May 24, 2022

Albert Einstein. Barack and Michelle Obama. Sonia Sotomayor. Oprah Winfrey.

While the above may not appear to have much in common, they have one significant commonality with a group of Susquehanna University graduating seniors.

Einstein, the Obamas, Sotomayor and Winfrey were first-generation college graduates.

Kayla Bush ?22 Kayla Bush ’22Kayla Bush ’22 pointed this out at Susquehanna’s inaugural First-Generation Pinning Ceremony, where students who are the first in their immediate family to earn a bachelor’s degree were recognized.

“You are here in his room today because you persevered despite your personal circumstances that could have told you to go down another path in life,” said Bush, a creative writing and publishing and editing double major and a first-generation student from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Boe Kline, learning support specialist in Susquehanna’s Center for Academic Success, was also a first-generation college student who went on to earn her master’s degree. She shared memories of not knowing how to register for classes or which offices to visit to get help, and of studying at a local gas station or a friend’s backyard because she could not afford internet.

“But semester after semester, I continued to put one foot in front of the other in pursuit of my purpose. As my undergraduate journey was coming to an end, I remember putting my graduation gown on for the first time and looking at myself in the mirror,” she said. “I remember the look on my family members’ faces when I began my walk across the stage as they beamed with pride, because that day wasn’t just about me. That day, I carried my family across the stage with me, as this walk was a representation of hope for the future.”

Approximately 30% of Susquehanna’s study body are first-generation college students, meaning neither parent has earned a bachelor’s degree. First-generation college students often face unique challenges not always encountered by students whose parents and grandparents have experienced college. Research has also found that first-generation college students are more likely to experience imposter syndrome than other students — a feeling of not belonging or deserving to be where they are.

Bush’s remarks sought to quell that fear.

“You belonged in the library and in the line at Starbucks. You belonged on the athletics fields and in the research lab. You belonged at Break Through, drop-in tutoring hours and the Spring Carnival. You belonged at Be a Kid Again, Thanksgiving dinner and Airband. You belong to SU and SU belongs to you,” Bush said. “And outside these walls, you will forge your own path, your own sense of belonging. You will belong in the courtroom, in the operating room, in the spotlight and in front of the classroom. Just like you belong to Susquehanna, you belong to the world, but more importantly the world belongs to you.”

After graduation, Bush will begin work with the Pennsylvania College Advising Corps, Lancaster. Susquehanna’s First-Generation Pinning Ceremony was organized by the university’s First-Generation Working Group, which offers a support system for first-gen students. The seniors were also asked to consider volunteering for Susquehanna’s upcoming first-generation mentoring program.