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First-generation Faculty

A number of students beginning their academic career at WVU
are embarking on a journey that no one in their families have before,
becoming the first generation of their families to earn four-year degrees.

That experience comes with unique challenges for students as they make their way through an unfamiliar culture with its own language and expectations. How do I talk to my professor? Can someone help me understand the syllabus?
If I need tutoring, is it free?

Take heart, though. We’re here to help. What’s more, a number of faculty in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences had the same experience. They too were once first-generation college students excited about the future, but anxious about asking for help and speaking up in class. 

A new community, shared experiences

Meet Nicholas Turiano, assistant professor of psychology. 

Raised by a blue-collar family in Philadelphia, Pa., Turiano's father worked for Verizon, climbing into sewers and up telephone poles fixing phone lines for 40 years. Watching how proud his father was of his work and how he supported his family without a college degree, Turiano dreamed of following in his father’s footsteps. It wasn’t until later in high school when a friend convinced him to apply to college instead of working for Verizon.

“As I got older, I realized how much damage my dad had done to his body over the years working 12 hour days, seven days a week. Although he was financially providing for the family, he was always stressed and tired,” said Turiano, an assistant professor of psychology. “I remember a conversation with him in high school when he told me to use my brain instead of my body for my career. I didn't get it at the time, but seeing my dad retired now with the physical limitations from 40 years of hard manual labor, I get it.”

That friend eventually became Turiano’s roommate at Pennsylvania State University. His help with the admission and financial aid applications and invitation to tag along on a campus visit made all the difference.  


“I was completely lost. I think my parents didn't know how to help me,” Turiano said. “I wish I had more open dialogue with them during the time. I bet if I pressed them a bit more, they would have become more engaged in my college-preparation process.”

Living away from home for the first time at 17, life didn’t get any easier once he arrived at college. After struggling to adjust to balancing academics and working part-time, ultimately failing two classes, tough love from his family gave him the motivation to succeed.

“I honestly think the turning point was realizing I didn't want to be that neighborhood kid who went to college and couldn't handle it,” Turiano said. “I think that gave me the motivation to make lifestyle changes that would help me do well in college.”  

Now, Turiano channels that experience to help fellow first-generation students as a McNair Scholars Program mentor.


Turiano

“Being a first-generation student is concrete proof that there is always a first time for everything. Regardless of your family or your socioeconomic status, you can achieve great things if you work hard at it. I've worked hard to get where I am today and it makes me proud knowing I am the first in my family to go to college and even get an advanced degree,” Turiano said. “I want to give back to those students who are first-generation because that is how we all succeed, helping those who need that little extra push to get what they want in life.”  

Dr. Turiano's advice for first-generation students 

“Ask a million questions. I was passive early in my college career and didn't know the ins and outs of how to succeed in college. If I would have only reached out, I would have realized there were many programs and faculty and administrators who would have helped me set a foundation. I think some students are embarrassed to utilize services at the University but there is nothing to be ashamed about.”
Watch the interview on YouTube

Meet Lisa DeFrank-Cole, associate professor and director of the Leadership Studies Program

DeFrank-Cole will be the first to acknowledge that she didn’t think a lot about careers – or going away to college.  

For the Uniontown, Pa., native who had never traveled, safety meant being close to relatives.  

Although her early goal was financial stability, DeFrank-Cole said her mother had always encouraged she and her siblings to go to college. It was the experience of her immigrant grandparents that offered her an additional incentive to pursue post-secondary education.

“They came to the United States to provide a better life for their children and grandchildren,” she said. “I felt ‘obligated’ to do the best I could do so that their dreams would be born out in my lifetime.”

So when her older sister chose to attend WVU, DeFrank-Cole found the perfect opportunity to pursue further education with the comfort of family close by.

That’s not to say that getting to college was easy once she had selected WVU and established that she had the grades to make it in.  

“My family could not afford to write a check to pay my tuition or room and board, so I depended on state and federal grants,” she said. “I also borrowed a substantial amount of money and had a few small scholarships.”  

Still, DeFrank-Cole said she constantly worried she wouldn’t have enough money to pay tuition. After changing majors, it took her six years to finish her degree and she feared her financial aid would be cut off before she finished.

College funding, she said, is a universal and continuing concern for college students.

“The obstacle seems even worse for students today as the value of need-based aid has not kept pace with the costs of education,” she said.

