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Kari Plog '11

Maria Chavez smiling
Pave the Way 1024 532 Kari Plog '11

Pave the Way

Maria Chávez leads with her own experience when she addresses academic opportunity and achievement. Specifically, she empathizes with students who come from marginalized populations.

Chávez, chair of politics and government and associate professor of political science, identifies as Latina. She’s a native Spanish speaker who didn’t learn English before beginning school. She was raised in an immigrant household in the Southwest and experienced many of the obstacles fellow Latinos face every day in the U.S.

Like many who come from a similar background, Chávez was the first in her family to graduate from college, despite the barriers she faced. She came from a home and a school system that didn’t encourage her to pursue higher education. She didn’t know the questions to ask regarding that pursuit.

“It informs the research I do,” she said.

And in the fall, Chávez’s past struggles and successes informed her talk at the annual Pave the Way Conference, where she served as one of three featured speakers. She presented to hundreds of educators, policymakers, and nonprofit and industry partners about the opportunity gap in Washington state. The annual conference focuses on increasing educational attainment by supporting historically marginalized, underrepresented and underserved students across the lifespan of learning.

The theme for the fall event, which took place Oct. 19 at Central Washington University, was “Advancing Equity, Expanding Opportunity, Increasing Attainment.” Participants shared effective strategies for educational success among underserved populations of students, engaged lifelong learning partners through meaningful professional development, and fostered cross-sector collaboration on issues related to student access and readiness.

“It’s important that, if we want a strong democracy, we must have inclusion from all voices,” Chávez said. Inclusion of all voices is paramount to educational success for all students, marginalized or otherwise, she added. “The more connected we are, the better able we are to improve society. Diversity in profession and education benefits everyone.”

Chávez said her speech at the conference focused on the findings of her most recent book project, which is due out in 2019. The book, titled Latino Professional Success in America: Public Policies, People, and Perseverance, explores how first-generation Latinos became professionals, their experiences as professionals amid the country’s institutional racism, and the policies and programs this group believes would help increase their presence in the professional world.

Chávez says Latinos are the largest ethnic group in the U.S., yet they significantly lack representation in professions across the board.

“Latinos are underrepresented in powerful segments of American society,” she said. “We must ask what the implications of this continued political and professional underrepresentation is on our society and our democratic institutions. Beyond issues of representation, this research is important for our civic health.”

She said that fact clearly illustrates the need to address the achievement gap through better public policies and educational support systems at every stage in the pipeline.

“It’s inequitable practices in education that lead to a lack of achievement for groups of people,” she said. “If we can’t fulfill our potential because we just don’t have a way to do it, then we aren’t getting to the realization of human dignity.”

Underrepresentation by the numbers

Maria Chavez cited U.S. Census data that show Latinos represent 17 percent of the population at 55.4 million people. It’s estimated that representation is going to grow significantly in the next several decades. She noted that Latinos and other people of color are expected to account for 56 percent of the population by 2060. Despite these numbers, representation of the Latino population still significantly lags:


Nation's Lawyers


Scientists and engineers


Practicing medical doctors


Full-time faculty members at degree-granting institutions of higher education


Nation’s Congressional representatives


Elected officials nationwide

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, American Bar Association, National Science Foundation, American Medical Association, National Center for Education Statistics, National Association of Latino Elected Officials

Chávez said she sought out and received support throughout her own educational journey, despite external challenges: a cultural background in which she says women’s ambitions were often suppressed and a racially segregated community in which Latinos were often oppressed. She started in community college, transferred to California State University, Chico, and eventually earned her master’s degree there. She made the dean’s list each semester and was encouraged to apply to graduate school, landing her at Washington State University where she earned her Ph.D. She’s been teaching classes at PLU since 2006.

The key to persistence for marginalized students, and subsequently their success, is building support systems similar to the ones she had, Chávez said. To get there, she says leaders should avoid polarizing, zero-sum approaches to solutions and exhibit compassion for all sides.

“It’s really about getting us together and making this society better,” she said. “These conversations have to happen. But they have to happen better, more thoughtfully.”

Malia Oshiro '13, teaching in her classroom at Kentridge HS
The Prologue 1024 427 Kari Plog '11

The Prologue

First In The Family logo

At the start of each school year, Malia Oshiro ’13 proudly introduces herself as a first-generation college graduate. It’s the prologue to her career as an English teacher, a pivotal piece of her story that continues to inform her approach to education — for herself and her students.

But Oshiro didn’t always wear her status as first in the family like a badge of honor. Early in her undergraduate years at Pacific Lutheran University, she kept quiet about it, paralyzed with anxious thoughts nagging in the back of her mind: I don’t deserve to be here. That person is more qualified. Are they going to recognize that I’m here because of my achievements?

