First-gen faculty offer unique perspectives for students

Everyone’s college experience is unique, but these four TU faculty members share the common thread of being the first in their family to attend college. The term first-generation student has become increasingly common on college campuses across the nation, but some may be less familiar with first-generation professors. Linda Nichols, Angela Martindale, Lisa Cromer and Vicki Limas share their experiences as the first in their families to attend college and travel their individual career paths.

Linda Nichols during her freshman year of college

Linda Nichols: First-generation student to university dean

Nichols’ grandparents immigrated from Sicily and her father, the youngest of seven, was born in the United States. The family settled in Louisiana with other relatives after passing through Ellis Island, and Nichols was born and raised in New Orleans. “As an immigrant family, they just tried to do their best. In my father’s generation, they didn’t even really go to high school,” Nichols said. As soon as children were old enough to work, they did. Her mother worked for the New Orleans public school system as a cafeteria worker and her father was a shoe salesman.

Very few people in Nichols’ neighborhood went to college, but her father saw that even his store required a college degree for management positions, so he encouraged her to pursue higher education. “You couldn’t get anywhere without a college education. My father saw education as a way out,” Nichols said. They lived in a lower middle-class neighborhood and were on the borderline of surviving at times. Nichols remembers her mother crying the few times they had to rely on government food assistance to make it until the next payday because her mother believed that everyone who worked hard should be able to supply their own basic needs. Her parents wanted Nichols to be independent and support herself.

College, however, was never mentioned at her high school. There was no college counseling program and generally a lot of turmoil in the public school system at the time. “One day, our high school principal was knifed in the hallway and taken to the hospital and came back in a couple of days in a splint. That was the kind of environment we had,” Nichols said. There were no college fairs or formal counseling because staff members were just trying to deal with disciplinary issues. Nichols ended up doing well on the ACT and getting a full scholarship to the University of New Orleans. She had a work-study job for 20 hours a week and another job off campus for an additional 20 hours on top of an 18-credit load.

Nichols went into college not knowing much about different professions or what she wanted to do. At first, she wanted to be a lawyer and majored in political science but ultimately felt it was not a good fit and ended up changing to business. In her sophomore year, she took accounting classes that were challenging for most students. “Half of my friends were taking them two or three times to pass. When I took them, the material all made perfect sense. I got As and it didn’t even phase me,” Nichols said.

It was an adviser who pointed out the fact that she had a natural knack for accounting and that there was great job market potential for that field. “I owe my choice of profession to my adviser,” Nichols said. She majored in accounting, and then graduated and began working for a public accounting firm. She later joined an energy company, but she still loved school, so she went back to earn her doctorate at Louisiana State University.

When Nichols first went to college, she was scared to death because she thought she would not graduate or fit in on campus. Her advice to current first-generation students is that college takes discipline, but you can do it. She also emphasizes taking advantage of resources she did not have such as the Center for Student Success. “You’ll be glad you graduated and see the benefit from it after it’s done. I’ve never regretted getting a college education,” Nichols said.

Angela Martindale with nursing student friend

Angela Martindale: From living on the streets to mentoring students 

Angela Martindale (BSN ’09), Chapman Clinical Assistant Professor of Nursing, has been teaching undergraduate nursing at TU since 2015. “I knew I needed to do something to have a better life. To have a career I wanted, I needed to go to school,” Martindale said. She chose nursing because she thrives in a caring role and the job stability appealed to her.

Angela Martindale at networking event

Martindale was an untraditional student not only for being first-gen but also for completing her undergraduate degree later in life. She was already married and had overcome a lot of personal trauma when she came to TU. Even with more life experience, she said the “hidden rules” of college were still an obstacle. Terminology, like what a credit hour is to figuring out finances and student loans, were just a few of the unknowns. “There are ‘college norms’ that we assume in society that everybody knows, but in reality, they’re hidden. Only the people who are used to that environment know them, which was probably the hardest thing about university,” Martindale said.

Angela Martindale with other nursing students

Now when she interacts with students, Martindale tries to educate them on what she did not know upon arriving at college. Martindale is a part of the Mentors and Protegees (MAPs) program at TU and is partnered with a first-gen student. “I think it’s a standup program that is happening and that it’s connecting students to someone who has the same experience to guide them through. I didn’t have that the first time I went to college,” she said. Martindale had attended college once before at a different university directly after high school, but she was homeless at the time. Without a stable living situation, it was practically impossible to focus on college and she eventually withdrew.

