One in five FIU undergraduates is among the first generation in the family to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Each year on Nov. 8, colleges and universities across the United States come together to honor and celebrate the achievements of first-generation students, who face unique challenges as they attempt to break familial cycles and chart new paths. The celebration marks the anniversary of the signing of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which was intended to help level a playing field that historically had been weighted against Americans from minority and low-income backgrounds.
Alec Joseph is looking forward to graduating from FIU this year and will be among the first generation in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree. Joseph grew up in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood and was eager to attend FIU.
As a computer science major and a scholar in the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, he has participated in faculty-guided, undergraduate research examining open-source software for 5G applications. He also earned a prestigious CodePath Tech Fellowship, serving as a campus ambassador and advancing CodePath’s mission to diversify tech and provide learning opportunities for computer science students. And he recently designed an e-commerce website for his family’s small business.
Joseph was inspired to go into computer science by the power of his smartphone. “The first phone I ever had was a Windows phone… and I love math, like mathematics and writing in general, and I wanted to see how math applied to other fields like computer science and computer engineering,” he said.
Joseph said that, for him and his family, earning his bachelor’s degree will be an incredible milestone not only because he is first-generation, but also because he has autism. When he was a child, he was told he may never speak, and some doubted he would even graduate high school.
“My mother and my father worked hard with me as a child for me to be able to speak, as well as to be able to communicate with other people to achieve the goals that I wanted to achieve and prove myself,” Joseph said.
Now, he is on the cusp of graduating from a four-year university with his sights set on a job at a major tech company, such as Google, Microsoft or Citrix. He also plans to pursue a master’s degree in the future.
Registering for his family’s FIU Commencement tickets was a moment he will always remember. “Seeing me walk and get my diploma, I know my family is so very excited for me,” Joseph said.
FIU’s commitment to supporting students like Joseph has earned the university national distinction as a First-Gen Forward Institution from the Center for First-Generation Student Success.
FIU’s approach centers on three main initiatives:
- The First-Generation Scholarship Program provides need-based financial assistance to students and features more than 50 philanthropic-supported scholarship opportunities. Since 2012, the state of Florida has backed first-generation scholarships by matching donations; currently, the state matches every dollar donated to first-generation scholarships 2-to-1. With this support, FIU has awarded more than 14,400 scholarships to first-generation students.
- Since 1997, FIU has been home to federally funded TRIO programs, which support first-generation and other underrepresented students beginning in the fourth grade through earning their bachelor’s degree. TRIO programs include the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, Upward Bound and Upward Bound Math-Science, Educational Talent Search, and Student Support Services.
- The Office of Student Access and Success (SAS) is committed to improving students’ learning and success by providing engaged learning experiences through meaningful and strategic programming and services that will facilitate successful transitions between pre-collegiate, undergraduate and graduate education. SAS offers 12 educational pathways that shape students’ learning.
“It’s important to note that FIU leadership, both past and present, have made first-generation student support a university-wide priority. At the institutional level, we are committed to helping these students achieve their dreams of higher education and beyond,” said Jeannette Cruz, Ed.D., senior director of the Office of Student Access and Success and the chair of the First-Generation Initiatives committee.
Also eagerly awaiting her commencement ceremony is senior Rodoshi Sharife, who emigrated from Bangladesh with her parents when she was 6 years old.
Sharife was raised to believe in the importance of attaining a higher education and always knew she would be the first in her family to go to college and earn a bachelor’s degree in the United States.
“I’m an only child, so coming here was basically setting up a standard for my family—the only one out of the country, the only one who’s a girl and who’s doing all these big things. It means a lot to my family, and it’s a lot of prestige, as well. But it also meant figuring things out in the American education system by myself, for instance, with FAFSA,” Sharife said. “But having the support from my parents in whatever I chose to do was a big motivation.”
Sharife is double-majoring in natural and applied sciences and biology with a minor in education, and she intends to pursue a career as a physician assistant. Outside of class, she is a member of the FIU Alumni Association Student Ambassadors, representing the university at alumni- and community-facing events. She is also a Panther Camp facilitator, helping new students feel comfortable at the university and get to know their new peers. And she is preparing for an Alternative Breaks trip this semester. To boost her resume and graduate school applications, Sharife also recently earned a certificate in phlebotomy and is compiling clinical hours.
She heard the call to help others at an early age: “Growing up, I always saw my uncle, who is a doctor back home, helping out the people in our village for free. It was always a dream of mine to serve my country in a way where I use my education for good,” Sharife said. Once she becomes a physician assistant, she envisions herself traveling to Bangladesh regularly to give back to her family’s community.
Sharife said she knows her parents are proud of her – her father may even cry when he sees her in her cap and gown.
“Now that I’m finally about to graduate, it feels like a celebration of all my achievements, all my goals and all my hard work.”