“It was almost a shame thing. I didn’t want to talk about it,” Oshiro said. “It’s a thing that makes you different.”

Now, sitting against a backdrop of classroom walls plastered with inspirational literary quotes, she understands how important it is for her to open up about that salient piece of her identity.

“I don’t think I ever had a teacher who was a first-gen student,” she said. “Or they just never talked about it.”

So, she is talking about it.

“It’s always the first thing I mention, that I was a first-gen college student and the first one in my family to get a master’s degree,” she said. “And I did it because I wanted to be the first.”

Her decision to attend college was cultivated at home, by her parents who never earned degrees but constantly stressed the value of education.

Oshiro’s father — born and raised in Oahu, Hawaii — served in the Army as part of the last wave of soldiers to be drafted. Coming from a large family with lots of siblings, college was a distant possibility for him. Still, Oshiro’s “super creative” dad, as she lovingly describes him, attempted to pursue an associate degree in graphic design and visual arts. The birth of Oshiro’s older sister ended that pursuit prematurely.

“He constantly used that as a teachable moment for my siblings and I,” Oshiro said, underscoring the sacrifice he made. “That feeling you have when you’re almost within reach, it’s not something you want to have.”

Malia Oshiro's room is covered is inspirational quotes, in her "Keep the quote" corner

Oshiro said her mother had limited family support and immediately entered the workforce after graduating from high school, before eventually staying home with her kids. Growing up, Oshiro and her siblings — thanks to their mom — did as much learning at home as they did at school.

“She made sure we would have extra practice with these little workbooks she would buy from Costco,” Oshiro said. “I was surrounded by and immersed in education, school, books, reading. That gave me the love for the subject area I teach, and it was a natural thing for me to become a teacher.”

The extra work was fun, too: “She made it fun,” she said of her mom.

That foundation from her upbringing served as a catalyst for Oshiro’s persistence in pursuing higher education, despite the challenges she knew lay ahead.

“They really emphasized the value of learning,” Oshiro said of her parents. “Once you have an education, you can’t give that up to someone. It’s something you’ll have for the rest of your life.”

Malia Oshiro has a nameplate on her desk that reads "World's Greatest Teacher because 'superhero' isn't an official job title

Oshiro describes dipping her toe into the college experience as an exercise of “trial by fire.” Her parents already had tested the waters with her older brother, who went to the University of Washington Tacoma for business — a field Oshiro tried to embrace, but knew right away wasn’t a good fit.

“It just didn’t feel right,” she said. “I wasn’t engaged in the content at all.”

Malia Oshiro talking with one of her students

Navigating the financial responsibility of college overwhelmed Oshiro, too. Although her mom — at one time a bookkeeper — helped shoulder some of the stress, Oshiro says the jargon and many moving parts prompted a lot of tears.

“I know I’m smart, why am I not understanding this?” she recalled thinking. “After graduation, I was late on three (student loan) payments because I didn’t know where to send the payments to. Stuff was getting lost in the mail. It’s almost like you’re being set up or tricked just for not having known or being born into it.”

Oshiro admits it wasn’t easy transitioning from a place of fear and shame to one of triumph and pride. She rooted herself in the Diversity Center, where she found mentors who helped her reframe her experience.

“Not to minimize it,” she stressed, “but realizing it doesn’t have to be the only thing that defines you.”

Oshiro said her academic spaces also offered valuable support; education professors were compassionate, understanding and relatable during some of her most difficult times, including the death of her grandmother that hit her hard. “I felt comfortable confiding in them,” she said.

While there were plenty of challenges related to her college experience, Oshiro says it made the successes that much sweeter. A euphoric feeling engulfed Oshiro as she walked across the commencement stage five years ago — her late grandmother’s voice echoing in the back of her head, praising her accomplishment. And it was only the beginning.

“I was so hungry for more education,” she said. After a year of teaching, she enrolled in an online master’s program through Walden University, eventually finishing with a 4.0 grade-point average despite teaching full time on the side.

“I don’t know how I did it,” she recalled. “I felt like a crazy person most of the time.”

Oshiro says her first-in-the-family identity informs how she teaches, an approach that continues to evolve.

Monday through Friday, roughly 150 kids rotate through her classroom at Kentridge High School. She admits there are good days and bad days within the minutia.

On bad days, she reminds herself to acknowledge what she can’t see — something she learned navigating her own educational journey.

“You see these kids sitting in desks every day, and there’s not always a visible explanation for why they are the way they are,” she said. “No one wants to fail.”

