As part of First-Generation College Student Celebration Week, the Office of the Provost presents a series of reflections from first generation faculty and staff.

Teresa Mastin, PhD., is chairperson of the Department of Advertising and Public Relations in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences. 

Teresa Mastin, PhDDid your parents help you go to college?  What were their vocations?

They were not able to help me financially as they were sharecroppers for most of their lives. I was able to earn several partial scholarships, but mostly worked my way through. My dad had to drop out in 3rd grade to go work in the fields and my mom always shared that she went through the first week of 8th grade. There was little focus on education because it was not a part of their world.  

I was the first child in my family (the fourth of eight children) to attend an integrated school. I remember the kindness of some teachers. It made a tremendous difference.

How did the idea of higher education come to you? How did you pursue it?

I always wanted to learn. Reading was a way for me to escape a challenging environment. My parents didn't necessarily encourage me; however, the bigger piece was they didn't discourage me. 

By the time I was around eight years old, my parents were able to save up enough money to purchase a rocky piece of land. Some years after that, my dad began working at a factory. He was afraid for me to go to college because he thought I would be hurt. He wanted me to apply for a secretarial job at the factory where he worked.   

What were your first moments or months on campus like? Are there any specific memories that stand out?

Very difficult. We lived in a totally different era. I was very poor and was proud to have assembled five different outfits. I was shocked to learn that my roommate, a wonderful social butterfly, had a closet full of the latest clothes and each week she bought a new outfit for whatever party(ies) she had decided to attend. Academically, I realized I had a lot of work to do. I was from a county not known for the best educational preparation. Of course, at the time I had no idea what that meant.

How did your parents/family/guardian prepare you for college? How did you prepare?

My family didn’t, as they'd never had been before. The major challenge was that I couldn't talk with them about my experiences as they weren't really supportive of me going away. I think they would have "encouraged" me to come home. I prepared by reading a lot of books, most fiction. These books portrayed different images that were not what I experienced at all. The key word is fiction...

Why did you decide to go to college?

1. A pure love of learning for learning's sake. 2. I thought it was the place where people gathered to make a positive difference in the world. 

As a first-gen student, how was the application and admission process? How did you navigate this? 

I don't remember much of the details, but I do remember that I had been on campus a short period of time when I realized how short I was on being able to cover tuition, board, meals, etc. I was very nervous to go to the financial aid office, and I was traumatized to take out a loan as I had always been taught that debt was bad. I still remember writing the check for my final student loan payment.

What were your first semesters at school like? What surprised you the most?

Academically, I was surprised that there were a lot of choices, so many things that I'd never heard of. Personally, I was surprised at just how poor I was and how few people there were like me. I struggled with blaming myself for being poor and thus not able to participate fully. I also didn't want people to know that I was poor, but I'm sure everything about me screamed poverty. Interestingly, I thought that I was poor because I had done something wrong. I felt people would judge me unfairly; that is, I thought they would think I had done something to become poor — similar to imposter syndrome, although I think there is a nuanced difference. 

What challenges did you run into as a first-gen student?

Not feeling that I belonged anywhere. Not feeling that anyone could ever accept me as I was. I was used to not feeling that I belonged; however, I think it was during my early college days that I realized that might never change at some level.

How long did it take you to get acclimated to university life?

I am not sure that I ever acclimated. 

Were there any systems of support for first-gen students at your school?

I'm sure there were, but I didn't know about them or take advantage of them. In many ways, I was living in the lowest bottom portion of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It took all I had to manage the basics. I don't think I knew anything existed beyond the basics.  

As a first-gen student, what perspectives do you have that other non-first-gen students might not?

I believe I know the fragility of how one little instance can make the difference between having the money to attend the next semester or not, and what it feels like to know that there is no one you can call who will understand or who can help.  

Looking back, what’s one thing you wish you could tell your younger self at the beginning of your college career?

Find a disinterested third party, i.e., therapist, to help you through. Especially if you can find someone who understands first-gen, people of color, etc. There is always a danger of thinking you're the only one having such an experience, when that is far from true. Not only will a therapist's office be a good space to ensure you're engaging in basic reality, he/she is also highly likely to know about programs, support groups, etc., that will be of great help. Additionally, checking in with them weekly or bi-monthly is a good way to make sure you're not falling through the cracks, especially if you have a difficult family life in regard to no one having attended college before you. 

Do you have any advice for other first-gen students?

If you're having a down day, no matter the source, listen to the "This American Life" episode, “Three Miles.” It will help you understand that you are truly not alone and that you may always have some level of doubt, may always feel a bit inadequate, but you must keep going -- the podcast provides insight into the alternative. One of the things that keeps me going is knowing that the work I do may make the road traveled by first-gens less challenging. 


Learn more about MSU's designation as a First-Gen Forward institution, network with other first-generation faculty and staff, and get swag from the First-Generation Student Success Project team here