Jeff Cohen

First-generation students, who don't have a family history of higher education, are a group that make UW Tacoma a very special place. Read their stories as they tell, in their own words, about the challenges they overcame on their path to success.

Jeff Cohen, Assistant Professor, Social Work & Criminal Justice ProgramBeing a first-generation college student has long been a source of pride for me. While finishing high school and continuing to college was something my parents had always hoped for my siblings and I, I did not grow up with a sense that a college degree was in my future. I struggled in high school and was not academically prepared to attend a four-year college upon graduating. Instead, I attended a community college for a year in order to earn college credit and improve my grades. After that year, I applied to and was accepted at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), a large state university about 50 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, Penna., majoring in criminology.

For me, it was a real challenge to acclimate to college life. I had no idea what to expect and neither of my parents were able to prepare me based on their own experiences. I struggled to get a sense of what was expected of me both in and out of the classroom. I didn’t know how to interact with faculty or staff. In order to help support myself and not be a financial burden to my family, I had to work in addition to taking classes.

While there were certainly many struggles and challenges, I also benefited from a supportive family. Although my parents couldn’t prepare me for life as a college student, they were always interested in my progress and supportive of my studies. I also had an older sister who started college a year prior to me. She was a constant source of information and support. I knew I could rely on her, and still do today. At school I was able to build relationships with caring and supportive faculty and staff members who showed a real interest in my studies and my wellbeing. They inspired me not only to complete my bachelor’s degree, but also eventually to go on to complete a master’s and Ph.D.

My advice for first generation students here at UW Tacoma is to recognize that your life experiences are an asset to your own and your peers’ educational pursuits. Find a course of study that energizes you and look beyond “getting a job” (although that is important too). Know that your teachers are here to support you and see you succeed in ways that you may not yet know are possible.

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Written: 
March 23, 2017