That understanding came in handy on one of the bad days, when a student swore at her in class. She wrote him up and kicked him out into the hallway.

“I was very dramatic about it, to make sure the other kids knew you don’t speak to an adult that way and you don’t disrespect yourself that way,” she said. “And when I went out there, he was crying.”

She realized the student’s troubles transcended swear words lobbed at a teacher in a classroom. After talking further with the student, Oshiro ripped up the discipline referral. “That eased a lot of his anxiety,” she said. “He had a lot of things going on that he didn’t think his teachers could understand.”

Oshiro could relate to her student in that moment, harkening back to her own brush with failure in college. She underperformed in a couple classes, as a result of her personal anxieties, and risked not graduating.

“I struggled hard with being disciplined and being interested in the work,” she said of the courses, “I failed two exams and ended up having to schedule blocks of time in a study room in the library for hours at a time to force myself to do the work.”

“It was almost a shame thing. I didn’t want to talk about it. It’s a thing that makes you different.”

While that first experience with major failure was terrible, she acknowledges it helped make her a better teacher.

“I think it makes me a lot more empathetic,” Oshiro said of facing adversity in college. “I can better understand people because I know myself better now.”

So, each school year when she talks about the thing that makes her different, Oshiro beams with pride. She says first-generation college students deeply appreciate their educational experience — and it makes institutions better for having them.

“It’s a value for education,” she said. “You really cherish it.”

Emily Davidson's writing class conducted in Spanish at PLU
Heritage Speakers Embrace Firsts Together 1024 540 Kari Plog '11

Heritage Speakers Embrace Firsts Together

Estudiantes de español como lengua heredada celebran nuevas experiencias juntos

First In The Family logo

Emily Davidson ’98 pursued the study of Spanish, in part, to prove herself to her grandmother.

“I wanted to prove to her that I was really Latina,” she said, with a laugh.

Davidson, now an assistant professor of Hispanic studies at Pacific Lutheran University, says many of her college experiences — including traveling by herself to her mother’s home country Panama after graduation — were motivated by a desire to show her family she was authentically one of them.

“For me, it was important in developing my identity to fully develop my language skills,” she said.

That self exploration informs how Davidson educates her bilingual students, who take the “Spanish for Heritage Speakers” courses she launched at PLU. All of them grew up speaking Spanish at home.

“Each family has a different dynamic,” Davidson said. “In some homes, they speak all in Spanish, but in most, you might speak Spanish to grandma, code-switch between English and Spanish with your parents, and speak Spanglish and English with your siblings.”

During a recent discussion with the spring-semester class, Davidson jotted bullet points across a whiteboard about the assigned reading “I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala.” In the testimonial — written in many world languages, including Spanish, despite the English title used in class — the Nobel Peace Prize winner reflects on her experiences as an indigenous woman in Guatemala amid political terror and genocide.

Davidson challenged the students to analyze the activist’s story as part of their study of narrative. Among the contenido , the content, the students discussed:

Tradiciones indígenas ; indigenous traditions.

A book is pictured, titled "I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala"

Eventos — ella como testigo ; events as Menchú witnessed them.

Descripciones de la violencia ; descriptions of the violence.

Historias personales de la concientizacíon ; personal stories of how she developed a critical consciousness (or in millennial speak, they joked, how Menchú “got woke”).

And, fittingly, género literario del testimonio ; literary genre of testimony, which privileges memories and personal experiences.

Sharing personal experiences, in many ways, lies at the heart of Davidson’s heritage speakers course series. It’s designed to pull from and empower the personal histories of the Latino students who take it — an academic approach rarely offered to them in U.S. classrooms, Davidson says.

“We get to channel our own experiences into what we write,” Sharlene Rojas Apodaca ’21 said of her class.

Empowering bilingual learners

Rojas Apodaca is one of many first-year students, past and present, to join the cohort of heritage Spanish speakers. She’s also one of many first-generation college students to enroll.

The small, seminar-style courses are designed to hone participants’ Spanish skills: academic writing, grammar, vocabulary and awareness of “linguistic registers,” or the way that language shifts based on context or communication goals. They also introduce students to the broad histories and cultures of Hispanic countries around the world, as well as the U.S.

“Unfortunately, we live in a country that doesn’t really value bilingualism,” Davidson said. “They have distinct talents that we need to help support and develop.”

Davidson designed the course series, now in its third year, as a hybrid between cultural studies and language learning. It offers bilingual students the rare opportunity to develop both languages simultaneously and in community.

It also aims to destigmatize the use of so-called “slang,” or less formal ways of speaking.

