim has been her advisor since her first days on campus.
“Dr. Lim tells me what things to focus on in his class and tries to be as helpful as he can be because he’s been through it himself,” said Aulet, who meets with him regularly. “He’s very sincere in wanting to help me.”
John Wong remembers what it was like trying to navigate myriad issues when he moved from Hong Kong to the United States to attend college. That’s why he focuses much of his attention working with the IHP’s international students.
“As immigrants, they have to go through the visa process, plus how to maintain their status in the U.S., and many of them are the first in their family to attend college,” said Dr. Wong, an associate professor with appointments in occupational therapy and nursing who has a PhD in biochemistry and cell biology from Rice University in Houston, TX. “I want to help them assimilate so they can succeed.”
He noted that something as small as mispronouncing local cities are among myriad language and culture challenges that can add up to making it a less-than smooth transition into a completely new environment.
“A lot of times we stay quiet even though we have questions and that makes it more challenging and sometimes more frustrating,” said Wong, who was part of developing the Institute’s invisible labor initiative in which some faculty of color have had their teaching loads reduced to create more time to mentor students of color, many of whom are first gens. “You have to develop a thick skin and not be afraid to make mistakes. If people laugh at you then you just laugh with them. Those are self-care, self-help strategies because you're going to have failures. And the important thing is how to learn from them.”
The IHP’s services to first-generation students begin even before they begin classes. Deborah Altsher, director of financial aid, said her office holds informational sessions on budgeting and financing and assists them seeking external scholarships. That’s in addition to the $7.5 million in scholarships the school awarded last year. After students graduate, the finance office holds loan repayment sessions as they begin their new careers.
Students can participate with several clubs such as Minorities Engaged in Dialogue and Service (MEDS) that builds community among BIPOC students and Students for Racial Justice in Healthcare (SRJH) that brings all students together to discuss and advocate for racial justice. In addition, the school’s Wellness Council has a subcommittee dedicated to BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and first gen low-Income student wellness whose mission is to "foster a feeling of community through wellness centered events with the goal of bridging the gap between wellness theory and wellness practice for students with marginalized identities, specifically BIPOC, FGLI and LGBTQ+.”
On November 8, to commemorate National First-Generation Day that recognizes the signing of the 1965 Higher Education Act, the JEDI Office celebrated the students, faculty, staff, and alumni who successfully pursued their dream of higher education.
“Being a first gen gives me added layer of understanding that’s necessary to validate the experiences of current students who also are first gen,” said event moderator Jammy Torres-Millet, the associate director of social justice education & student engagement in the JEDI Office, whose parents migrated from Puerto Rico to Boston in the 1980s.“It allows me to think of ways to expand my support for them because I know firsthand that we're a unique demographic with unique needs.”
The Institute’s attention on assisting first-gen students has not gone unnoticed by Erik Cruz. He’s an Oakland, CA native, whose father is from Puerto Rico and mother from Mexico. Just a few months after beginning the Doctor of Physical Therapy program in the fall of 2021, he connected with assistant professor of physical therapy Dr. Keshrie Naidoo who put him in touch with PT lab instructor Dr. Justin Wong, who is now Cruz’s mentor.
“He's been a great help with orienting me with not only with my PT education but also being a BIPOC student,” said Cruz, who studied exercise science at Brigham Young University in Utah. “That's helped expand my breadth of knowledge and access to resources here at the IHP and helped me feel more comfortable as a first-gen student and has given me the confidence to know that I can succeed.”
The influence of mentors throughout a person’s education can make a huge difference, especially for those whose parents never had the opportunity to attend college. Rachael Salguero, who grew up on a farm in southern Virginia, is just one example of that.
Starting in high school and then at Roanoke College, Salguero found faculty who helped guide her. After arriving at the Institute, where in 2009 she was a member of the first graduating class of the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, she found new role models in nursing faculty - Dr. Eleonor Pusey-Reid (who was her advisor and mentor) and Dr. Kathy Sabo (her first clinical instructor, who also became her mentor).
“I always think that if I never had role models in high school, I would just be living on my parents farm because I’d probably never have gone to college,” said Salguero.
Since joining the nursing faculty in 2020, she has focused much of her attention on students with backgrounds like hers, paying forward what others provided her. “I enjoy working with students where things do not come easy for them because I was that kind of student, and I had to work really hard to get where I am,” said Salguero. “One of my favorite parts about my role is getting an email when they’ve passed the NCLEX on the first try and I know they worked so hard. It’s just incredible to see that.”
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