In a League of Their Own
College wasn’t a given for Mirna Serrano Barahona ’18. In fact, nobody in her family ever got an education past high school. Her parents would have been perfectly happy if their youngest daughter landed a full time job in her late teens. For Serrano Barahona, finding her way to St. Kate’s was only half the struggle. The other problem was not having loved ones truly understand her life as a university student. In 2014, she decided to establish the First Generation Scholars League so Katies like her never felt alone.
“My mom’s from Honduras and my dad’s from El Salvador, and they didn’t finish high school,” says Serrano Barahona, a legal studies major. “So, I never had anyone close telling me, ‘you’re going to go to college’ or even asking me ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’” Nearly 50 percent of U.S. college students are considered first generation, reports the National Center for Education Statistics. At St. Kate’s, they make up one-third of the student body — and mirror the nation’s growing racial, ethnic and socioeconomic makeup.
“The interesting aspect about the first generation identity is that it includes students from all backgrounds, incomes and ethnicities,” says Roslyn Udairam, assistant director of Multicultural and International Programs and Services. “Typically, we don’t know who these students are unless they self-identify.”
In addition to weekly meetings, in which networking, scholarship and internship opportunities are shared, the First Generation Scholars League organizes a variety of activities. Past events include “Homework and Chili Nights” that encourage its 50-plus members to study together, a bra drive for a local shelter, and a conversation about “Mental Health and the First Generation Experience.”
“Our club is a great addition to many of the resources already offered on campus,” says cofounder and copresident Elizabeth Juarez Diaz ’18. “It’s a safe space for students to connect on an informal level and feel free to be completely honest.”
This future doctor, who came to the United States speaking no English at age 6, jumped at the chance to help run the club. “I saw this as an opportunity to share my story,” recalls Juarez Diaz, “and to inspire other students to be actively engaged and to take the most advantage of being in college.”
According to The Postsecondary National Policy Institute, students are at a higher risk of dropping out if their parents don’t hold at least a bachelor’s degree.
“Although my parents are supportive, they’re still a bit detached from my experience because they don’t know what it’s like to attend college,” Serrano Barahona notes. “And that’s hard on me. You know how there’s always someone at dinner asking you, ‘Honey, what did you learn in class today?’ Well, that conversation really doesn’t happen at our dinner table. To cope, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I receive emotional and financial support from my parents, and academic and career support
Last fall, Cassie Nelson, assistant director of admission for the College for Women, invited Serrano Barahona and former club secretary Ikram Koliso ’17 to present at the Midwest Association of College Admission Counselors conference. “I wanted to share one of the things we were doing at St. Kate’s to help first generation students adjust to life in college,” says Nelson. In return, Serrano Barahona asked her to advise their club.
“I’m also the first in my family to go to college,” Nelson explains, “so I was very excited to help this crew!” Serrano Barahona hopes the First Generation Scholars League can serve as a model for other colleges. “Starting a club wasn’t even on my to-do list at St. Kate’s,” she says. “But I’m so glad of what it offers today: A community of students who will encourage each other to see their potential for greatness.”