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I'm First Staff Directory

Check out our Community Directory of staff and administrators at Northwestern who were all first generation college students. Learn more about their journeys and reach out to connect.

Northwestern staff members - were you a first generation college student?

Join us by submitting your First Generation Story here.

I'm First Staff

Molly Basdeo

Molly Basdeo

Assistant Director of New Student and Family Programs

Educational Background

North Carolina State University, BS; University of South Carolina, MEd

What does being first generation mean to me?

When my family immigrated to the U.S. from Guyana they were the first for a lot of things in our family: first to become U.S. citizens, first to buy a home, first to send their kids to college and so much more. Being first-generation means continuing the hard work that my family members put in. Being first-gen also means being shaped into the individual I am today and that ultimately led me to my current career path - working with new students and the student leaders who support them. As a first-generation, low-income student, from a single parent household, I faced a lot of challenges when trying to navigate my first-year at college. Within my role at Northwestern, I hope to be able to support students as they navigate their own experiences.

Theresa Bratanch

Theresa Bratanch

Program Coordinator, Communication Studies

Educational Background

University of Illinois Chicago, BA; DePaul University, MA; Northwestern, MS 

What does being first generation mean to me?

Being first-generation means that, with the support and love of family and friends, I persevered. It means that I carved my own path, that although was very different from my classmates, was my own. 

Lesley-Ann Brown Henderson

Lesley-Ann Brown Henderson

Executive Director, Campus Inclusion and Community

Educational Background

University of Miami, BA in Psychology/Minors in Chemistry and Africana Studies; Texas A&M University, MS in Student Affairs Administration, MA in Education in Counseling Psychology; and PhD in Counseling Psychology

What does being first generation mean to me?

Being first-generation means that with the love and support of my family and the help of mentors I have been able to successfully navigate the higher education system not only for myself but for generations to come.

Krista Buda Bethel

Krista Buda Bethel

Senior Assistant Director of Undergraduate Financial Aid & Manager of Study Abroad Financial Services

Educational Background

Haverford College, BA; Northwestern University, MS

What does being first-generation mean to me?

Being first-generation means being grateful to my incredibly hard-working parents for the value they placed on education and the unbreakable work ethic they instilled in me. It means sometimes working twice as hard to get into the room, but also holding the door open for those who come after me. I am proud to be both a member and a supporter of the first-gen community at Northwestern.

 

Kourtney Cockrell

Kourtney Cockrell

Director of Student Enrichment Services

Educational Background

University of Michigan, BA in African-American Studies and Sociology; Northwestern University, MS in Learning and Organizational Change

What does being first generation mean to me?

Being first gen means I have both a privilege and responsibility to continue making change at the highest levels. It means I am truly, “my ancestors’ wildest dreams” as the daughter of a Black man from Columbus, Mississippi and a Jewish woman from Skokie, IL. I draw strength and pride from my first gen identity and my many other identities as a woman of color, Black and Jewish feminist, and change agent.

Joy Elizabeth

Joy Elizabeth

Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology Communications Intern at Northwestern Medicine

Educational Background

Trinity Christian College, BS; Northwestern University, MS

What does being first generation mean to me?

I feel as though being first-generation is one that is full of risk. I have a personality of planning, structure, rules, and the childhood development of "black and white" and "right and wrong", which tend to make risk-taking difficult. I believe this educational journey has been "unsafe" in ways as I have had to navigate this path alone. I am the youngest daughter of five and following others is natural and comfortable for me. This educational path for me to lead myself down has been very adventurous and self-rewarding.

 

Carmen Hernández

Carmen Hernández

Advising Associate, Global Learning Office

Educational Background

University of Illinois at Chicago, BFA; Northeastern Illinois University, MA

What does being first generation mean to me?

Being a first-generation college student represented hope for myself and my family. It represents progress, and most importantly it represents a guide for the future generations. I am very proud to say that I am a first-generation Latina that surpassed the educational attainment expectations, from being a foreign-born, not having gone to preschool, attending the Chicago Public system, and being raised in a low-income home. I am very proud of my Latina first-gen identity, and within my role at the Global Learning Office (GLO), it will be my mission to encourage and support first-gen students to study abroad.

