University Celebrates Diverse Community of First-Generation Students
As part of its commemoration of First-Generation Celebration Day, the University of New Haven held an event to foster support and cultivate a sense of belonging for students who are the first in their family to go to college.
November 17, 2021
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
Saige Batza ’25 recently took the opportunity to connect with other students at the University who, like her, are the first in their family to go to college. She says it was a great opportunity, and she’s grateful for the support of the University community.
As part of First-Generation Celebration Day, which was created in 2017 by the Council for Opportunity in Education and the Center for First-Generation of Success and is celebrated each year on November 8, the University held a celebration designed to connect first-generation students, faculty, and staff. It was a meaningful way for them to share their experiences and to foster a sense of community.
“It means a lot to be able to embrace being a first-generation student,” said Batza, a psychology major. “It also means a lot to my family. I’m glad the University offers events like this, and the people here have been amazing.”
Approximately 40 percent of students at the University are, like Batza, first-generation college students. Many who attended the celebration, including Sofia Martinez ’22 and Ariana Eastwood ’23, are active members of the University community and are dedicated to making sure their fellow Chargers feel a sense of support and belonging.
As part of the event, Larry Flanagan ’80, ’13 Hon., retired president and CEO of AARP Services, Inc. and a first-generation student, shared his story with students. After beginning his college career at the University three years after graduating from high school, he experienced moments of excitement and pride (his proud mother called him her “little professor”) as well as fear and self-doubt, as he pursued his degree in marketing.
Flanagan told students how he persevered, despite the challenges of being the first person on both sides of his family to attend college. As a student, he fell in love with advertising and dreamed of working on Madison Avenue in New York. He ended up working for one of the largest ad agencies in the world shortly after graduating. He went to become the global chief marketing and communications officer at MasterCard, where he helped launch the company’s hugely successful “Priceless” campaign.
“I couldn’t discuss my experience with anyone in my family, as they had no idea what I was going through,” explained Flanagan, a member of the University’s Board of Governors and chair of the Academic and Student Affairs Committee. “My mom and my brother and sisters thought that, when I graduated, I was going to open a market. They thought that’s what marketing was.
“I’m sure you understand struggling with questions, challenges, and your own internal doubts,” Flanagan continued. “I believe the challenges I overcame as a first-generation student energized me throughout my career and to today.”
Flanagan’s message resonated with Candice Deal, Ph.D., assistant dean of the University’s Pompea College of Business and a first-generation student herself. Not only did she learn how to navigate college life as a young student, she also adjusted to being in a new country.
“As an 18-year-old from a tight-knit family in the Bahamas, I didn’t know what I was getting into when I left home and my home country to attend college,” she explains. “When I started college, I didn’t know what credits were. From that 18-year-old to becoming a professor, it’s eye-opening how far I’ve come.”
‘It’s nice to feel supported’
Flanagan’s story also stuck with Elizabeth Hall ’24, a psychology major. She says his inspirational message – and the event itself – enabled her to feel supported and heard.
“I think it was very meaningful, and I appreciate the story he told,” she said. “I related to it when he discussed not wanting to disappoint his family and not always knowing what to do. My mom was also proud when I went to college, and I didn’t want to disappoint her or myself, but sometimes it is overwhelming.”
Hall is endeavoring to foster more connections between first-generation students. She is serving as vice president for a new organization that offers support and community for first-generation students.
Isabelle Hajek ’22, a first-generation student and a psychology major, is doing her part to help support fellow first-generation students. A resident assistant, she is passionate about making sure those following in her footsteps feel connected to the University community and that they avail themselves of all the resources and support it has to offer.
“There’s a big learning curve for first-generation students, and it can be overwhelming,” she said. “As a resident assistant, I look forward to connecting students with this new organization. It’s an important step in the right direction for first-generation students, and it’s nice to feel supported.”