DeFrank-Cole found herself wondering what was next after completing her undergraduate degree. Seeing her sister successfully earn a master’s degree inspired her to pursue one as well.  

“I went into a master's program with the help of a graduate assistantship (GA),” she said. “The GA paid my tuition and gave me a small living allowance, which removed some of the worry about funding.  

“I met my husband at this point and followed him to Michigan where he was enrolled in a Ph.D. program. Seeing his progress, I was emboldened to pursue a doctorate degree as well. He helped build my confidence tremendously by encouraging me and telling me that ‘I could do it.’"

After working at a private university and later in state government, DeFrank-Cole completed her doctorate degree and found her way back to WVU. She was offered an opportunity to teach part time while working in an administrative capacity and loved it, eventually becoming a full-time faculty member in leadership studies.

“My experience was different in that I never expected to become a professor,” she said. “I didn't plan on it when taking my graduate classes. I did not have a teaching assistantship in my doctoral program, nor did I have a post-doc after completing my degree. I believe I had some self-doubt as to whether I would be a good professor.”

Today, she makes sure to encourage her students and offer her help if they reach out.

“I never want to embarrass a student by saying they ‘look like’ or ‘act like’ someone who is a first-generation college goer,” she said. “Instead, I tell students in my classes that I was a first-gen college graduate and hope that they will share their experiences with me if they are too. In this way, I hope to establish a common bond, or a shared experience with students.”

DeFrank-cole

In addition, DeFrank-Cole hosts an etiquette dinner for all students in Leadership Studies. It’s an opportunity that she believes she would have benefited from during her student days.

Those type of social skills are important to know, but she said general confidence in your ability to succeed in college is key to finishing what you’ve started.  

“I wish I knew that I would eventually ‘make it,’” DeFrank-Cole said. “I was never 100 percent positive that I would finish my undergraduate degree, let alone a doctoral degree. As I look back now, I can see the pattern of dedication that still helps me in being successful today.”

The power of education literally changed her life. Earning a college degree, DeFrank-Cole said, gave her knowledge, but more importantly self-confidence. 

“I was able to become the person I had hoped to become through education. Were it not for need-based student aid, an institution (WVU) that had a large population of first-generation college students and the support of people who believed in me, my path would have been very different. I am very thankful that funding was available to help a low-income, first-generation college student attain an education. In return, I happily pay taxes and contribute back to the institution that gave me a start to my future career.”

Dr. DeFrank-Cole’s advice for students 

"Trust yourself. The skills and abilities that have gotten you this far will assist you in college. Surround yourself with people (friends, family, faculty/staff) that believe in you and will support your dreams. Be positive. Ask for help when you need it."

Watch Lisa's video on YouTube

Meet Earl Scime, associate professor and chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

As a child, Scime dreamed of becoming an astronaut. But the combination of being very tall and a childhood injury made him ineligible for the military pilot career required to become one. Instead, he turned to physics.

His biggest obstacle? All of the steps that go along with applying to college.

“I had to create a fake ID to take the SAT because a photo ID was required, and my family was too poor to afford for me to get a driver's license. I even didn't have the original paperwork needed to get a legal ID because my adoption papers had been lost,” Scime said. “I worked nights and weekends to raise the money for the tests and to pay for transportation to get to college. Friends gave me rides to college interviews and to take the tests.”  

Scime’s junior high science teacher encouraged him every step of the way. She helped him realize that, although he had no obvious way to pay for college, he still had a realistic chance at a scholarship. A National Merit Scholarship, state scholarship and the Pell Grant covered his college costs for all four years.  

“Even while working hard, I had fun in college – but I never went to a single party. Not a single one. I treated college as a means to achieve my career goals and as a privilege,” Scime said. “Someone donated money or money came from taxpayers to put me through college. So I felt I owed it to all those people to do well in college and not blow it.”

The work ethic that motivated him to reach his goals of becoming a physicist inspires students today.  

Earl Scime

“I hope that I give students enough encouragement and a sense that they belong,” Scime said. “I hire them to work in my lab when I have the grant funds to do so. I also coach elementary, middle, and high school students in STEM programs, and 98 percent have gone on to college.”

