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CASA talk puts spotlight on first-generation students

A woman in a red dress sitting and gesturing with her left hand.

By Heather Nuttall

Staff Writer

The Center for Academic Success and Achievement (CASA) hosted author and English Professor Jennifer De Leon to discuss her written works and her experiences as a first-generation college student on March 27.

De Leon began by asking attendees to introduce themselves with their name, and a fact about themselves that was not immediately visible. Responses varied, including one person who could speak Spanish and another who had built their own guitar.

She then started her talk, briefly describing each of her published books. De Leon said her first book - “Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education” - was an anthology of essays by Latino writers, reflecting on their experiences in college.

“I didn’t know anyone who had gone to college, so I craved a chorus of sisters’ voices that I could lean on, right? And so I put this book together and I’m really proud of it,” she said.

“Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From” is a young adult novel that tells the story of Liliana Cruz, a first generation American LatinX student, as she balances family struggles with racist incidents at her predominantly white school.

De Leon described her parents’ childhoods in Guatemala. She said her mom would come home from school, take off her uniform and give it to her sister, who would then run back to school before it ended, allowing them both to access an education.

Raised in the Framingham suburbs from the age of 2, De Leon said she began to feel split into two versions of herself, and would fit in by code-switching.

“It’s also a time where I felt like I started to become two Jens - white Jen and Latina Jen,” she said.

Although she thought she would feel different when she got to college, De Leon said she struggled with imposter syndrome during her first semester. She wanted to go home, until a phone call with her mom motivated her to carry on.

“I thought, how can I run faster? How can I work harder?” she said.

De Leon went on to discuss imbalances in the publishing industry, and emphasized the power of storytelling in breaking stereotypes.

“I’m just so grateful to you all for being who you are, and being here and working to help students thrive, right, not just survive,” she said, ending her talk.

Later, De Leon stressed the importance of supporting first-generation college students.

“There are a lot of invisible rules that first-gen students might not be aware of,” she said. “And by making them visible and creating these spaces where we can share and ask questions, we feel less alone and then it can chip away at that impostor syndrome.”

She said that her experience as a first-generation student had impacted her writing style.

“I always felt that many books I read were written in this kind of secret code, and it’s like I didn’t have the answer key, you know? And so the way I write, or try to write now, is with clarity - honesty, vulnerability, and clarity,” De Leon said.

LaDonna Bridges, dean of Student Success and Persistence and director of CASA, said FSU is working to build community amongst its first-generation students.

“Too often first-gen students are positioned from a deficit lens - like, oh, they don’t have this or they don’t have that - and there’s so many things that they bring that might not check the boxes of what we would expect some students to bring, but they have such strong things that they bring to the table,” she said.

Bridges added that as a student, she’d found it difficult to fit in at an elite institution that didn’t acknowledge its first-generation students.

“I learned how to hide my background. I didn’t want to talk about where I came from,” she said.

Gen-One Next Level, a first year program for incoming students, allows students to join a RAMS 101 class that is just for first-generation students, taught by first-generation faculty. 

Bridges said it is an honor to serve students from more working-class backgrounds.

“There’s always more we could do to create a sense of community or sense of belonging, and I’m so proud of Gen-One Next Level, that we get to do that through those first year seminars,” Bridges said.


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