Monday, November 8 is the National Day of Celebration of First Generation Colleges. It marks the start of First-Gen Week in CU Denver, honoring students who are the first in their families to attend college. But what about the first generation faculty? Do they exist? Yes. We spoke to two professors who are the first in their family to graduate from college and the first in their family to become academics.
Not only does CU Denver have a lot of first generation students, we also have a few first generation faculty, including Clinical Assistant Professor Robin Brandehoff, PhD, who teaches at the School of Education & Human Development, and Professor Hani Mansour, PhD, who teaches in the Department of Economics.
Even some members of CU Denver’s leadership team are first-generation college graduates, most notably Provost Constancio Nakuma, PhD, and Vice Chancellor Monique Snowden, PhD. “Being the first in your family to attend college is both a blessing and a responsibility,” Snowden said. “My family made many sacrifices to support and uplift me, and in the process made higher education accessible rather than elusive.”
Brandehoff graduates from high school while taking care of his family
Brandehoff never intended to go to college. In fact, she is the first person in her family to graduate from high school. She spent her childhood in Hawaii and California. âBasically I grew up in projects in Maui and East LA,â she said. When she arrived in high school, she had to leave twice to care for an autistic brother. âIn my family, we have always struggled to put food on the table. I started working when I was 12 years old. When my mother got really, really sick, I had to give up, mainly to take care of my brother.
But Brandehoff got support from an unlikely source. âI grew up in a gang affected area, and it was actually my neighbor, who was a prominent gang leader, who made me sit on his porch one day,â she said. After she told him that she wasn’t planning on graduating from high school or going to college, he gave her some advice. âHe was one of those mentors who really listened to me and really made sure I saw things from multiple angles. He said to me: ‘You are the hope of this neighborhood, and I want my little girls to admire you and one day go to college.’ “
No one in Brandehoff’s social circle had ever been to college, so she didn’t know where to start. After the porch chat, she got on the computer and applied to a few local colleges – and she picked the one that offered her the most scholarships. “Whittier College was in my hometown,” she said, “so that meant I could still take care of my family and I could still work.”
Mansour chose the economy by the process of elimination
Almost 7,500 miles away in Haifa, Israel, Mansour knew he wanted to go to college. Although his parents did not go to college, he did well enough in school for him to graduate from college. “I’m not sure how I decided to go to college, but I felt like it was almost implied, like it was always the plan,” he said.
In Israel, as in other international higher education systems, you must declare a major before starting university studies. Mansour didn’t have much to do except that he knew he didn’t want to be a lawyer or an engineer, and he didn’t like the humanities or the hard sciences. âI ended up majoring in economics and accounting, thinking I wanted to be an accountant,â he said. âI didn’t know anything about accounting or economics, and my parents didn’t know either of those two things. “
With the help of his friends who were also applying to the university, Mansour managed to complete the application process and he enrolled in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He graduated and became a Chartered Public Accountant (CPA), which he ultimately hated.
Navigate through college when you don’t know what questions to ask
Although Brandehoff and Mansour come from different cultures and countries, they both had a lot of questions about college, but neither really wanted to ask them. If they had been confident enough to ask, they wouldn’t even have known what to ask. This is why the two faculty members now enjoy helping their first generation students.
“I had no idea how the university worked,” admitted Brandehoff. She finished her studies in her own way, but she does not recommend her strategy. âI read my student manual from cover to cover. I practically memorized this entire book, âshe said. Unfortunately, she didn’t have an advisor, so she didn’t have any advice on what courses she needed to take to graduate. “I kind of followed the mantra I’ve always heard about college, that you can take any course you want.”
Meanwhile, Mansour made his own mistakes, including not caring about his GPA and not forming relationships with his teachers. âWhen I was an undergraduate student – and I think that’s really the key to differentiating between first-generation students and students whose families moved on to college – I didn’t know I had to do well in my classes, âhe said. . “I didn’t really care about my surrogacy, not realizing that on the road it was going to haunt me.”
Do teachers have impostor syndrome?
Brandehoff ended up specializing in theater because she liked taking acting classes. It was something she had done in high school as an escape strategy. âI’ve always been very drawn to acting and a life that wasn’t mine,â she said. After graduating, she wanted to give back to her community, so she pursued a master’s degree in education. âI wanted to give back to a lot of the mentors I had and work with gang-affiliated kids like I was,â she said. She ended up working as a high school teacher and administrator for over twelve years.
Mansour gave up his CPA life after three years to attend a graduate school in economics. âMy parents didn’t understand this decision because a CPA makes a lot of money,â he said. He knew enough to know that he loved the economy and hoped it would open up other opportunities for him. He had no idea that he would end up enjoying research and teaching, which prompted him to consider an academic career.
According to his masters professors, that would require a doctorate and a trip to the United States. âWhen I arrived in the United States, there was still so much unknown about the exact nature of the program,â he said. “What are the courses?” What does the research process look like? What is it to be an academic?
Maybe Brandehoff and Mansour didn’t know the term for what they went through in college, but they both had a classic case of ‘impostor syndrome’, a feeling of not belonging or that your success is not legitimate. âI’ve always been terrified of people finding out that I was out of place at university,â Brandehoff said. “I think impostor syndrome is very real and even now as a teacher I still panic sometimes – how did I get here and how am I going to stay?” Mansour experienced similar feelings. âThe funny thing is that impostor syndrome is something that all academics have, I think, whether it’s true or not,â he said. “Do I even belong to this framework?” Is my research even important? Does anyone care? “
Reach out, make connections and leverage resources
After Brandehoff obtained her doctorate, she moved from teaching in high school to students. She focuses on mentoring gang-affiliated youth and teaching first-generation students of color. One of its core tenets is the belief that mentors come from anywhere. âA lot of my mentors weren’t people who could be formal mentors in Big Brother or Girls Club or things like that,â she said. “They had files, they were gang members, but they were also a huge influence in my life and I attribute my presence here to them.”
As a faculty member, Brandehoff enjoys connecting with students, primarily first generation students who need help with how to complete a FAFSA form or how to register for classes. âAs a teacher and also as a teacher, I now make sure that my own story is transparent,â she said. âI like to let my students know that I am a first generation high school and college graduate. I think this is a very important part of my identity. She recommends that students contact the professors and try to really connect.
Mansour wants his students to do what he hasn’t done. âGet to know your teachers, go during office hours,â he said. “I wish I had known that I would need the recommendations of these teachers.” He admits he’s jealous of all the resources the students have at CU Denver. âI am always surprised at how few students on our campus take advantage of the resources available to them. His advice is simple: âGo knock on doors during office hours. Create these relationships while you are in college.
Brandehoff said it simply. âAny question that arises, write it down immediately,â she said. “It’s never a ridiculous question because you don’t know what you don’t know.”