By Jillian Daly
Duke Graduate School Communications Intern
As a first-generation graduate student, Natalie Gasparowicz felt that she didn’t understand the norms of graduate school as well as the other students. She was uncomfortable asking professors for help and constantly felt the need to apologize. It took a professor pointing out to her that helping graduate students was their job before she realized how helpful professors could be.
Gasparowicz, a Ph.D. student in history, saw that she was not alone when she connected with other first-generation graduate students through the Duke F1RSTS group. She met other students who also struggled with challenges such as explaining their academic careers to their parents, navigating economic status, and understanding the unwritten rules of graduate school life.
Graduate school can be an undeniably difficult experience, and many students turn to parents or other relatives for words of wisdom. However, students whose family members never attended graduate school have to find other sources of support for coping with challenges such as imposter syndrome.
For Sinja Küppers, a student leader in what would become Duke F1RSTS, those challenges first arose when she was an undergraduate and resurfaced when she began graduate school.
“Entering my undergraduate at a public university, I felt lost and discouraged given the lack of information on how to master the course system and how to find opportunities,” said Küppers, a Ph.D. student in classical studies. “Seeing other students navigate the university space with ease, I became aware of being a first-generation, low-income student.”
Küppers said being the first in their family to go to college can affect students in ways that often go unacknowledged. For instance, first-generation graduate students can experience times of confusion, alienation, and awkwardness during their academic careers.
Recognizing a need for more support in those situations, Küppers and fellow classical studies Ph.D. student John Aldrup-MacDonald applied for The Graduate School’s Professional Development Grant to fund a symposium to initiate the conversation about the unique challenges faced by first-gen humanities graduate students.
The assistant dean for graduate student professional development, Melissa Bostrom, encouraged Küppers and Aldrup-MacDonald to broaden their vision of the group’s potential. “I think you can make this bigger,” she told them, advising them to expand the program to all Duke graduate students and connect with Maria Dykema Erb, co-director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Diversity and Student Success program. Erb pointed the students to Carolina Grad Student F1RSTS, the first-gen graduate student cooperative at UNC that was already planning a symposium of its own.
Küppers and Aldrup-MacDonald partnered with Carolina Grad Student F1RSTS and helped expand its symposium into an event open to all Duke and UNC first-gen graduate students. That symposium, held in April 2018, marked the first step in the founding of Duke F1RSTS.
Gasparowicz was one of the graduate student panelists at the symposium. She was also a first-generation undergraduate student, but she had not expected to continue feeling lost after learning “how universities work” in her undergraduate career. She was looking to connect with other first-gen students who could relate to feeling left out in graduate school. In her first year as a Ph.D. student, she knew only one other first-gen graduate student in her department.
“When I met Sinja and knew of what she was trying to start at Duke, I was very open!” Gasparowicz said. “I wanted to become part of this community she envisioned at Duke.”
What began as a vision of a small symposium soon became a university-wide student group, with Küppers serving as its first president and Gasparowicz as vice president. The group offered Duke first-generation graduate students a community to confide in, relate to, and find support from.
The group’s reach has expanded beyond just the graduate student community. Duke F1RSTS has collaborated with Duke L1FE, which supports first-generation undergraduates. This academic year, Duke F1RSTS also plans to start mentoring local high school students. By holding a panel for local high school students, the group will offer first-generation graduate students an opportunity to discuss their application experiences with future students, broadening their community of support throughout Durham.
“We are very excited to continue creating a welcoming group for first-generation graduate students on campus that we hope to support through helpful academic workshops and aid in building community through social activities,” said Alyssa Russell, a second-year history Ph.D. student who took over as Duke F1RSTS president in the fall.
To learn more about Duke F1RSTS and its continuing mentorship initiative for first-generation students, please visit https://sites.duke.edu/dukef1rsts/. Duke will host the third annual Duke-UNC First-Gen Grad Student Symposium on February 29 in Perkins 217 from 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.