October 20, 2016

Mission Possible: First-generation students are fulfilling their mission — and ours

First-generation college students outside the Ruane Center for the Humanities.

First-generation college students outside the Ruane Center for the Humanities.

By VICKI-ANN DOWNING

PROVIDENCE COLLEGE’S MISSION at its founding in 1917 was to provide the opportunity for Catholic men — many of whom faced discrimination as the sons of European immigrants — to receive a university education. Those early PC graduates went on to become the doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and teachers who shaped Rhode Island and New England.

Today, PC continues to educate first-generation college students. About 16 percent of the nearly 3,900 undergraduates on campus come from families in which neither parent earned a bachelor’s degree. Their demographic is different than at the College’s founding — 61 percent are women, and 47 percent are students of color — but their dreams and aspirations are as bold. Six of them share their stories.

Jarely Paulino Diaz '18 of Lawrence, Mass., is majoring in public and community service studies.

Jarely Paulino Diaz ’18 of Lawrence, Mass., is majoring in public and community service studies.

Jarely Paulino Díaz ’18

Jarely Paulino Díaz ’18 was born in the Dominican Republic. When she moved to the United States with her parents and sisters at age 15, she told her mother that college would never be in her plans.

But then Paulino attended Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, Mass., a Catholic school where students work outside jobs to pay their tuition. She attended tutoring every day to improve her reading, writing, and English skills, and after her sophomore year, participated in a two-week program at the University of Notre Dame, where she started considering college after all.

Attending Notre Dame Cristo Rey “is the reason I’m here today,” Paulino said.

A public and community service studies major with a minor in Italian — her third language — Paulino is fulfilling the practicum requirement of her major by supervising six students who teach English to residents of Carroll Towers, an elderly housing complex in Providence. She is a resident assistant for first-year students in McVinney Hall and is a member of the Board of Multicultural Student Affairs.

Paulino participated in the Friar Foundations summer bridge program before starting her first year at PC. She lived on campus for five weeks, took courses, and learned about campus life and academic expectations. This past summer, she was a Friar Foundations mentor to incoming students.

“I applied to be a mentor because, in that program, we became family,” said Paulino. “I met my best friends through that program. I’m on the other side this time. But it’s the hanging out with them, the late nights working with them on their school work. … Five weeks of no sleep, I’ll take it anytime.”

As a student of color, Paulino feels a responsibility to help those students stay connected and face challenges. Her Friar Foundations mentor, Eric Rivera ’16, was a great resource even after the program ended, helping her to navigate a campus that was less diverse than she expected.

“I want to be for other students what he was to me,” said Paulino.

Pedro Alemán of National City, Calif., is a double major in political science and sociology.

Pedro Alemán of National City, Calif., is a double major in political science and sociology.

Pedro Alemán ’17

Pedro Alemán ’17  is the son of a migrant farm worker and a housekeeper, both natives of Mexico who emphasized the importance of education to their children. Alemán chose to attend a private college in New England to experience a different part of the world. But nothing prepared him for the challenges he faced his first year.

After working four jobs on campus to send money home, and doubting that he would ever fit in, he debated whether to return.

“It was really hard for me,” said Alemán. “It was a culture shock. I was Latino and low-income. There were not a lot of first-generation students or students of color. I had to mentally prepare for that. I was in a depression my first year.”

His perspective changed when he was selected to be a resident assistant (RA) on a floor in St. Joseph Hall as a sophomore — and became a mentor to first-year students.

“I loved it so much,” Alemán said. “You impact students in ways you don’t even realize.”

Alemán was an RA in Guzman Hall his junior year and is at Aquinas Hall for his senior year. He double majors in political science and sociology, with minors in black studies and Spanish. He is a class representative in Student Congress, president of the Board of Multicultural Student Affairs, and a member of the Dirigo Leadership Honor Society.

During the summer of 2015, Alemán studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, taking courses in Spanish and in Latin American history.

After graduation, he is considering studying immigration law or working in higher education to help first-generation students. He would like to run for public office in California. And he wouldn’t mind working in Argentina, either.

He loves PC — the friends he made and the professors who understood the challenges he faced.

“I grew every year that I was here,” said Alemán. “It’s made me proud of who I am. I am proud to be a Chicano. I’m privileged that I now have an education.”

Amie Mybe '18 of Pawtucket, R.I., has majors in global studies and economics.

Amie Mybe ’18 of Pawtucket, R.I., majors in global studies and in economics.

Amie Mbye ’18

Amie Mybe ’18, a double major in global studies and economics, is interested in establishing sustainable economies and wants to work internationally one day.

“I want to figure out the root of the problem, because it’s all about problem-solving,” said Mbye. “I want to find sustainable solutions through systems thinking.”

Mbye will explore her interests in February, when she leaves for Buenos Aires, Argentina, for 12 weeks of study abroad that will include an internship at a nonprofit and trips to Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. She will live with a local family and looks forward to improving her Spanish, which is her minor.

Mbye was born in the United States to parents who were natives of Gambia. When she was 5, she moved to the West African nation to live and attend school for five years. She has resided in Pawtucket, R.I., since she was 10 and has several younger siblings at home.

This past summer, Mbye was a mentor in the five-week Friar Foundations Program, which introduces new students to academic work and campus life. She was a program participant before starting at PC. She is a member of the campus chapter of the NAACP, the Board of Multicultural Student Affairs, and the Leadership Fellows Program, and is a student worker in the Office of Academic Services.