“It’s not seeing them as a population with special needs,” Davidson stressed. “It’s seeing them as a population with special skills.”

Francisco Aragón ’19 — a Mexican-American who took Davidson’s heritage speakers class his first year at PLU — appreciated that intentional approach.

A girl working on her computer in Emily Davidson's class
Emily Davidson walking around her classroom talking with her students

“She doesn’t use Spanish to correct how you talk, but rather explains why you talk the way you do,” Aragón said, noting that it was counter to his experience taking some Spanish classes in high school.

“The goal is to empower students by establishing a greater language repertoire,” Davidson said.

The springtime discussion illustrated how students work to expand that repertoire. While discussing her view of Menchú’s testimonial, one student switched to English to clarify the translation of “terminology” (terminología ).

Beyond language, though, students embrace their culture and learn about others — addressing shared experiences, as well as those unique from their own.

“It’s an invitation to critically examine what it means to be Latino in the United States,” Davidson said.

Students in the cohorts claim a variety of backgrounds — with families from countries all over Central and South America, for example — and their majors are as diverse as they are: biology, education, philosophy, social work, kinesiology, and more.

But Davidson said their shared experiences are key to creating the sense of community, a primary factor that has contributed to the cohorts’ near-perfect retention rate, despite the challenges first-generation students of color often face coming into a predominantly white institution.

“It’s powerful when you can come together with a group of people who share similar experiences with you,” Davidson said. “It’s sort of like a homeroom. It’s a place of belonging. It’s a place where you feel like ‘everybody in here gets me.’”

Valeria Pinedo Chipana ’20, an engineering student, registered for the class in 2016 hoping for that built-in community. During her high school years in predominantly white schools in University Place, she had to branch out to surrounding Tacoma, Parkland and Spanaway schools to meet other people of color.

After joining the heritage speakers cohort, Pinedo Chipana gained so much more, particularly a heightened ability to communicate with her relatives from Peru, where she was born.

“My parents know all the history,” she said. “I was able to relate more to what they were talking about. When I learned about the history, I could finally understand what they were talking about.”

Rojas Apodaca, a philosophy and Hispanic studies double major, says her learning also extends outside the classroom. “We always talk about it in other classes and at home,” she said.

Intersecting identities

Rojas Apodaca, who was raised by a single mother and moved to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 8 years old, says her identity as a first-generation student is just as salient as her other intersecting identities.

Davidson’s cohort allows her to discuss the struggles she shares with her peers. Among them, balancing her responsibilities at home — helping with bills, working multiple jobs — with the high expectations she sets for herself academically.

“We’re all having this kind of unique, shared experience not only being first-generation, but also being Latina women and trying to get our education,” Rojas Apodaca said of her all-female class this semester. “And not having that define us, but having it be a part of us.”

Despite the challenges, Rojas Apodaca stresses the strengths she’s gained from her background. Her mother never made her or her siblings feel like they went without, and inspired them to speak success into existence. That upbringing taught Rojas Apodaca to take ownership of her future, and informs her continued path toward law school.

“She was always very motivating, and I think that transcended into my own motivation,” Rojas Apodaca said. “She’s a really good role model for me.”

Cristina Flores ’19, who is majoring in psychology with a minor in Hispanic studies, says her first-generation identity in relation to others in the heritage speakers class is complicated.

She sometimes feels like she’s “faking it,” since her mom attended some college in her home nation of Peru and her dad earned a graduate degree before becoming a systems engineer back home. Her aunts and uncles — among them dentists and neurosurgeons — also had a sense of belonging in academia and spoke the language of higher education.

Still, PLU defines first-in-the-family students as those who come from parents who didn’t study at U.S. colleges, and Flores says she shares some of the traditional experiences of first-generation students. “They are kind of living through me, in a sense,” Flores said of her parents.

She shares the strengths of fellow first-gens, too: resilience, grit, an ownership of her success.

“It’s a different kind of pressure because you, in a way, are being the pioneer to the next generation. The road in front of you isn’t paved at all, you’re the one who has to pave it,” Flores said. “Once you get across it and you’re able to look back, there is a stronger sense of satisfaction that comes with it.”

Aragón, a kinesiology and Hispanic studies double major, says he never really talked about his identity as first in the family with his heritage-speaker classmates. But, the shared experiences were still there.

“It’s powerful when you can come together with a group of people who share similar experiences with you. It’s sort of like a homeroom. It’s a place of belonging. It’s a place where you feel like ‘everybody in here gets me.”
– Emily Davidson

“There’s definitely a whole lot of framework I have to build up for myself as a first-gen student,” he said. “Really becoming my own parental figure. I know I have to be on top of things.”

