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First-Generation Faculty: Lisa DeFrank Cole

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.

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

Lisa DeFrank-Cole

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 DeFrank-Cole to pursue hers 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.”

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  Lisa DeFrank-Cole

"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."