“Being the only student of color in a big lecture can get uncomfortable at times, especially when topics of race or slavery come up,” said Mbye. “I do not like being seen as a spokesperson for my entire race. I learned about slavery in history books, just like everybody else.”

But mostly Mbye enjoys engaging with people — the students she mentored through Friar Foundations and the friends she’s made.

“I love going to Slavin Center because you meet people,” said Mbye. “I love McPhail’s for the bingo, game watches, and free food. I tell freshmen that we take our bingo very seriously here at PC.”

Yemery Villafana '17 of Providence, R.I., is majoring in psychology.

Yemery Villafana ’17 of Providence, R.I., is majoring in psychology.

Yemery Villafana ’17

Yemery Villafana ’17, a psychology major, has developed a love for helping others — international students making their way in an unfamiliar city, and new students adjusting to the complexities of college life.

Villafana grew up in South Providence. Her mother was born in Puerto Rico to family from the Dominican Republic. She left high school when Villafana was born and works as a nurse’s assistant and crossing guard to support the family. Villafana, whose first language is Spanish, did so well academically that she was accepted at Classical High School, a college prep school in Providence that emphasizes study in the arts, sciences, and the humanities.

Villafana commuted from home for two years before deciding to live at PC as a junior. The friends she made her first year, during a Horizons retreat sponsored by the Office of Cultural Education, are among her closest friends today.

Villafana is president of the International Student Organization. Though she is not an international student, she thought involvement would be “a good way to learn about other cultures.” In August, she served as a coach during the welcome program hosted by the Center for International Studies. She helped introduce international students to the American classroom experience, the city of Providence, and shopping at Target.

As a sophomore, Villafana was a mentor in the Protégé program of the Office of Academic Services (OAS) and served on its board. The program matches first-year students with older students for their first semester of college. Villafana made use of OAS resources herself, including the Writing Center and the Tutoring Center.

She is a student worker at the Information Technology Help Desk, a member of the Board of Multicultural Student Affairs, and a minor in both public and community service studies and business studies. She would like to become a physician’s assistant one day, since medicine has always interested her.

“I love PC,” said Villafana. “It has become my second home. The friendships I’ve made will last a lifetime. I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to attend PC.”

Jeffrey Vasquez '18 of Central Falls, R.I., is majoring in economics.

Jeffrey Vasquez ’18 of Central Falls, R.I., is majoring in economics.

Jeffrey Vasquez ’18

For high school, Jeffrey Vasquez ’18 studied guitar at the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Pawtucket, R.I. But a conversation with an English teacher about current events and world markets during his senior year introduced him to his eventual college major, economics.

After graduation, Vasquez hopes to earn an MBA. Then, “I’d like to travel the world,” he said. “I’d like to spend a month in each of the major cities and slowly but steadily circle back again. I’d like to look at markets, see what people are invested in buying and selling, and see how cultures affect those kinds of things.”

The only child of parents who are natives of Guatemala and work as machine operators, Vasquez spoke only Spanish until he went to elementary school. He is a commuter student who spends about eight hours a day on campus, using the second floor of Phillips Memorial Library as his base because its quiet appeals to him.

The summer before his first year, Vasquez was part of the pilot class of the Friar Foundations Program. During five weeks living on campus, he was introduced to the rigors of academic life and completed courses for credit, including Principles of Microeconomics.

The program was important “because I wasn’t really prepared, being a first-generation college student,” said Vasquez. “It was a learning process for all of us in my family. I didn’t know what to expect. It was really beneficial and allowed me to get involved with students who are still my friends.”

Vasquez is treasurer of the Economics Club and plans to become involved in more campus activities this year. He still plays guitar. He says he likes the friendliness of PC the best.

“You can talk to anyone, and they’re super friendly,” he said. “They have a willingness to help.”

Maegan Renaud '17 of East Freetown, Mass., is majoring in accountancy.

Maegan Renaud ’17 of East Freetown, Mass., is majoring in accountancy.

Maegan Renaud ’17

In September 2015, at a Career Expo sponsored by the College’s Center for Career Education and Professional Development, Maegan Renaud ’17 handed her résumé to representatives from Piccerelli, Gilstein & Company, an accounting firm in Providence.

The company accepted her for a 15-hour-a-week, paid internship beginning in February 2016. She was kept on through the summer, then offered the opportunity to continue through the 2016-17 academic year. Shortly after classes began this fall, she was offered a full-time position after graduation.

While many accountancy majors aspire to join one of the Big Four accounting firms, Renaud discovered that she loves working for a small firm.

“I’ve had the opportunity to experience working in both audit and tax, while the bigger firms make you select one or the other,” Renaud said.

She also plans to obtain a master’s degree in taxation and become a certified public accountant after graduation. She aspires to become a partner at a small firm one day.

Renaud is an only child. Her father is a machine set-up operator at a lighting company, and her mother is an office assistant for an electrical contractor. When it was time for college, studying business at Providence College was her first choice — far enough from home to make her feel independent, but near enough so she could visit.

Renaud, who has danced since age 3, is a member of the PC Dance Team, which performs at every men’s and women’s basketball game, including those over school vacations.

“I never was a basketball fan before, but sitting so close, right on the court, I get into the games,” she said.

During her junior year, Renaud was a resident assistant in McVinney Hall. This year, she lives off campus, in a house with friends.

“I have loved it at Providence College,” said Renaud. “I’ve met really great people here. I think the people are what makes it great.”

These profiles originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Providence College Magazine.

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