And he and his peers who are blazing the trail bring a different perspective to the table, he stressed. “I think they bring, in a sense, hope,” Aragón said. “Regardless of where we’re coming from, despite all these odds, we’re willing to be dedicated to our education.”

Rojas Apodaca underscored that benefit. She said first-in-the-family students offer a dynamic perspective that helps professors improve how they teach, and PLU is better for it.

“We’re very excited to learn, we’re excited to get involved and we’re excited to participate in class,” she said. “My peers can learn from me.”

Davidson says that same excitement and pride students show for their culture is one of the most rewarding parts of the courses she’s created. And it begins with early recruiting, before students even step foot on campus their first semester.

“That’s a labor of love,” she said. “I’m a heritage speaker and I really believe in this powerful experience exploring who you are through your language in college. It changed my life and I want students to experience that. It’s very personal.”

From left to right: Kari Plog ’11, Allan Belton, Laree Winer '15 and Eva Frey ’95
What it Means to be First 1024 532 Kari Plog '11

What it Means to be First

First In The Family logo

There’s something about Laree Winer’s chair.

I knew writing a story about first-in-the-family college graduates meant talking about my parents. I didn’t think it meant crying about my mom with a colleague I’m just getting to know.

There’s a chance Winer ’15, associate director for student engagement and the Center for Vocation at Pacific Lutheran University, expected it.

“This work is emotional to me,” she said, fighting through tears, amid my poor attempt to do the same.

There’s a special kinship between people who are first in the family to graduate from college: grit, resilience, pride in where you come from, even more pride in where you’re going.

But Winer’s chair — the “vocational chair,” as people fondly call it — mustered something in me that I wasn’t expecting.

Winer witnesses many similar reactions in the chair, as she guides other first-generation Lutes through the unfamiliar territory of pinpointing their passions. For those students, “finding a calling” isn’t typically at the top of their list of college goals.

“Nobody has ever asked these questions. Nobody has given them this option,” Winer said. “This is a means to an end, instead of a lifelong journey.”

What was your path to college?

(Videos by Rustin Dwyer and Joshua Wiersma ’18, PLU)

Editor’s note: This series of videos offers an in-depth look into the perspectives of six Lutes who identify as first in their families to attend and graduate from college. The pairs have developed close relationships during their time at PLU, in part because of their shared experiences as first-in-the-family students and graduates. Learn more about what makes them proud to be first.

That is until Winer intervenes. She doesn’t minimize their priorities: getting a great job, earning a good salary, making their family proud. Still, she helps the students discover the complete picture of success.

“We’ll talk about hard things. Fear. Doubt,” Winer said. “A lot of my support is helping them be courageous.”

And Winer knows firsthand what it takes to find courage.

She’s a first-generation graduate who navigated a long, winding path to a religion bachelor’s degree from PLU. It took two attempts to earn an associate degree from Pierce College, with a wedding and a baby in between. After five years working in the medical field and welcoming her second child, she thought she would go back to school for nursing.

“I had an epiphany,” she said. “I can do this, but I don’t know that I should do this.”

So, she didn’t. After eight years as a stay-at-home mom, Winer went back to work in K-12 education. She worked a laundry list of jobs at Cascade Christian Schools in Puyallup, from administrative assistant positions to fundraising work.

After outgrowing those jobs, Winer said, she worked as a professional organizer, pondering her next move.

Though she didn’t know what came next, she knew college was at the top of her list.

“I wanted to finish my degree so much,” she said. “It frustrated me to be in jobs that were just jobs. I didn’t know if the work was meaningful.”

Then, sitting at Marzano Italian Restaurant with her husband in 2005, Winer spotted banners across the way that spoke to her: “What will you do with your one wild and precious life? What’s your vocation?”

Laree Winer '15, Associate Director for Student Engagement and the Center for Vocation

Laree goofing around as a child.
Laree and her mother on Laree’s graduation day from Franklin Pierce High School.
Laree grilling a bunch of delicious chicken.

PLU’s mission found Winer in the right place at the right time. She snagged an informational interview with human resources, thanks to a client’s connection to the Office of Advancement.

“I just started applying for anything I could to get my foot in the door here at PLU,” she said.

An administrative job with the Division of Social Sciences in 2006 led to valuable mentorship by faculty members, who quickly realized Winer was overqualified for the work she was doing. She eventually landed in Student Life, where she remains today, and started pursuing her degree in 2009.

Winer took a class every term while working full time for the university, finishing with a 3.98 grade-point average upon graduating in 2015. The only B on her transcript was in philosophy.