Mayra Garces

Mayra Garces

Assistant Director, New Student and Family Programs, Student Affairs

Educational Background

Depauw University, Bachelors of Arts in Communication; Miami University of Ohio, Master of Science in Student Affairs & Higher Education

What does being first generation mean to me?

It’s the hustle I inherited from my mom and it's the pride that I (with and because of the support of my family & mentors) I earned two degrees. It's also a responsibility to share my first-generation story, whether it’s with my Latinx community, my first-gen community, and/or with those who have not or don’t see themselves accessing the people and spaces that I am part of everyday by being a member of the Northwestern community. So often, I feel that challenges and barriers shape the first-generation narrative, and yeah, I get that. It is different and it is hard, and our experiences are not always as visible as other college-going narratives. At the same time 5 years out of college, and 3 out of graduate school, I do feel that who I am and how I succeeded are because I am a first-generation college student, not in spite of.

Cait Hakala

Cait Hakala

Cashier's Office Supervisor

Educational Background

Northwestern University, BA

What does being first generation mean to me?

Being first generation meant pretending I knew what I was doing--even though I didn't. Being first generation was having to pretend that I had it all together, that I didn't need help, because I didn't want anyone to notice that I didn't really belong. It meant I didn't utilize all the resources I had at my disposal because I simply didn't know they were there. It also meant making my mom proud as I walked across the stage when she never did. It also means that I push my students to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them here at NU, because I would have been better off now if I had done so when I was an undergrad.

 

D.J. Hoek

D.J. Hoek

Associate University Librarian for Collections Strategies

Educational Background

Grand Valley State University, BA; Bowling Green State University, MM; Indiana University, MLS

What does being first generation mean to me?

My parents always encouraged me toward college, as they expected education would provide me with more career options than they had. They were certainly right. But since the path I took was different than theirs or anyone else in my family, there was a lot I needed to figure out myself. That included not only the logistics of attending college, but also adjusting to the ways new ideas and experiences ultimately shaped me, my beliefs, where I live, and other major aspects of life.

Larry Jackson

Larry Jackson

Assistant Director - Student Career Advising

Educational Background

Bradley University, BS; The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, MA

What does being first generation mean to me?

It means that I triumphed from difficult circumstances. I had great emotional support from family, teachers, and friends but I didn't have the accessible knowledge trust of people to teach me how to navigate certain things in life successfully. I had to learn certain things on my own so I'm grateful for how far I've come.

Melissa Jacobi

Melissa Jacobi

Technical Support Specialist

Educational Background

Northwestern University, BA 

What does being first generation mean to me?

College and post-college life as a first-generation student was full of challenges that wealthier students did not face. It was easy to feel isolated and unsophisticated at times. I am pleased that there is now recognition that being first-generation is a unique experience and that additional support can make the journey less harrowing.

Starting as a rural, low income, first-gen NU undergraduate 41 years ago, through my role today as an older female in information technology, I have personally benefited from the value that Northwestern has long placed on a diverse student body and work force. 

Bianca Jimenez

Bianca Jimenez

Associate Director, International & Area Studies

Educational Background

University of Chicago, M.A. Social Science (Cultural Anthropology), DePaul University, B.A. Latin American and Latino Studies

What does being first generation mean to me?

As the daughter of Mexican immigrants and coming from a low-income household, it means that despite many obstacles and hurdles there is a path to success. I feel that I have been fortunate enough to find support and resources throughout my life to help me get to where I am. I couldn’t have accomplished what I did without the support and hard work of my parents, family, friends and mentors over the years. Through a combination of non-profit organizations, dedicated teachers, generous scholarships and continued support I was able to accomplish my goals of receiving my BA and MA. It reinforces my belief that that these social and educational resources I had access to are so vital to the growth and success of our communities.

Being first generation means being a strong role model for those going through the same process. It means creating visibility for the wide array of possibilities available to us. And I also think it comes with the responsibility to mentor and support those that come after us.

Brian Keiller

Brian Keiller

Associate Director, Health Professions Advising

Educational Background

Aberdeen University, MA; Loyola University Chicago, MEd

What does being first generation mean to me?

Overcoming the fear of failure and not fitting in at college. Getting comfortable asking questions when others seemed to already know the answers. Gradually understanding that valuing my degree was a process.

