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Celebrating First-Gen Students at GCU

Provost Warner speaks at first-generation event

Provost Janice Warner, Ph.D., opens the first-generation student celebration on November 18.

Being a first-generation college student is a huge milestone not just for students, but also for their families, according to several speakers who recently participated in Georgian Court University’s celebration of first-generation students. Not every journey is alike, they said, but they all share some things in common: a high value in education, an understanding of its overall benefits, and charting new territory—a move that takes both being bold and being brave. 

 “It was heartwarming to witness our faculty, staff, and students come together to share their journeys as first-generation college students,” said Danielle Lamb, director of TRIO–Student Support Services, who was joined at the podium by Joy Smith, Ed.D., one of the university’s chief diversity officers and director of GCU’s Educational Opportunity Fund program.

Dr. Al Mancuso
Dr. Al Mancuso

“As a proud first-gen myself, I understand the level of determination and resiliency it takes to be successful,” said Mrs. Lamb. “The GCU community provides the support and resources necessary to help our first-generation scholars achieve their college dreams.”

The November 18 celebration included students, faculty, staff, and alumni who shared their personal experiences. The event was hosted by TRIO–Student Support Services, a federally funded program that provides various services to aid students in academic achievement and personal success. During the 2020–2021 academic year, 39 percent of full-time students at GCU were first-generation.

First-Generation Students Forge Ahead

Alfred Mancuso, Ph.D., was a first-generation student and is currently a professor in the Department of Psychology and Counseling in the GCU School of Arts and Sciences. He emphasized the importance of asking for help.

It’s okay to not know, he said, especially given that many parents have no prior experience to help guide their children during the application process. “First-generation students have no roadmap,” as Dr. Mancuso puts it. He shared that he is all too familiar with making mistakes—like enrolling in the wrong campus of St. John’s University when he started college— but noted that you can correct them.

“It took a lot of hard work and swallowing that pride,”  he added. “You have to navigate a part of the world you are not familiar with.” He encouraged other first-generation students to work hard and take advantage of the programs offered.

first-generation student Awilda Hernandez
Dr. Awilda Hernandez ’11

According to Elizabeth Estell, GCU assistant director of residence life, the hardest part of being first-generation is that “you don’t know what you don’t know.” A graduate of The Ohio State University, she navigated without a support system because she didn’t know of any being offered. Ms. Estell had to figure it out as she went and figure out who to call when she needed help. Her advice to other first-generation students? “Find someone to connect with that will support you and push you.”

Federal investigator Awilda Hernandez ’11, who earned a GCU degree in criminal justice, shared that she has “broken generational poverty within her family,” and every degree she earned—including an M.A. from American Military University and an Ed.D. from Concordia University—was a huge milestone for her family.

She struggled during her first year of college, and found herself “woefully unprepared and academically behind.”  She discussed her wide range of experiences from the time she entered Georgian Court through joining the military after college and recently earning a doctoral degree. Her dissertation research demonstrated how a child’s socioeconomic status can directly affect their academic progress.

Dr. Hernandez said she is “so proud to be a first-generation college student because I have broken the mold, broken barriers, and continue to defy the odds and challenge the status quo.” She also faced the similar experience of being terrified to ask for help, but once she connected with professionals specializing in helping first-generation students, they introduced her to many opportunities available through higher education.

“Through my academic and professional journey, it is always important for me to remember where I came from, why I am here, and where I am going,” said Dr. Hernandez.

Story by Alycia Bardon ’22, a digital communication major at Georgian Court University. Photos by Joshua Tinto ’20, ’22.

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About Georgian Court University

Georgian Court University is a leading regional university that provides a transformative education, preparing students for ethical leadership and service in the Catholic Mercy tradition. Founded in 1908 and sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, Georgian Court University is Central and South Jersey’s only Catholic university. The university has a strong liberal arts core and a historic special concern for women.

As a forward-thinking university that supports diversity and academic excellence, GCU is known for expanding possibility for more than 1,900 students of all faiths and backgrounds in 35+ undergraduate majors and 10+ graduate programs. The GCU Lions compete in 16 NCAA Division II sports in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC). In 2020, GCU was named a Best Value College by and a Best Bang for the Buck (Northeast) by Washington Monthly. High student retention and graduation rates make GCU a Top Performer on Social Mobility on U.S. News & World Reports rankings, and in 2024, GCU was named one of the best Online Master’s Colleges in New Jersey.

The main campus is in Lakewood, New Jersey, on the picturesque former George Jay Gould estate, a National Historic Landmark. Georgian Court, which is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, also serves students through its Center for Professional Studies, and at other locations, including GCU at Brookdale, and through multiple online degree and certificate programs.