Faculty Stories

Brandon Brown

Assistant Professor, School of Medicine

"It was pretty clear when I was applying that I had no idea what I was doing. And it was kind of scary because you have to figure that stuff out and you don’t really know what they want to hear when you’re on the other side, doing your essay and all this stuff. And definitely, once you actually start it's different too. College is hard. It’s a lot harder than high school. So, to figure that part out you have to be independent in going to class, making sure you’re on time, actually putting time away for studying. 
My advice for First-Gen students is to quickly identify a person who knows how things work, and they need to give advice and keep you focused. Because it helps to have a person who’s willing to care enough to tell you if you’re not doing things right. If you listen then you can succeed. [All it takes is one person] to believe in you. It’s harder to listen to your parents. If someone outside who doesn’t really know your history, says that they believe in you, then it’s really powerful."

Sharon Oselin

Assistant Professor, Sociology

“One thing I struggled with initially was I didn’t really know what I wanted to do in terms of my major. I had a lot of anxiety about that! I switched majors a lot. I had this fantasy that I was going to be a doctor – a medical doctor. I am a doctor now, but I had no idea I wanted to be a professor. That idea never crossed my mind, especially coming from a household like I did. I think the first two years especially are the time to try different courses and get exposed to different disciplines and not necessarily rush into a major.”

Carole Anne Tyler

Assistant Professor of English

"One of my very first classes was French. It met at 8:00 a.m., and my teacher asked how many of us had been to France. Everyone in the room but me raised a hand. I never talked in class because of that. I thought my classmates really knew the language and culture because they'd been to France. Meanwhile, I had a perfect score on the national achievement exam in French and all A's in my high school French classes. It never occurred to me that my classmates had probably gone with mom and dad on a two-week vacation to France, which hardly made them experts. I allowed myself to be intimidated because they had actually been there and I hadn't and I didn't have another perspective on what their travel might mean. The wonderful thing about college is it’s a chance to learn in a very broad way. Don’t think of it as just about developing vocational skills. It allows you to explore things that might become a source of great joy and pleasure in life that have nothing to do with the world of work--art, literature, athletics. So much of what is rewarding in life happens outside work--though sometimes an extracurricular activity turns out to be what catches an employer’s eye on a resume! Think of college as a way to make yourself a better citizen and person, to prepare for life and not just work. My biggest message is that students shouldn't be afraid to be vulnerable and admit they have something to learn. Trying new things includes finding faculty mentors. Don’t be afraid to say to faculty, "I don’t understand why I’m not doing better in the course. I always did well in high school. Can you help me improve?" Faculty want to help and can often advise not just about classwork but graduate school and job application materials, study and travel abroad, time management and work-life balance, and other things. I wish I had found some faculty mentors early on because I might have had a difference experience in college, not just in French but in some other classes and some of my extracurricular activities too."

Paul Larsen

Professor of Biochemistry

"First gen does not know race or gender and is a community made up of students from all backgrounds that through no choice of their own become part of it. The first gen label is not something that should limit the members of our community but rather is a symbol of our inner drive to be successful in spite of not having the same starting line as our peers. As a first-generation college student, I did not come from a home where higher education was something anyone knew about. Growing up in Michigan, I thought that once you graduate from high school you were off to a career as a blue-collar worker in the automotive industry. Because people saw in me things that I didn’t see myself and because they believed in me, I ended up being recruited to go to college even though I was unaware of what any of that meant. Because of that, I took my ACT exam and the scores came back and said that I would be a good biologist. I said ok, I guess I will be a biologist even though I had no idea what that entailed or to where it would lead me. When I got to college, I was so naïve that I didn’t even know the difference between a BA and a BS and never had heard of a Ph.D. In hindsight, it was helpful that I understood that while some of my peers knew that they wanted to be scientists since they were very young, me figuring this out at a later stage did not preclude me from being successful. I was perilously close to not making it through my freshman year largely because I was unaware about how to be successful in college, especially in Chemistry since I never had this course in high school. I ended up being fortunate enough to have a Biochemistry professor take me under his wing. The college had implemented a remedial Chemistry course for people in my situation. I look back and realize that’s the only reason I’m in science today because without it I would not have been successful in my major. It’s frightening but also inspiring at the same time to see reflectively how much of an edge we’re on in terms of whether or not we are successful. It was a pivotal moment in my life, to where if that professor had not taken me in and mentored me, I would not have survived in that program. It’s one of those things where you look back and say, “Wow! It’s really scary how close I came to failing”. But because that one person took care of me, I made it to the level of Full Professor in the University of California system. To me, that is a huge black and white difference- that one moment was sink or swim. My best advice to students is to be open minded when beginning their college careers. It is hard to expect an 18-year-old student to be precocious enough to be able to know for certain what career they want to be part of for possibly the rest of their life. College is a bit like getting ice cream at Baskin Robbins- there’s a lot of different flavors here from which to choose and it’s up to you to decide what you like by being willing to try different things. Just because it seems that everyone else is happy with vanilla, chocolate or strawberry doesn’t mean that you won’t like something else better. The same is true for majors and careers."

Philip Tanedo

Assistant Professor of Physics

"The first time I realized I was first-gen was probably the first or maybe second year of college. I realized that many of the high-achieving people around me were a step ahead because they had parents who were academics or professionals. They had stronger math and science backgrounds, already did research, knew how to talk to professors, and knew how to succeed in college. It didn't seem fair that other people already knew the roadmap to do well before they even came here. I had to figure those things out from watching other people and finding the right mentors. One thing I came to appreciate, though, is that the race we're running is a marathon and that these ended up being small differences in starting position. Over the long run, with the right support structures, we can all succeed. College is kind of a game where no one ever sits you down and tells you the rules or strategies for success. The best advice I can give to other first generation college students is to consciously figure out what these rules and strategies are. It's not just that you show up to class at 8am and get good grades and that's it. It’s everything else: building relationships, getting experience, following great role models and seeking mentoring from people further down the road than you. One example that UCR does very well is undergraduate research. This is something totally different from high school that I didn't appreciate going into college. And yet, research experience helps you learn where you want to take your education and it opens up doors in your career future."

Nicolas Barth

Assistant Professor of Geology

"One of the things that was important from me as an undergrad, and probably one of the main reasons I am actually here, is I took advantage of the education abroad program as an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara. That allowed me to go to New Zealand for a year, where I got to learn a whole new world of geology. It was so helpful and I was able to interact with world experts in things I was really interested in. Several years down the line, that ended up being where I did my PhD, was the same school because they knew me as a student. Some people have families and education abroad might not be a totally viable option. But that said, there are internships available in the local Inland Empire area that they can take advantage of if they just sought out what those opportunities are. Advice I would give to first-generation students is to find mentorships with a professor or try to work with them in their labs. Senior thesis and internships, education abroad - all those things give you a leg up. So, it would be great to see the first-generation students taking advantage of those more than the rest of the student population."