Your journey will be different, but you made it here and for sure you can make it out of here with letters after your name, new friends and stories, some of which old friends might not care for, but can be shared in different ways.

Coretta King

Coretta King

Director, Operations and Events

Educational Background

University of West Georgia, BBA; University of West Georgia, MEd

What does being first generation mean to me?

Being first-generation for me has been forging paths and taking the lumps/bumps of not knowing to make things easier for my siblings. I freely talk about the mistakes and successes experienced as a first generation student to help others better navigate their own journeys. I really try to share freely and shamelessly my experiences to help put a face and voice in areas that are not always visible.

De-Anthony King

De-Anthony King

Director of Development, Alumni Relations & Development

Educational Background

Shaw University, BS; Loyola University Chicago, MBA

What does being first generation mean to me?

I once heard someone describe being a first-generation college student as navigating through a dark room in search of the light switch – you stub your toes a few times but eventually, you make it to the switch and you turn on the lights. Once illuminated, you can see the obstacles and pitfalls in the room you call life. As a first-generation college student, I am afforded the opportunity to help other first-gen students find the light switch quicker than I did, thus identifying the obstacles of life in a shorter time frame. This reduction in time ensures that they can reach farther and climb higher than I have. My primary goal in life is to give back to other first-gen students while teaching them how to pay it forward.

Jason Kruse

Jason Kruse

Undergraduate Engagement Librarian

Educational Background

University of Illinois at Chicago, BA; Dominican University, MLIS

What does being first generation mean to me?

Navigating college was difficult for me, and I assumed that this was what everyone experienced, so I just did my best to figure it out. It wasn’t until very recently that I realized that I was a first-generation college student. Not knowing how to pick classes, struggling with figuring out financial aid, not knowing who I could ask, being afraid to ask questions (because everyone else knows), impostor syndrome, really my whole college experience all had a new context for me. The support I had from my parents, friends, and mentors helped to get me where I am today. As a part of Northwestern, I want to be able to provide support for other first-generation students to make sure they can be successful.

Alejandro Magaña

Alejandro Magaña

Assistant Director of MSA

Educational Background

DePaul University, BA; DePaul University, MS

What does being first generation mean to me?

Being a first-generation college graduate means being grateful for all the sacrifices my parents made leaving their homeland in Mexico and working multiple jobs to make a good life in the United States. It means paving a new direction and way of life for my family. It means relying on the work and expertise of professionals to guide you through the college experience. I have worked in higher education for the past 13 years to help students navigate their college experience and remove barriers to academic success.

Travis Martin

Travis Martin

Director of Fraternity & Sorority Life

Educational Background

Mississippi Valley State University, BS; University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Med; University of Georgia, PhD

What does being first generation mean to me?

Being first generation means being resilient, a trailblazer, a dreamer and achiever of the many educational possibilities. It also should come with a community like those of us who has come before, who have been through what you are going through navigating the higher education environment. Know that we are your village of support.

Lauren McKeen

Lauren McKeen

Librarian, Marketing & Communication

lauren.mckeen@northwestern.edu 

 

Educational Background

Southern Illinois University, BA, BS; Indiana University, MLS

What does being first generation mean to me?

As a first-gen college student, I've had the opportunity to leave home and encounter people and ideas that have challenged and humbled me. My path of discovery looks a lot different than it did for my family, and it's had a profound effect on my worldview! This experience has made me passionate about providing an equitable and inclusive learning environment for all students – no matter their background!

 

Briana Newkirk

Briana Newkirk

Administrative Assistant, Campus Inclusion and Community

Educational Background

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Bachelor of Arts in English and Women & Gender Studies

What does being first generation mean to me?

Being first-gen means everything to me. I knew I wanted to go to college when I was 10 years old, despite nobody in my family knowing how to help me walk that path. Being first gen means learning to forge a new path and to be ready to stumble, make mistakes, and just take chances along the way.

Sekile Nzinga-Johnson

Sekile Nzinga-Johnson

Director of Women's Center

Educational Background

Morgan State University, BS in Social Work; Ohio State University, MS in Social Work; University of Maryland, PhD in Human Development

What does being first generation mean to me?

