Mark Pagano

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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.

Mark Pagano, UW Tacoma Chancellor and first-generation student

I did well in high school and while I assumed I would go to college, it wasn’t a real priority for my family. Neither one of my parents had been to college, and in fact, my father only finished his second year of high school. I think he thought I would take over the family TV antenna business when he retired. Luckily, my older sister also had also done well in high school and had already been attending the local college, Southern Illinois University, for two years by the time I graduated high school. I followed her lead and since it was only fifteen miles away, we could both live at home and commute.

My father’s business did well enough to keep our family comfortable, but we could not really afford to have two of us in college at the same time so we both worked part-time jobs. When I first started, I had trouble seeing the relevance of a college education. While I made straight A’s in all my classes, and even qualified for an academic scholarship, I could not really embrace why I needed the degree I was seeking. Since I lived at home and my family had no real connection or understanding of the university or college life, I felt isolated. I was also very envious of my classmates who were able to live in the residence halls, study together, and were available for extra-curricular activities. My day was filled with studying, a two-way commute, and my job. Soon, my frustration reached a peak and I made what I soon realized was a crucial mistake. I quit school just as my scholarship went into effect. I obviously lost the scholarship permanently and my life took an abrupt turn as I began a full-time job at a grocery store. It was very hard work and long hours for very little pay. I almost immediately regretted my decision.  But now what was done was done and I had given up my scholarship and the one degree of freedom that I felt I had.

Then catastrophe struck and my father was critically injured.  He spent almost a year in and out of the hospital and several more years recovering from his injuries. It became necessary for me to immediately quit my job in the grocery store and, at just twenty, to take over the family business by myself. At the time, my father had no employees other than occasional help from my mother. With his injury and subsequent disability my mother was completely overloaded with other family responsibilities and supporting my father, so I was alone in my role as the family provider. As a family, we still had my older sister in college, a younger sister in high school, a younger brother in grade school and a household to maintain. We had no contingency except for me to try to keep things afloat. I had to grow up very quickly and that college life I had given up seemed more and more desirable each day. Eventually, my father recovered enough so that he could do some of the book keeping and customer follow-up.  I continued to be the labor force for the business and went back to school part-time with a whole new attitude about education. I began by taking two classes in the evening. Then little by little, I was able to take a heavier course load and get back on track towards completing that degree. Finally, after a four year detour in the antenna business, I completed an undergraduate degree in engineering. My younger brother was finally old enough and my father well enough to take over the family business again.  I think it must have been the experience of running the family business that helped me be more successful the second time through. What I lacked in knowledge and familiarity with college life, I made up for with a new passion for education, motivation and drive.

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Written: 
September 14, 2016