Dr. Scime's advice for students 

“Not everyone gets to go to college. Work really, really hard, every day. Assume that you can and should have a 4.0 GPA every term, every year. Learn everything you can because when college is over, no one is going to try to teach you things – you'll have to learn on your own.”

Watch Earl's video on YouTube

Meet Michelle Richards-Babb, an associate professor in the C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry and director of the Office of Undergraduate Research.

As a child, Richards-Babb aspired to work with horses. She participated in the horse and pony 4-H club, owned her own pony and worked on farms, caring for horses and mucking out stalls. 

Putting off college for several years after graduating from high school, Richards-Babb took night classes in Spanish, psychology and chemistry while working full time in the equine industry. A professor’s note on a final exam motivated her to enroll in college full time.

“The note read, ‘If you ever get off the horse farm, you should consider a career in chemistry.’ That was all it took. I was off and running toward a chemistry bachelor’s degree,” Richards-Babb said. “I knew working in the equine industry did not pay well, and horses became my hobby. That is why I decided to go to college.”

As a non-traditional and commuter student, Richards-Babb sought out other students with similar backgrounds.

“It was helpful to make connections with other students in a similar situation to mine and within the same major. Not only was I a first-generation student, I was also a couple of years older than the average student,” Richards-Babb said. “There was another student who was also a commuter student and a chemistry major. We would often call each other to discuss homework and assignments whenever we needed clarification or became stuck.  

Those friendships helped her connect to the campus, where she otherwise felt lonely. Working part time to pay for college and living off campus limited her ability to get involved.

“I worked all weekend, every weekend in the equine industry to support myself. Thus, I did not engage in many of the social aspects of college, which caused me to be isolated from other students,” Richards-Babb said.

Richards-Babb

 “Now I understand how important it is to be connected to the social community at the institution you attend. If I had the chance to attend undergraduate school again, I would take advantage of more of the social aspects. For instance, I would attend some sporting events, join a club, volunteer as a tutor and do more undergraduate research. All of these things help you to connect with the institution and your major and take you from a face in the crowd to an individual.  

Advice for students 

“Treat going to school as a full-time job. You should be spending a minimum of 40 hours per week attending class, reading the text, doing your homework and studying. If you put the time in now, it will pay off in the end. If you set your mind to it and work hard, nothing can stop you.”
Watch Michelle's's video on YouTube

Meet Hal Gorby, teaching assistant professor of history and director of undergraduate advising. 

G rowing up, college was something no one else in Gorby’s immediate family had ever achieved. His father worked as a skilled glass blower for many years, but when the factory closed down in the early 1980s, he had to work a variety of jobs just as Gorby was born.  

“My dad subtly emphasized the importance of going to college. He always wanted me to ‘use my head’ to make a living,” said Gorby, a teaching assistant professor and the director of undergraduate studies for the Department of History. “I was also very intrigued by the idea of going to college. I did well in public school growing up, but at times found myself wanting more knowledge.”

Until his senior year at Wheeling Jesuit University, Gorby was set on becoming a lawyer. His love of history, politics and the American presidency always pointed in that direction, and a summer internship at a local law firm affirmed those goals. But while conducting research for his senior capstone, Gorby realized just how good he was at research and writing.

“During a late Friday night talk with friends, one asked me bluntly, ‘What do you really want to do?’ After a short pause, I said, ‘I want to go to graduate school for history.’ I had several friends who worked with me at the academic resource center who were also doing this, and they had slowly convinced me over the past year,” Gorby said. “I think many of my colleagues could attest to similar experiences of starting out on one track and major, and switching gears several times as an undergraduate.”

The Moundsville, W.Va. native also strives to ease the concerns of students from small towns about navigating a large university for the first time. Having found an intellectual home in history and philosophy clubs and met new people through pep band, Gorby encourages students to get involved in student organizations and activities to meet new friends.

Gorby“Im often meet with students who have similar concerns to what I went through. In talking with students, I always try to let them express themselves in a way they feel comfortable, and when appropriate try to find some common ground with them based on my own experiences,” Gorby said. “I feel I am pretty empathetic when interacting with college students, and I try to make them feel as much at ease as I can.” 

Dr. Gorby's advice for students

“Expect the unexpected. Your parents and other family and friends can prepare you as much as possible, but things will not go according to plan. Be flexible and realize that if things don't work well the first time, to not see that as a personal failure.”
Watch Michelle's's video on YouTube