The Bridge - First generation

What's it like to be the first one in your family to go to college?

Dramatically colored drawing of two people hugging goodbye.

Eric Joloka ’20, born in Liberia, spent the first six years of his life in a refugee camp in Ghana. When he and several members of his family immigrated to the U.S., the goal of becoming a first-generation college student wasn’t even a thought. 

“There were 19 people living in my aunt’s house, a three-bedroom,” he said. “No one complained. We just all knew we were surviving. That’s how it was in the refugee camp.”

As he grew up with his extended family in west Philadelphia, however, his aunt impressed upon him the importance of getting a college education. With a heart for military chaplaincy, he attended Valley Forge Military Academy for two years and then transferred to Messiah University as a biblical and religious studies major. In May, he received his degree, a milestone for him and his family--but only the beginning.

“I want to make my family proud,” he said, “but there’s more to this journey.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics report from 2018, one-third of college students can be classified as first-generation, meaning their parents did not earn a four-year degree. Because these students may enter college not knowing how higher education works, many bring with them a grit and determination to succeed. Here’s how some of Messiah’s first-generation students are making their way. 

Finding the money

Drawing of young man studying a book

Before ever taking a class, Joloka found that wading through the process of applying to college, especially the financial part, required the help of his aunt.

“I was under the impression I could just go to college,” he said, “but my family didn’t have the money to pay for college. She was the one who filled me in that you have to apply for financial aid,” he said. “You can’t just go to college.”

However, Haley Keener ’21, a humanities fellow from Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, says she was keenly aware that paying for tuition would be a key part of the college experience. In any given semester, she’s working two part-time jobs and taking 18 credit hours, all while maintaining her scholarship. She says although her parents aren’t in a position to help her financially, they step up in other practical ways, such as filling out her financial aid forms. 

“My mom said, ‘This is something I can do for my child. I can plug in information.’ They’re supporting me in their own way. It just looks different than a lot of other college kids’ parents,” said Keener.

Messiah professors hold a special place in their hearts for these students who succeed not only at schoolwork but also at navigating college expenses.

“I feel very sympathetic to first-generation students, having been one myself. I love their bravery to pioneer through the academics, but maybe even more so the logistics to know how to pay for college, how to work through paperwork logistics. I’m proud of their tenacity,” said Michelle Lockwood, professor of engineering at Messiah.

Time to hit the books and make your mark

Drawing of student carrying books with papers flying everywhere

Getting into college and financing it is just part of the battle for first-generation students. They then have to figure out college life and as well their classes. Joloka says discipline is the key to making good grades, a lesson he learned after allowing himself too much latitude and freedom during his first semester at Messiah.

“The second semester, I balanced it out and tried harder in my classes, interacted with the professors,” he explained. “There were times I just had to stay in the library. I’d try to not be on my phone. Let me knock this paper out. Let me do this work. God was humbling me in that area.”

While first-generation students are working hard to get an education, they’re also imparting their unique perspectives to those around them.

“I love the voices, perspectives and experiences my first-generation students bring into the classroom. They help me see my discipline and my teaching in new ways and bring both joy and rigor into our shared work,” said Kerry Hasler-Brooks, assistant professor of English at Messiah.

Learning the college language

Growing up, Keener says her parents always stressed the importance of going to college to her and her sister.

“On snow days, our parents wouldn’t let us go outside until we picked three colleges we wanted to go to,” she said. “Their motto was always, ‘You’re not going to turn out like us.’ They wanted us to get better jobs than they had.”

Like any other college student, she has found that her views, opinions and faith have become transformed.

“Being in this diverse climate and in a community that engages in these tough issues like social justice and racial equality, I’ve grown so much in how I look at the world politically and spiritually,” said Keener. 

Passionate about urban education, she plans to become a middle school English teacher. She has already worked in the city of Harrisburg for her field experience of pre-student teaching. In her senior year, she strives to find a balance. Her family gathers for pizza every Sunday after church. Sometimes, she can’t make it because she has to study or has deadlines for assignments.

“It’s almost like a language barrier,” said Keener. “I speak the college language—mid-terms, finals—and they don’t. I want to come home. I want to be involved, but I need to focus on school, too.”

It takes more than a few missed pizza dinners, however, to keep your parents mad.  “It’s embarrassing but cool to see how proud my parents are. When they introduce me to someone, one of the first things they say is, ‘This is Haley, She goes to Messiah.’”

Living your own dreams

Many first-generation students grew up hearing “when” not “if” they were going to college—a sentiment repeated throughout childhood by their parents.

Azianna Yang ’23, a business administration major from Ephrata, Pennsylvania, said with a laugh, “I had a choice, but I also didn’t have a choice at all. They said, ‘We came here for a better life,’ and they’ve always said I’m going to college.”

Her father is from Laos, and her mother grew up in California. Yang says her parents have strongly urged her to become a doctor. Even the elders in her church, over the course of many dinners while she was in high school, counseled her to go to law school or medical school.

Yang, however, prefers to work with numbers, enjoying her business and math courses. 

“When I talk about accounting, [my parents] really do encourage me to share with them. I like the idea that I can reach people in this major. I really love math,” she said. 

She says there’s a saying that first-generation college students end up living the lives their parents wanted. 

“There comes a point where you have to stop living your parents’ lives and their dreams and achieve what you want to do,” said Yang. “I will continue to pursue business because I really just like it. My parents are figuring it out with me.”

A spirit of adventure

Drawing of two parents excited about their daughter in college

First-generation students can be found in every decade of Messiah’s alumni database. To begin her studies, Lois Stern ’70 showed up to Messiah never having visited Grantham before. She says many of her role models when she was growing up attended Tabor College in her hometown in Kansas, but Messiah was her college of choice.

“Arriving on campus and getting settled in my room in the fall of 1966 was the beginning of my independence,” said Stern.

After receiving a degree in behavioral science, she went on to get her master’s in elementary education from Shippensburg University. Her teaching career spanned 33 years and three states—Kansas, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.

That leap of faith is echoed in today’s Gen Z students.

“There will always be someone there to lead you,” said Yang, “whether you look to God or a professor or a friend. Pursue your dreams. Do not let your circumstances hold you back from pursuing your bigger dreams and accomplishments.”

A privilege

As Joloka looks back on his time in a refugee camp where there was little food and nowhere to sleep, he says he sometimes feels isolated from some of the students around him who don’t seem to appreciate their immense privilege. But, giving grace, he realized, “You can’t compare your suffering to other people’s suffering.”

He says he plans to work in military chaplaincy and is already moving audiences with his testimony. 

“It’s an indelible mark on my heart, the struggle,” said Joloka. “My uncles said, ‘This is where we’re from. And you must remember.’”

That familial sense of moving forward, achieving­­—the hope of each parent that one’s children will have a better life than the generation before—remains a common thread for Messiah students and alumni.

--Anna Seip