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Campus & Community

Terp Firsts Share Stories of Strength

Stamp Exhibit Highlights Experiences of First-Gen Students, Faculty and Staff

By Maggie Haslam

circular headshots over a chalkboard that says Fearless First

As part of the National First-Generation Celebration, students, faculty and staff who were first in their family to graduate from or attend a four-year college reflect on their experiences.

Photos courtesy of UMD community members; collage by Valerie Morgan

As a first-generation college student, Susan Rivera felt one step behind. She showed up on her first day at Indiana University with the wrong size sheets, not knowing the dorm beds were extra-long. She had never heard the term “graduate school” until she overheard it one day during class.

“I remember thinking, ‘What are they talking about?’ but was too embarrassed to ask,” said Rivera, who eventually earned her doctorate and is now dean of the University of Maryland’s College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. “But the good thing about having that experience, is that I can see things through that lens. It informs the way I lead a lot.”

Words of reflection from students, faculty and staff who were first in their family to graduate from or attend a four-year college will line the Stamp Student Union’s ground floor lobby today as part of the university’s participation in the annual National First-Generation Celebration on Wednesday.

Created in partnership with UMD’s Academic Achievements Programs and the Division of Student Affairs, the exhibit puts a face to the strength, intelligence, creativity and fearlessness it takes to navigate the rigors of college life without the wisdom of a parent or caregiver’s experience, said Bridgette Behling, associate director of leadership, engagement, advocacy and diversity for the Stamp.

“We really want to continue to build awareness on campus and let students know they are not alone. We have a beautiful, strong first-generation community here at Maryland,” she said.

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Around 20% of UMD’s undergraduate student body is first-generation college students. Beyond wading through the complexities of college applications, financial aid and course selections, many first-gen students also juggle school with family and work; according to the Center for First Generation Student Success, the median family income of first-gen students is less than half of continuing generation students.

“It was a struggle and a lot of pressure,” said Maria Reyes ’23, who is applying to graduate school after completing a family science degree. “I felt like I was doing this, in a way, for my family. Now I look back on it and feel like I have a source of something that can create better opportunities.”

The exhibit also demonstrates that first-gen students are in good company: A number of faculty and staff at Maryland were also once the first in their families to graduate from college from Rivera to university President Darryll J. Pines.

“Our first-gen students have very different stories, but the guidance, opportunity, motivation and support they require to navigate the maze of college has always been constant,” said Jerry Lewis, director of the Academic Achievements Programs, who was also first in his family to go to college. “Identifying as a first-generation student is a way for other students, faculty and staff to say, ‘I’ve gone through what you’ve gone through, you can come to me.’ Being a first-gen student shouldn’t preempt your ability to achieve your goals.”

As Maryland’s first-gen community grows, so will the project: A photo booth and cards will be available for students, faculty and staff to add their story to the existing collection, inspiring future first-gens for years to come.

Read on for a glimpse at some of the stories from the gallery exhibit:

Dulce Ortiz ’26, criminology and criminal justice

“I was raised in a household where college was the next step. It was kind of set in stone, in a good way. My parents came to this country from Guatemala in their 20s and English isn’t their first language; they haven’t been able to help me in the ways that my friends’ parents could. But I’ve found mentors along the way who have provided a sense of support. I’m best friends with my high school guidance counselor; not many people can say that! College is so big compared to high school, but as long as I can keep finding those people and places of support along the way, I know I’ll be on the right track.”

Eliza Bowden, executive chef, Good Tidings Catering & Goodies to Go

“My family was rural poor, and my parents didn’t see the value of education; they didn’t know how to support it or didn’t buy into it. My sister found a college brochure in the high school guidance office, and I thought, ‘Whoa, this is a thing?’ I knew it was an opportunity, but also it was an escape from poverty. Now my sisters and I are all college-educated, and I’m so proud of that. It’s something that I created and worked for that can’t be taken away from me.”

Casey Lopes ’23, M.A. ’24, graduate coordinator for Latinx student involvement and advocacy, Office of Multicultural Involvement and Community Advocacy

“As a first-gen student the whole process was so new for me. I think the biggest struggle was financial aid; my family didn’t know how to navigate it at all, and it was really up to me. I spent a lot of time on the phone and in the financial aid office. It was a real point of pride for me that I was able to get through all of that. But I was most proud when I saw how proud my parents were. At graduation, both of my parents were crying, and my dad rarely cries. I remember he said, ‘We came to this country, and it was all worth it!’”

Gatha Adhikari, doctoral student in bioengineering

“I feel like I’m doing this for my family, for the people who came before me and for the people who will come after me. When I call back home (to Nepal), my mom tells me, ‘People are talking about you. They are using you as an example for their kids. Gatha did it, you can do it.’ It’s easy to become distracted by all the work there is to do, but I try to take the time to remember that and reflect on how far I’ve come.”

Aaron Bobik, director of development, College of Education

“I grew up in a working-class family in Maine. College for me was not something I decided to do, it was kind of an expectation. I had some wonderful teachers in high school, but when it came to the mechanics of applying to and going to college, I had no idea what I was doing. I remember my parents dropping me off, and they had no idea what they were doing either. While I’m very proud to identify as a first-generation college graduate, I’m also very proud that my children will not. They’ll have parents who can guide them.”

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