Being the first person in my immediate family to earn a college education and the first person in my extended family to earn a PhD has shaped my life and career in many ways. I am grateful to my family for their deep commitment to education even though they faced racial and economic barriers that denied them access for generations. In my role as a professor, and now as a administrator, I have always been committed to working to ensure higher education institutions are accessible and inclusive to all.

Gretchen Oehlschlager

Gretchen Oehlschlager

Communications & Events Coordinator, Office for Research, Center for Interdisciplinary Research & Exploration in Astrophysics

Educational Background

Ithaca College, BS 

What does being first generation mean to me?

Being first gen means a lot of different things to me, and I realize more and more how important it is to my identity. It means my family worked hard to give me something significant that they didn't have themselves, and I’m grateful. It creates a big difference between me and my family – they are all blue-collar and I’m white-collar, to use old-fashioned terms. It connects me to others in an unspoken way: I realized as an adult that the majority of my closest friends are also first-generation. We never talked about it, but discovered it later in our relationships.

Michael Perry

Michael Perry

Department Head, Library, Assessment & Planning

Educational Background

DePaul Univeristy, BA; Dominican University, MS

What does being first generation mean to me?

It means being adaptable in a way many of your peers might not have to be and often having to be self-reliant in facing challenges.

Gina Petersen

Gina Petersen

Librarian, Assessment & Planning

Educational Background

University of Iowa, BA; University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, MS

What does being first generation mean to me?

It means that I bring a different perspective to my work than some of my colleagues. I understand certain struggles in a way others don't, while recognizing that there are struggles that I don't understand. Sometimes I don't feel comfortable in academia, but I don't feel comfortable in my home town anymore either.

Beth Ripperger

Beth Ripperger

Project Coordinator, Office of the Provost

Educational Background

Kirkwood Community College, AA; Mount Mercy University, BA; The University of Iowa, MA in Higher Education & Student Affairs

What does being first-generation mean to you?

I was raised by a single mom of four in a small town located in Iowa. Both of my parents worked at the same factory their entire lives at a job they didn’t particularly enjoy. I was a Pell Grant recipient, and I attended a community college my first two years of college because I knew I would be paying for my education. Since I didn’t have monetary resources I could fall back on, I knew an education was my key towards a better life. If it weren't for a professor at the community college I attended telling me that I would be a great candidate for graduate school I don’t think I would have even considered pursuing a Master’s degree. 

Being first gen means that even as a professional staff member on campus, I still find myself experiencing some of the same insecurities and imposter syndrome feelings as I did when I was a student. I aspire to support and inspire other first generation students throughout their collegiate careers and beyond. I want students to know that they aren't alone in their journey and many people on campus and in the community are here to support them every step of the way.

Sharitza Rivera

Sharitza Rivera

Assistant Director, Student Enrichment Services

Educational Background

DePaul University, BA in Psychology – Community Psychology; University of Chicago, MA in Social Work – Clinical Concentration

What does being first generation mean to me?

To me being first-generation means to be resourceful. While I was in school I would often tell people that I "just figured it out." I learned quickly that my friends, professors, and the resources at the school were my greatest assets for professional success. For me being first-generation is not necessarily about me alone, but rather an accumulation of my grandparents coming to Chicago from Puerto Rico with little, my parents working on weekends to pay my discounted Catholic school tuition, and my personal drive to be a resource to my family, and to others.

Kelly Schaefer

Kelly Schaefer

AVP Student Engagement, Student Affairs

Educational Background

Bowling Green State University, BA in English Education/Health Education; Western Illinois University, MA in College Student Personnel; Illinois Institute of Technology, PhD in Professional and Technical Communication

What does being first generation mean to me?

Being a first-generation college student meant that I was just as ill-informed as my parents were when it came to understanding the full college experience. We both had ideas about where I should go to college, yet neither me nor my parents were knowledgeable or intentional when it came to the decision I made about where to go to college or about what to study. When I did not choose the “right college” or the “right major,” I disappointed my family. In addition to the insecurity of not knowing how to navigate college, there came additional stressors – my parents divorced while I was in college, and the financial pressures increased as we all attempted to work through this new family reality. Happily, there were work opportunities for me in college, and the work I chose, being a Resident Assistant, offered financial relief and an opportunity to set upon a career path of Student Affairs.

