Focus on first

UND event observes inaugural national celebration of first-generation students and alumni

Mary Feller

On Wednesday, Nov. 8, Mary Feller, a first-generation American and first-generation college graduate who now serves as a success coach in UND’s Career Services Office, will be part of a special event at UND, marking the first-of-its-kind First-Generation College Celebration. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Mary Feller, a success coach with UND’s Career Services Office, is not only a first-generation college student but also a first-generation American.

Now she’s a key figure in recognizing and supporting UND students, alumni and faculty who are the first in their families to attend a school of higher education.

“I was born in St. Paul (Minn.), but my first language wasn’t English,” explained Feller, whose parents came to the United States following the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. “My parents spoke primarily Hungarian in the home. It wasn’t until I went to preschool that I started to pick up English.

“We didn’t have much, but they (her parents) put a lot of pride into education. They wanted to make sure I had a better life than they did, as their only child.”

Celebration event

On Wednesday, Nov. 8, Feller will be part of a special event at UND, marking the first-of-its-kind First-Generation College Celebration.

The event will include a question-and-answer panel of UND first-generation students and faculty that will take place from 2-3 p.m. in the Memorial Union Lecture Bowl. An opportunity to network from 3-3:30 p.m., in the Memorial Union Fireside Lounge, will follow.

“We’ll have a moderator who will pose questions to the panelists for them to answer in a general discussion,” said Derek Sporbert, UND TRIO director. “They’ll share their experiences—what it means to be a first-generation student, how it’s affected them and what their perception was versus the reality of college.”

Like many first-generation students, Feller didn’t have much of a background from which to form a perception. Her parents never attended college and she only heard about it from classmates applying in their senior year of high school. From the career advice of her mother, Feller picked nursing and was accepted at UND.

“I showed up and basically my first semester was overwhelming,” Feller said, remembering her early experiences—the class sizes and rigor of study. “I didn’t know what questions to ask and I didn’t know what resources to turn to.”

Advisement is personal

She considered leaving after her first semester—something more commonly seen among first-generation students than other demographics—even though she passed her classes and found involvement on campus. Things turned around when she met with an adviser who listened to her interests and pointed her in a different direction: to the services that could help her succeed on campus.

The panel will feature students at different points in their academic careers, from freshman to faculty. The event looks to reach out to students who may not be aware of their status as first-generation, or even have familiarity with the term.

“We brainstormed how we can showcase the fact we have quite a few first-generation students,” said Assistant Vice President for Student Academic Services Lisa Burger. “We not only want to recognize that they’re here, but (also) to share the support that is available for them.”

The event is hosted by Student Academic Services, TRIO and the UND College of Arts & Sciences.

Sporbert says that Student Support Services currently offers assistance to 300 low-income, first-generation students on the UND campus.

“Advisement might be academic, but in a lot of cases it’s personal advisement too,” Sporbert said. “When you’re first-generation and come to college, you don’t know who to ask questions or find answers from. You can’t call mom and dad and ask questions, because they don’t have the answers. Advisers work with students through all four years.”

Student to student

That’s the way things worked for Feller, who found one-on-one tutoring for her courses in math and accounting after her adviser led her to the UND College of Business & Public Administration and a degree in marketing.

Feller, who also teaches the first University Life 101 course geared toward first-generation students, is having her class of 23 attend Wednesday’s event. Her course encourages them to get involved, take the initiative and self-reflect.

“Students like to hear from students,” said Feller from her office in McCannel Hall. “It’s important to hear from others who have been through what you might be going through. You feel like the information you’re getting is real, and you can ask questions without feeling intimidated.”