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Panelists Offer Encouragement to First-Generation Students

Two women stand next to each other in front of the seal of the college.
MWCC students Janice Bergeron and Nicole Leeper were part of the first generation panel that took place on November 8.

Mount Wachusett Community College students, faculty and staff who were the first among their families to have gone to college shared their experiences at a panel in honor of National First Generation College Students Day at MWCC’s Gardner campus.

“I feel like being a first generation student has made me scrappier. Maybe I am not as polished and maybe I take a few more risks. I think there’s a benefit there, we had to work a little harder. We had to claw a little bit,” said MWCC Assistant Dean for the School of Health Professions Margaret Jaillet who was on the panel.

The six person panel included MWCC students Nicole Leeper and Janice Bergeron as well as MWCC staffers Jaillet, Dean of the School of Liberal Arts, Education, Humanities, and Communications Laurie Occhipinti Career Development Coach Briana Peña, Academic Counselor for Project Healthcare Train Wu. All of the addressed not only how being a first generation college student had impacted their education, but also what current students could do to make their education easier and what drove them to get an education.

“What made me go back to school wasn’t just myself but for my daughter,” said Leeper. “I finally got to the point in my life where I couldn’t put it off any longer. I’m glad. I love this college and I love school.”

Numerous members of the panel reinforced Leeper’s story of having a strong reason to get an education, going so far as to say that it is vital to have that reason to latch onto when things get difficult. Wu said there were numerous times he wanted to quit, but he continued on for his family; at first pushing through for his mother and then his children as he sought his Master’s Degree.

“You have to know your why when you want to quit. It has to be big enough to make you stick through.” My why had to be so big that I couldn’t quit,” said Wu.

For Bergeron that motivation was her 16-year old daughter and four other children. She wanted to get her college degree not only for herself but to set an example for them to follow. It has worked. That 16 year-old daughter who is very successful in school but was talking about not going to college saw her mom go to school and after visiting MWCC she changed her tune and wants to go onto college herself.

“She wants to be a nurse. She’s going to be a nurse,” said Bergeron. “I’m thankful that I came back to school and was able to make that impression on my daughter.”

Six people sit in front of a group of people.
MWCC Student Janice Bergeron talks about her experience going to college during a panel discussion.

But there are times when self motivation isn’t going to be enough, they said. That is when it is important to get support. Wu said he did this through the group Slightly Older Students and TRIO, while Jaillet found the support of a friend’s mother who knew the pitfalls of college and could walk her through. The resounding advice from everyone involved was to find what works for each student and run with it.

“Believe in yourself and find your support system whether it’s professors or family. We all have our own style,” said Pena.

“Keep doing what you’re doing cause you’re doing the right thing and find your people,” echoed Jaillet.

Bergeron encouraged students to push through those tough moments by using those supports.

“Ask for help. Don’t quit. There are so many people on this campus,” she said. “If I can do this as a single mom of five children, anybody can do this.”

But, importantly, the group encouraged students to embrace being first generation. It can be hard to explain what you are studying to people who have never gone through higher education, said Occhipinti who was an anthropology major, but you have to be confident in yourself. Some of the panelists said that the struggles they experienced as first generation college students were incredibly formative and that they would not trade those for an easier path.

“I feel like being a first generation student has made me scrappier. Maybe I am not as polished and maybe I take a few more risks. I think there’s a benefit there, we had to work a little harder. We had to claw a little bit,” said Jaillet.

Pena said she would never have discovered her love of marketing without her own personal challenges.

“I’m proud to be a first generation student. The barriers… built me into who I am. The challenges I experienced made me a stronger person,” she said. “Without those barriers and challenges, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

The panel was part of a celebration of first generation students at MWCC as part of National First Generation College Students Day. This day serves as an opportunity to encourage first generation students, who make up roughly 65 percent of MWCC’s student population, while also recognizing all the accomplishments of first generation students.