First-Generation Stories Shared by Midwestern University Community

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September 01, 2023 | Downers Grove, IL

The Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion held this event to encourage students who may be the first in their families to pursue higher education.

Midwestern University students, faculty, and staff gathered to hear a panel share their common story. The panel included faculty from the College of Dental Medicine-Illinois (CDMI), the Chicago College of Optometry (CCO), the College of Health Sciences (CHS), the College of Graduate Studies (CGS), and members of the Student Services staff who are the first in their family to graduate from college. Through this shared experience, students in similar situations and event attendees gained insight into how others worked through similar situations and challenges in their pursuit of higher education.

The panel was composed of Kelly Skerrett, D.D.S. (CDMI), Clinical Care Coordinator; Michael Jacobs, D.D.S, (CDMI), Assistant Professor; Fred Romano, Ph.D. (CHS), Dean, College of Health Sciences; Walter Prozialeck, Ph.D. (CGS), Professor, Pharmacology; Suraj Upadhyaya, Ph.D., FAAO (CCO), Assistant Professor; Larry Williams D.D.S., M.P.H. (CDMI), Professor; Andrew Pokrajac, Student Services Coordinator; and Arvy Dailide (D.D.S. (CDMI), Assistant Professor. Once they made the decision to go to college, the panel members shared that they faced challenges finding information about colleges and asking for advice, especially the panelists who pursued higher education prior to the Internet. They all described years of hard work to receive their education and pay for their education, bills, and other expenses.

They shared how their experiences and family history shaped them. Dr. Dailide said his parents were Lithuanian immigrants. “They had to get through the camps when they were coming over trying to get into the U.S.” He recalled stories about his parents living on rations of bread and water, and his mother gave his father her bread ration in order for him to stay cognizant and find a way to escape. “They were not Ellis Island people, but they did come over with one suitcase. I realized I was first generation when I started playing in the neighborhood with all the other kids and I didn't speak the language.” His father ended up in a construction business, and Dr. Dailide grew up assisting his father. “I was already working in construction when I was 13 years old.”

Dr. Williams said, “My path is very, very different. By the time I was 14 years old, I'd already lived in 10 different places. We lived on the farm with my grandparents because we didn't have a house to live in at that time. I was the oldest of four kids. Our parents worked very hard. And I worked hard. My dad taught me two very important things. Number one, if you don't come home tired after a day's work, it was not an honest day's work. And then the second thing was knowledge gained and not shared is knowledge wasted. And that stayed with me all through my life.”

Dr. Prozialeck said he came from an Appalachian region in Pennsylvania, grew up around the coal mining industry, and he used to deliver coal. “From the time I was about nine or 10, I was expected to help out clearing snow from the tracks in the wintertime. This was back when there was no oil heat in that part of Pennsylvania.” His grandparents were Ukrainian immigrants and came to the U.S. around 1918. “My grandfather was a coal miner. He was injured in a mining accident in the 1920s. He broke his back. The family had no income. They lived in a company house. They were thrown out. They had to live in a shack they built. They had nothing and my dad had to drop out of elementary school to help the family. I grew up in that environment. We were never that poor, but I had to work.” He added his parents encouraged him to pursue his studies.

The panelists included Dr. Prozialeck, Dr. Williams, Dr. Skerrett, Dr. Dailide, Dr. Romano, Dr. Upadhyaya, and Mr. Pokrajac.

“Education is the real wealth. Education helps you get through anything in life,” Dr. Upadhyaya said. He finished his undergraduate degree in Nepal and journeyed to Malawi, Africa, where he was an optometry lecturer at Malawi College of Health Sciences. He was one of three faculty members to start the optometry program. “I have an experience of graduating the first batch of optometrists in a country where you don't have cell phone networks all over the country. You have chalk, you have the blackboard, and you have to teach them how to check eyes, where is the normal anatomical place, and what is normal and abnormal. I studied a photocopy to become an optometrist.” Dr. Upadhyaya said.”

The panelists offered advice and shared how they were encouraged to pursue their education. Mr. Pokrajac said, “One of the biggest pushes for me to finish my education was marrying into a family of teachers. They wanted to ask me lots of questions. How’s your studying? Are you having trouble? Having that encouragement kept pushing me forward even under stressful situations.” Dr. Dailide said his parents wanted him to pursue higher education, and he said anyone who does not have family support can still finish their education. “There is an American dream. If you believe you can do it, you don’t necessarily have to have your parents as your mentors pushing you.” Dr. Upadhyaya said there are a lot of resources for students interested in finishing their education. “If you look around, you will find someone who had similar experiences, and everybody is ready to help. You just have to ask.” Dr. Prozialeck added, “The most important thing is to be able to adapt and to work hard.”

Midwestern University offers support and encouragement to students of all backgrounds, and a variety of resources are available to help students succeed. For more any questions about the panel or first-generation initiatives, please contact Danielle Bank, Learning Specialist, Student Services. The event was held by Midwestern University’s Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion as part of its commitment to support students meet their educational and career goals.