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November 4, 2019

Jenny Tenlen, associate professor of biology

When I was asked to reflect on my experiences as a first-generation college student, I immediately thought of the Friday in August 1991, when my dad dropped me off for orientation at the University of Puget Sound (in Tacoma). I didn’t have a car, and neither of my parents could get the day off work. My dad and I hustled to load up the station wagon, and arrived at UPS at 8 a.m., just when residence halls were opening for check in. Within 30 minutes, my belongings were transferred to my new room, and dad headed back north to work. As I watched him drive away, I remember thinking, “Now what?” Not only did I feel slightly abandoned, but I also had no clue what I was getting myself into.

I can’t remember exactly when I decided I was going to college, but I always knew that my family expected it of me. Everyone had ideas about where I should go (all local, of course). However, no one in my family had ever stepped foot on a college campus. The process of selecting and applying to college was both exciting and bewildering. The only two criteria I started with were that the university could NOT be in Seattle (too close to home!), and it had to have a good biology program. My high school made some steps easier, such as providing checklists for the application process, and scheduling college application and financial aid seminars. However, the seminars were full of jargon and terms that my parents were not familiar with. They took one look at the FAFSA form and handed it to me, saying it was my responsibility to figure it out. My high school guidance counselor played a key role in my college journey. Not only did she walk me through the FAFSA, but she also suggested to my parents that we go on a campus tour. Since UPS was the nearest university (not in Seattle) that had a Saturday fall visit day, that was where we headed, and it was love at first sight. A random choice became one of the best decisions I’ve made, as if God was leading me there.

As much as I loved UPS, during my first year, I struggled with feeling out of the loop and isolated. As a first-gen student, I was aware there were things I should have known, but didn’t, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure it out. (What do I call my professors? Do I just show up for office hours, or do I need to make an appointment? How do I decide what electives I should take for my degree?) Over time, I learned the answers to these and other questions. I had more difficulty dealing with feeling isolated, because no one in my family could understand or relate to what I was experiencing — they didn’t have a frame of reference for my world. Trying to explain why I was stressed out about a midterm and two papers, when I was “only” in class in the mornings, was hard (“but you have all that free time in the afternoons!”). To be honest, I still feel this disconnect when I try to describe my life as a professor. While the sense of isolation still crops up occasionally, my family has always been my biggest cheerleaders, and that strong emotional support has helped me through many rough patches.

On top of adjusting to college life, I was also trying to navigate around my hearing impairment, at a time when universities were not yet legally obligated to provide reasonable accommodation. I was attending classes in large lecture halls (think Demaray 150), where there was a significant gap between the lecturer and first row. I always sat front-row-center, but still had trouble hearing professors who lectured while speaking to the blackboard (no PowerPoint back then!) During the first week of classes, I worked up the nerve to discuss my issue with my professors, but was discouraged by their lack of response. I had no idea who else I could share my concerns with, and decided that I had to deal with it myself. Thankfully, I made good friends who shared their notes with me, and developed other coping strategies. If a version of SPU’s Center for Learning had existed when I was a student, things would have been much easier.

Although I was initially frustrated that everything seemed harder for me than for other students, two things were instrumental in helping me thrive at UPS. First, I found a community that I could belong to. During UPS’s version of “Involve-O-Rama,” I learned about a service club that focused on volunteering in the Tacoma community (particularly at the Tacoma Boys and Girls Club). At the first meeting, the older students were friendly and welcoming, and made a concerted effort to bring new students into the fold. What particularly impressed me was that they remembered my name, and said “hi” when we ran into each other on campus. It seems like such a small thing, but was so critical to helping me feel less isolated. At meetings, other students readily shared their advice and experiences about courses, professors, internship opportunities, etc. This group became the key extracurricular focus of my four years, and provided me with significant leadership experience. At SPU, students have many clubs and affinity groups available to them. Commuter students may find community within the Collegium in the SUB. Community can also come simply from forming study groups with a few classmates, or participating in a prayer group. In whatever form community takes, promoting a sense of belonging for one another goes a long way to helping students thrive and to cultivate self-efficacy.

In addition to finding community, I leaned on mentors who played important roles in my college journey. In a recent NPR article, Anjuli Sastry described a mentor as someone who “sets aside time to meet, sharing how they accomplished their goals, cheering you on and giving you feedback and advice.” Mentors are sometimes found in the most unexpected places. One of the cashiers in our dining hall had several children and grandchildren who were UPS alumni. As I got to know her, she shared her memories of UPS’s history (going back over 40 years), and provided practical advice that never would have occurred to me to ask for. For three summers, I worked for UPS’s Conference Services, and my supervisor became another valued mentor as she helped me work through issues I was having with self-doubt and lack of confidence. By taking the time to listen to me, and trusting me with larger projects that were essential to the success of Conference Services, my supervisor helped me to learn to trust in my abilities. These mentors, along with my thesis research advisor and other faculty, helped to nurture my development as a future biologist and educator, and they continue to inspire how I teach and mentor my students.

I am proud to be the first person in my family to not only graduate from college, but also to earn a masters and PhD. Although the path to becoming a professor was circuitous, I have always felt God’s presence and guidance along the way. Now that I’m in my eighth year at SPU, one of the things I most appreciate about our campus is how invested faculty and staff are in student success. Programs such as Ascent and BioCORE Scholars, and services provided through the Center for Learning, Student Life, Campus Ministry, and many other departments help to ensure that students have the tools needed to achieve their educational and vocational goals. Our students, especially first-gen students, are not alone on their journey.