First-Generation Faculty Share Tips for Success

What is research? What are graduate students? How do I get all of my work done when the quarter is going so fast? I really need to go home and be with my family, but should I? What should I do if I'm interested in studying something different than what my family expects? If you’re a first-generation college student, you may have questions you’re not sure who to ask.

You may worry about how to connect your major to a career and not have a clue about how to do it. You may not be aware of opportunities to connect to people and experiences that could shape a great future.

Here at UC Davis, you’re not alone — about 45 percent of our undergraduates are first-generation — and UC Davis is committed to connecting to you. We understand that as first-generation college students, you face particular challenges as you make your way through the unfamiliar culture with its own language and expectations.

Check out our resources; find mentors among our faculty; and get inspired by stories about people who have been in your shoes and succeeded in college and their careers.

Nearly 400 faculty members were once in your shoes. UC Davis asked these faculty who were the first in their family to go to college to reach out to you. Here’s what some of them have to say:

You belong here! 

Portrait of Joseph Sorensen
Joseph Sorensen

There are resources to help you with your struggles, but identifying your needs early is key so that you can take that extra step to get the assistance necessary for your success. Having a mentor can be a great help. Education is still a great equalizer, and a kid who had no idea what an SAT test was can be just as accomplished as those being sent to prep courses. It just takes a little more personal initiative and fortitude to get there. — Joseph Sorensen, associate professor of Japanese

Connect as much as possible

Take advantage of meeting professors one on one and meeting other students. [If it’s hard to get started,] pick the class you find most interesting and make a point of going to the professor’s office and talking to them. This is a big opportunity to expand your horizons, especially if you come from a small town. – John Terning, professor of physics

Work hard

Kenneth Tate in the field with a hat on
Kenneth Tate

Get to know your professors. Let them know you’re first-generation so that they can help you. Show them you’re serious. If there are clubs or activities related to your major, student leadership — get involved. That’s a great way to get to know people who are going to recommend you.  It’s also a great way to demonstrate that you’re engaged. — Kenneth Tate, professor of plant sciences

Make a commitment

You don’t have to end up with what you start off with – you can change.  But every time you change your goal, make a commitment. Have a good foundation. Get good training. Get into research. Learn about what research is all about. Get to know other people at the university – grad students, postdocs, professors. Find people to help you along the way. — John Harada, professor of plant biology

It’s OK to make friends and have fun

Portrait of Jeanette Ruiz
Jeanette Ruiz

It’s OK to not know and important to ask. Getting through requires just as much strategy as smarts. It’s OK to make friends and have fun! — Jeanette Ruiz, lecturer in communication

Trust your pathway

It’s OK to have a little bit of trust in the pathway that you discover. — Julie Sze, professor of American Studies

Find a way to go abroad

Daniela Barile with a testtube in the lab
Faculty member Daniela Barile, seen here in her lab in the Department of Food Science and Technology, says students can dream bigger when they study abroad. (University of California)

You’re able to dream bigger [abroad]. You’re free of the constraints of your environment. And you’re together with a bunch of other dreamers. … You learn Independence, responsibility for your own actions, immersion in another country and another language. — combined advice from Daniela Barile, associate professor, and Matthew Lange, lecturer, husband and wife faculty in the Department of Food Science and Technology

Says Lange, “Think for yourself, trust your instincts about what you want to learn and follow your passion. I knew I had this passion to do something with food — and databases. Once I saw what I could do with databases I knew this is where I want to spend my time. … I used to get so mad when I heard people complaining about having to go to class. I would think, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are that you get to go to class.’”

Small jobs and volunteer work can add up to success

To fund a study-abroad trip, Barile went door-to-door signing up fellow students to participate. Lange also did door-to-door sales — he was top seller for his middle school’s March of Dimes candy sales campaign. The two agree that the experience helped improve their presentation skills.

Work of all kinds can contribute to success. Barile advises, “Engaging in small jobs and volunteering can enable first generation students to build a dossier rich in strong recommendation letters and provide opportunities for lifelong mentorship.”


Learn more about our university’s first generation initiatives by visiting the University of California’s #Firstgen website where UC Davis faculty and students are featured, including Jeanette Ruiz from the Department of Communication and Susana Ramirez Perez, a peer advisor in mechanical engineering. And celebrate on Nov. 8 the inaugural First Generation College Celebration. #CelebrateFirstGen

Sharon Knox is director of communications for Undergraduate Education. She shares stories of the intellectual adventures of undergraduates at UC Davis. Sharon has traveled the world and studied at University of Maryland, St. John’s College in Santa Fe and University of Chicago.

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