It’s not easy being a first-generation college student, take it from me

Published: January 07, 2020

by Dr. Timothy G. Lynch, President, Queensborough Community College

There may be impediments to college success, but you can overcome them

I was raised in a strict, Irish Catholic home, in public housing in upper Manhattan during the 80s and 90s. Crack was rampant and New York City murder rates were extraordinarily high. My three siblings and I were fortunate, but friends and neighbors fell victim to addiction or incarceration.

Queensborough Interim President Dr. Timothy G. Lynch

Our parents worked long and hard. Dad was an autoworker. Mom had different part-time jobs. Though neither finished high school, they made education the foundation of our upbringing.

My parents sent us to Catholic school. They scratched and saved to do that. We never went on family vacations. In the summer, however, I would go to the city’s free museums with my father. It was great. I fell in love with history at The Met and The American Museum of Natural History, and developed a deep appreciation for being a New Yorker. We were blessed with rich diversity, expansive resources and opportunities that could not be matched anywhere. We still are.

The City University of New York is one such marvel; something extraordinary, especially for first-generation college students like me.

I went to Brooklyn College on academic scholarship and then to the Graduate Center. It was a whole new world for me, in every respect. I was challenged in ways that I’d never been before – from the long subway ride and paying for textbooks to reading a thousand pages of history a week. And like most first-generation students, I worked full time. I was a Park Avenue doorman; a position that provided me with a whole new perspective on my environment.

It became clear how transformative CUNY was for me and how important it was to have higher education accessible to everyone; obstacles needed to be removed and doors opened wider so underrepresented students could be better served, especially those who were the first in their families to go to college.

With excellent CUNY support systems and the help of inspiring faculty mentors such as Professors Hans Trefousse (Brooklyn College) and Tom Kessner (The Graduate Center), I succeeded.

Hans’s influence on me was incalculable. He was a great historian and an even better man. His passion for teaching, and for making the minutiae of history matter, was astounding. Tom Kessner convinced me to stay in school when I did not think I could; his enthusiasm was infectious.

As Interim President of Queensborough Community College, I frequently share these moments of my life with students and we talk about the challenges and uncertainties of going to college.

It may come as a surprise to you, but they tell me that classes and homework are not the hardest parts.

It’s everything else life throws in: working full-time jobs, family responsibilities, paying for rent and food, arranging for childcare, sending money home, buying textbooks and covering unexpected costs.

Then there are the cultural gaps they face as first-generation undergraduates. College is brand new. There are no road maps, or family members, for them to follow. They encounter some difficulty comprehending academic terms and expectations. No one at home can help with financial aid paperwork, course advisement or career services. While they usually have legions of family and friends cheering for their success, many wonder if they have it in them to attend college, let alone succeed and go on to something more.

The obstacles they face are formidable, but not insurmountable.

Queensborough’s 16 thousand students come from 130 countries and speak 79 languages. 70% live in families earning less than $30K a year (the poverty threshold in New York City for a family of one adult and three children is $30,874). About half are first-generation college students.

All have access to an array of CUNY that provide a range of financial, academic, legal, social, and personal assistance services. Behind each program – ASAP, Single Stop, CUNY Edge, CRSP, CSTEP, RIMS and more – is an army of advisers, counselors and educators, all supporting student success.

Together, an overwhelming majority of students in these programs succeed. They complete their studies, get their associate degree, transfer to four-year colleges or universities, or start their professional careers. 90% graduate debt free.

It is a great success story for CUNY, but even more meaningful for the individuals who have transformed themselves.

Each have their own story, like Queensborough alumnus Jermaine Meadows from East New York. This first-generation student is now a Master’s student and mentor at SUNY Albany, contributing to higher education policy development. Julio Salas, a first-generation graduate from Corona, is studying pre-med at Cornell in Ithaca. Kaylynn Pubill, another Queensborough graduate, who commuted from the Bronx every day by bus and is the first in her family to follow through with college, is now a Biology student at Hunter College.

These bright young scholars succeeded at Queensborough, like everyone can – unhindered and unhampered, in an environment they say championed diversity, valued inclusivity, and enabled opportunity.

Jermaine notes one of the biggest lessons he learned at Queensborough was to “truly believe in yourself.” As a mentor to younger students he tells them, “Don’t let your circumstances conquer you. If you fall, get back up.”

Julio didn't realize, at first, “the number of opportunities and value Queensborough offered” him.

Kaylynn says it took her a while to “let go of self-doubt and fear” that held her back. She told herself, “You have guts. Put your ego aside and be open to growing.” Jermaine, Julio and Kaylynn acknowledge that education is the engine of upward social mobility, as do I, and countless others.

Their alma mater, Queensborough, rates highly (it is the highest-rated community college in the New York area) and is well known for its great success in moving low-income students into the middle class upon graduation.

We have award-winning academics, distinguished faculty (more than 80% hold a doctorate or terminal degree; three times the national average) and Queensborough is known nationally as a leader in undergraduate research.

What may be less obvious, until you get to know Queensborough, is the extent to which a community college like ours believes in every individual and how far we will go to ensure that every student has the opportunity to achieve success.

I was fortunate. I went from the projects to the presidency. Good preparation, hard work, and opportunity converged and I am blessed now with a career that allows me to give back.

First-generation students – no matter their origins, level of education or English skills – can access CUNY and all of the economic and social opportunities it presents. Community colleges, like Queensborough, offer infinite possibilities for everyone to succeed.


Contact:  Michael Donahue or Alice Doyle

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