“I always did really well in school. A learner was a big part of my identity,” she said. “I loved to read, I loved to write, I loved to learn.”

The intelligence runs in the family, she noted.

“My mom was incredibly intelligent,” Winer said, adding that the family spent so much time at the old Parkland library on Garfield Street that the staff offered her mom a job. She worked in the local library system until she died in 2001. “Had she had a degree, she could have done so much more and that made an impression on me.”

“My mom was incredibly intelligent. Had she had a degree, she could have done so much more and that made an impression on me.”
– Laree Winer

Winer’s dad, who proudly watched his daughter cross the commencement stage on her 50th birthday, is pragmatic and sharp. “My dad has a tremendous work ethic,” she said. “He’s really smart. He reads voraciously.”

Tears welled as I talked to Winer about her parents — because they remind me of mine.

My mom dropped out of high school not once, but twice. I was in eighth grade before I found out. That’s when my mom was studying for the test to earn a GED certificate, right before she took an entry-level job at a title company. After years of working her way through the ranks, she became a licensed limited practice officer and subsequently one of the top escrow closers in her company. Now, she’s a manager who has transformed the performance of the branch she leads.

And she’s one of the smartest people I know.

“I am not ashamed of it at all,” my mom recently told me. “I feel like my story could inspire someone.”

Just like Winer’s dad, mine has an unwavering work ethic. I don’t have the space to list all the jobs my dad has worked. He excelled equally in all of them. But my dad’s biggest impact on me has been his relentless consumption of newspapers and his staunch life lessons.

He has an associate degree, and started studying business finance at the University of Alaska Juneau before a great job opportunity in retail management and building a family took him down a different path.

What does it mean to be first in the family?

“He just couldn’t pass it up,” my mom said. I’ve been reminded a lot that the job completely covered medical expenses when my two younger sisters and I were born within five years of each other.

My dad was my voice of reason during college: “whatever you study, make sure it pays the bills.”

Winer can relate.

“Well, what are you going to do with that?” she recalled her dad asking, in reaction to the religion courses she was taking. “There’s this practicality to it,” she said.

Winer knows that’s a struggle for many first-generation college students, making it that much sweeter when the breakthroughs happen.

Still, the practical side of being first in the family adds value to the overall college experience that other students may not reap.

“They come with a realistic knowledge of the outside world,” Winer said. “They come fully aware of the challenges, fully aware of the obstacles. And yet they still, despite full knowledge of those things, have incredible hope. They have a grit and resiliency and work ethic.”

And they approach their education with eyes wide open.

“First-gen students have an eagerness, they have an appreciation, they have an openness to not just the content, but the mentoring that is readily available here,” Winer said. “There’s such a hunger for mentoring.”

‘Part of the fabric’

Eva Frey ’95 was always the smart girl.

“The most salient identity up to that point in my life was that of a student,” she said of her teenage self. “So what else was I going to do but go to college?”

Despite coming from parents who couldn’t afford to pursue higher education, Frey says it was never a question for her and her sister. “The active conversation in our family was ‘you girls will have more than what your father and I had.’”

That included swimming and piano lessons, trips to museums, and anything they needed to thrive at school.

“I was first in the family, but I was also free and reduced lunch — government cheese and peanut butter and the whole nine yards,” said Frey, now the dean of students at PLU. “But my parents never made us feel like we didn’t have enough to do whatever we wanted to do.”

Eva Frey '95, Dean of Students

Eva (on the right) with her sister.
Eva on the morning of PLU Commencement 1995.
Eva with her father the day of her PLU graduation.

When she came to the university, she didn’t know who around her shared a similar background.

“When I was here as a college student, you did not tell people you were first in the family,” she said. “I knew for sure people could tell I was first in the family because I didn’t have a bathrobe. All the other kids on the wing had a bathrobe.”

It was an item, among many, that didn’t jump out as a necessity to a family who lacked the cultural capital to anticipate how to prepare for college.

It wasn’t until Frey told me about her experience with a residence-hall fire alarm sans bathrobe that I realized I didn’t have a bathrobe during my time living at PLU, either.

It wasn’t for a lack of preparation, though. Despite living nearby, my mom compiled a massive list of must-haves before I hauled my things to Harstad Hall in fall 2007.

I didn’t have a bathrobe, but I definitely had a shower caddy.

As for Frey, her dad bought an elaborate “shower caboodle” that stood tall and doubled as a seat with storage. “My dad had a very literal interpretation of what was needed to come to college,” she said, adding that her parents were “all in.”

Frey says these experiences inform how she approaches student development in her role at PLU, especially when dealing with first-generation students. The representation she and other administrators across campus offer helps create a sense of belonging that wasn’t as accessible in the past.