Jeremy Schenk

Jeremy Schenk

Executive Director of the Norris University Center

Educational Background

Illinois State University, BS; Illinois State University, MS

What does being first generation mean to me?

As a first generation student, I felt like I was representing my entire family through my college experience.  I was serving as someone my sisters and cousins could look up to and provide guidance to as they looked at higher education options.  I had to be inquisitive and ask hard questions to my parents when completing the FAFSA, I had to advocate and fight for additional financial aid and scholarships, I had to overcome times where I was dealing with food insecurity and letting my own pride stop me from asking for help.  

Christina A. Smith

Christina A. Smith

Administrative Assistant, Student Enrichment Services

Educational Background

Loyola University-Chicago, BA in Black World Studies and Classical Civilizations

What does being first generation mean to me?

Being first-gen means a new era for my family. The goals, aspirations and expectations have changed and grown. Things that seemed unattainable are now within reach and expected for the next generations.

Donna Su

Donna Su

Associate Director of Operations/Program Manager, Farley Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation

Educational Background

University of California - Santa Barbara, BA; Northwestern University, MPPA

What does being first generation mean to me?

Being first generation to me means a lot of balancing.  It meant trying to assimilate to American ways and blaze my own path without parents or family knowing what to recommend or next steps for me.  It also meant respecting my parents' cultural traditions and not to take their ignorance and expectations personally.  It meant that I had to work harder to figure stuff out, swallow my pride and ask for help including looking for mentors.  The mentors that I sought out in school eventually meant that I would seek out mentors as I dipped into the working world and community. And once I had certain tools and knowledge, it evolved into sharing it with my generation – my younger siblings, cousins or even the informal mentees that I had picked up at school or in the community.  I tell my students and faculty that my door is always open to them because I want to hear what is going on.  If I somehow have the knowledge, experience or connection to help make their lives better, I’m going to help.

Tracie Thomas

Tracie Thomas

Director for Career Development

Educational Background

Cleveland State University, BA & MA; University of Wisconsin-Madison, MS

What does being first generation mean to me?

I am the only member of my family to hold an undergraduate degree, as well as the only member to hold a graduate degree. As a first generation student, there was so much I didn't know, and so much I didn't know that I didn't know! When I realized this, I had to conquer my fear of asking questions and of asking for help. However, I have gained many skills from being a first generation student, such as independence, being a quick learner, and adaptability. Most of all, I have learned to be resourceful, and to always keep my long term goals in mind, especially when I get discouraged by obstacles. I want to help students navigate the college process in any way that I can. Please feel free to reach out any time!

Jessica Toro-Pacheco

Jessica Toro-Pacheco

Interim Director, Student Affairs Marketing

Educational Background

University of Illinois at Chicago, BFA in Graphic Design

What does being first-generation mean to me?

Knowing I would be the first in my family to graduate made me feel unbreakable. Although I faced many obstacles I wouldn't let the hand I was dealt determine my path. I managed to navigate my way in an unknown world while carrying the pride of my family.

Jasmine Tucker

Jasmine Tucker

Student Affairs Program Coordinator

Educational Background

Howard University, BA; Loyola University of Chicago, MA

What does being first generation mean to me?

First-generation means starting a legacy for my family. My greatest accomplishment is graduating from the most prestigious HBCU in our country (Howard University.) Knowing I could make my mother and family proud meant the world to me. I also pride myself in knowing that I will be able to create a pathway for my future children and be an example for them. I revel in knowing that I am able to make my ancestors proud and was apart of a space that has been instrumental in the Black community.

Iliana Vargas

Iliana Vargas

Financial Assistant, McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science

Educational Background

University of Illinois at Chicago, BA; Northwestern, MS

What does being first generation mean to me?

Being first-generation means that you are a trailblazer. I began at a community college because I didn't know about the different funding options or scholarship opportunities. Thanks to administrators at my community college, I discovered that there were several ways to fund my education. If it weren't for those administrators, then I probably would not have graduated. Due to missteps I made along the way, I decided in college that I wanted to be a mentor to Latinas and other first-generation students to help them develop self-efficacy skills.

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