Angela Martindale next to bus supporting ending cancer

For first-generation students today, Martindale says that college is achievable with support. “Find people who care about your success and stick to them. Develop relationships with them,” she said. Martindale said that the TU faculty were her supporters and inspired her to become a professor. “I wanted to be the kind of teacher I had at TU. I have a lot of loyalty to the university because of how they treated me during undergrad and how they mentored me. It was life-changing,” Martindale said.

Lisa Cromer: Changing the system from the inside out 

Growing up, Lisa Cromer, associate professor of psychology, would never have dreamed of teaching at a university and conducting research. “I always just knew I would go to college, which is probably not a typical first-gen story, but I was a nerd,” Cromer said. As a kid, she loved to read and loved school. Cromer said that it was always assumed in her family she would attend college because higher education was the goal and route to improvement.

Lisa Cromer at graduation

Cromer attended a year at a community college in Canada and then transferred to the University of British Columbia where she received her undergraduate degree in anthropology and sociology. After her undergraduate degree, she ran a business for 10 years and during that time, she was volunteering for Big Brothers, Big Sisters and the Vancouver Crisis Center where she met people from a variety of professions, exposing her to fields she was previously unaware of including social work, counseling and clinical psychology. “Through this volunteer work, I found out I had a real heart for kids who came from abused backgrounds,” Cromer said. In 2000, she enrolled in graduate school at the University of Oregon and completed her master’s and Ph.D. degrees there. She then went on to do additional training at SUNY Upstate Medical University in child psychiatry.

About five years ago, Cromer talked with her brother, who also attended college, about what it was like to be a first-generation student. It was remarkable how similar their experiences were. “I spent a lot of time in southeast Asia in the 1990s in Indonesia and Thailand, and going to college was more foreign to both of us than those experiences. You’re basically learning a new language in academia,” she said. They both remember that the “engineers” on campus had a very strong presence and remember thinking why there were so many – weren’t there only so many people who can drive a train? “I didn’t know what an engineer was. And funny enough, my brother had the exact same thought,” she said.

Lisa Cromer at in cap and gown

Cromer sees many college campuses struggling to respond to the changing demographics in the United States. “There are huge advantages to having a more diverse student body and having more diversity as a whole throughout an organization,” she said. “When we allow every culture and every individual to have a voice at the table, we’re going to be changing the system, but we have to be willing to change the system.” To foster that change, Cromer mentors students in programs like Gen1TU and MAPs who are working to ensure TU is not only welcoming but also supporting the success of first-gen students.

Lisa Cromer at PhD graduation

Vicki Limas: Working through secretarial school to become a lawyer

Vicki Limas, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of law, grew up with a single mother who always wanted her to go to college. “My mom didn’t want me to be dependent on another person for my livelihood. She also had always wanted to go to college but wasn’t able to go herself,” Limas said.

She always did well in school, but like others in her generation, her high school’s college counseling was lacking. “They’d say, ‘Oh, you could get into X college,’ but I wasn’t able to afford it and there wasn’t any counseling on financial aid,” she said. This led Limas to pursue secretarial school so she would be able to have an occupation to support herself during college.

“Being a first-generation student made me have incredible focus and work hard because it wasn’t an option to not get the college degree,” Limas said. She began working full time and enrolled at a junior college where she received her associate’s degree. Limas then worked full time at the University of Illinois at Chicago and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. “It was a huge help working there because my tuition was paid for as an employee, and I was just taking classes part time,” Limas said. The University of Tulsa offers a similar tuition reduction and tuition exchange program for full-time employees.

When she advises students today, Limas tries to let people know about her background. “If I find out about a student who may be first-gen, I certainly share my background with that person because I really want to encourage them,” Limas said. She advises first-generation students to seek out resources that high schools and colleges have to offer, especially when it comes to financial aid. Many students assume they cannot afford a private education, but Limas encourages them to learn about financial aid opportunities. “Don’t give up on your goals because the information and resources are there to take advantage of,” Limas said.