“Representation is important because education is about growing your knowledge base and your experience base,” Frey said. “And that doesn’t just happen by what you learn in the classroom, it happens by who you sit next to.”

And, Frey added, sometimes the person you sit next to may represent perspectives that are invisible.

“Representation is important because education is about growing your knowledge base and your experience base. And that doesn’t just happen by what you learn in the classroom, it happens by who you sit next to.”
– Eva Frey

It’s why Elizabeth Barton, psychologist and associate director for training and outreach in PLU’s Counseling Center, stresses that representation alone isn’t enough. “We have to articulate that experience,” Barton said. “Just being is not the same as advocating and sharing that story. There’s such power in finding like-minded people.”

When I was at PLU as a student, I didn’t talk about my experience as a first-generation student, mainly because I was unaware that it was remarkable. Still, I always felt like I was on an island. At the time, I failed to articulate why I struggled to relate to my peers.

Now, I understand what made me different, and I envy the first-in-the-family students who can see themselves modeled — and celebrated — in the administration.

“Not only are there a lot of us, we don’t try to hide our identity,” Frey said. “We invite and we normalize that first-in-the-family exists. We don’t shame it.”

Frey says PLU is leaving behind the so-called deficit model of approaching first-in-the-family support, which can push those student narratives to the shadows.

How do you talk about being first in the family?

What challenges do first-in-the-family students face?

“By bringing it out in the open we are pushing ourselves, as an institution, to increase the capacity to understand the opportunities and strengths of those who are first in the family and help them be even more successful,” she said. “It’s part of the fabric of this place.”

Frey admits her title sometimes makes it harder for first-generation students to see their experiences in her. But often it shows them what’s possible.

“Being Dr. Frey, being the dean of students, stands about 50 feet in front of me. And there are students who can never get over that,” Frey said. “Then there are students who get over it, and find me a role model of what can be achieved. And then there are students who actually engage with me in conversation about how do you do this.”

She also admits there are times when she hides her title — in part to avoid “flaunting it,” but also to settle into the space between the academic world and the world that came before it.

“I work in education, so I live in a cerebral world,” she said. “My entire family lives in a military world.”

She recalls a recent conversation with her sister — who holds a graduate degree from Georgetown University: “Why do you always have to use the biggest words possible?” Frey recalled her asking. “Normal people don’t sound like you, Eva.”

Barton says code-switching — or constantly shifting between cultural identities — is common for first-generation college students. It can involve balancing the desire for new opportunities with the nagging pressure not to get “too big for your britches,” she said.

Kari Plog '11, Senior Editor for Content Development

Kari with her father
Kari with her parents the day of her graduation from Bethel High School in 2007.
Kari immediately following PLU Commencement 2011.

“It’s feeling like they don’t belong in either world,” Barton said.

However, Barton added, students caught in the middle of the two worlds also benefit from the push and pull. “They get to decide what to accept and reject,” she said, embracing identity development more intentionally.

When I code-switch, I find myself yearning to transfer the most valuable parts of my college experience to my family. Specifically, the PLU brand of vocation.

My parents have always worked good jobs. More recently, those good jobs have come with even better salaries.

For many first-generation students, money is a motivator because it’s what they’ve come to understand as the marker of success. After all, how can you feel successful if you can’t pay your bills?

What PLU taught me — and continues to teach other first-generation students — is the value of fulfillment.

“It’s about wholeness and completeness, freedom and liberation,” Winer said.

That liberation is something I’ve always wanted for my parents, who are smart and work harder than anyone else I know. Reflecting on the liberation I’ve slowly seen my mom achieve, culminating in a recent late-night phone call, is what brought tears to my eyes in Winer’s chair.

What value do first-in-the-family students bring?

Following an after-hours work gathering she organized for her staff, my mom called to share a feeling of fulfillment I’ve rarely seen in her when discussing her work.

“I’m just so happy with what I do,” she told me. “And I’m so good at it.”

Little did I realize at the time, that moment stayed with me. It bubbled to the surface as I sat across from Winer in the chair.

“Your mom is such a perfect example of the freedom,” Winer said. “The reason why you get so emotional about it is because you’re hearing her freedom. You’re seeing her emerge and be whole, and be awesome in ways that you haven’t seen before. And that’s powerful.”

‘Loud and proud’

Acting President Allan Belton says he was the “quirky brainiac” growing up — the youngest of eight with parents who were products of the Great Depression.

But unlike his colleague Frey, Belton never talked about college at home.

“It was a big deal to be the first,” he said. “Nobody had that personal experience, so we didn’t talk about it.”

That changed when a new counselor arrived at Zillah High School, which only had about 150 kids at the time. Belton still remembers her name: Karin Thompson.

“She saw something in me that I didn’t see in my future,” he recalled.

The counselor convinced Belton’s friends to drive him to and from the SAT, to guarantee he took the test. After that she asked him, along with a couple of his peers, to complete a form and an essay.

“I didn’t know what it was for,” Belton said.

Allan Belton, Acting President

Allan as a child, the youngest of eight.
Allan with the first puppy he ever called his own, Cuddles.
Allan's fifth-grade class picture, taken in Zillah, Washington, where he grew up (pictured front and center in the yellow striped shirt).

When Thompson handed him the envelope that notified him of his full-ride scholarship to any state school in Washington, she asked him what it meant to him.

Even then, he wasn’t sure: “I think it means I’m going to college,” he recalled saying. “It was quite a shock. I had never visited a university.”

Soon, that changed. After a tour around the state, he chose Washington State University. He still remembers standing outside his residence hall with a single box and a fast-food burger, alone and bewildered.

“I didn’t know how to check into my room,” he said. It wasn’t until well into his first year that he learned about the concept of dropping classes. “I had to go through those processes on my own.”

Belton knows other first-generation college students — at PLU and beyond — have similar stories. He also knows, and appreciates, the valuable lessons learned from them.

“A lot of first-gens are just self sufficient in many ways when it matters,” Belton said. “You have to have some level of independence. Teaching yourself how to do things despite nobody showing you how.”

Belton gained a lot of independence even before coming to college: he worked countless jobs in orchards, raised pigs, stocked shelves at a local grocery store, babysat neighbors. He even did his parents’ taxes from the time he was 13, since neither of them graduated high school.

What advice do you have for first-in-the-family students?

“I made more (money) out of my first year of college than my parents ever did combined,” Belton said. “That’s just eye opening. You can’t teach the ability to find a way to get things done.”

Much like myself and others, Belton didn’t broadcast his first-in-the-family status. He counts himself lucky for stumbling into a support network that helped him thrive. His roommate’s brother already had two years under his belt at WSU, for example.

He has learned how vital it is for him to talk about his past, especially in his role leading the university. It’s why he wears his “proud to be first in the family” button, and why he shares his story with the PLU community at every opportunity.

“I don’t know if we do enough, and I don’t know if you can ever do enough,” Belton stressed. “One of the biggest challenges any university has in serving first-in-the-family students, and the biggest challenge any first-in-the-family student has, is finding each other.”

First-generation students don’t often “raise their hands” to be identified, Belton added. “They will pretend they fit,” he said. “They don’t want to stand out.”

The culture at PLU is working to foster a sense of pride among those who come first. “The only reason I would say we’re doing better is because we’re talking about it,” Belton said. “It’s tough as a first-gen, but the most important thing you can do is be loud and proud about it. No one is going to know you’re first-gen unless you say it. And it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s something to be proud of.”

And there’s a lot to be proud of: self-reliance, understanding the value of a dollar, owning your success, and changing the story for those who come after you.

Belton, who was dubbed “Harvard” by his family after heading to college, became a role model for younger members of his very large family.

“Everybody just started going to college,” he said. Nearly all of Belton’s nieces and nephews earned degrees, he added. “That’s probably my favorite part of the story of being first-gen. I won’t be last-gen.”

“It’s tough as a first-gen, but the most important thing you can do is be loud and proud about it. No one is going to know you’re first-gen unless you say it. And it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s something to be proud of.”
– Allan Belton

More importantly, PLU students can look to Belton — and Frey, and Winer, and roughly 60 faculty and staff members across campus — and see the possibilities for themselves.

“I went from shaving pigs’ ears with Nair to being a college president,” Belton said. “So yeah, anyone can do it.”

As I pored over palpable stories of my peers’ experiences as first-generation students, I found a common thread that tied all of our stories together: limitless optimism.

“Many first-gen students come in with a different sense of what’s possible,” said Barton, the university psychologist.

“I think first-gens have a different orientation toward the opportunity (to attend college),” Winer said. “We recognize the privilege in a different way.”

“It’s amazing what you can have when you make that your expectation,” Frey said.

“Sometimes it’s just finding a way when there’s no path,” Belton said. “That’s not really adversity, that’s just part of the DNA of being first of anything.”

I am so proud to be first, for all that’s mentioned above and more. And while I’m grateful for the cultural capital I’ve gained from my college experience — to inevitably pass on later — I sincerely hope I find a way to transfer what I gained from a lack thereof.