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A first-generation college student: Mandy Faretta-Stutenberg

July 16, 2018

“I’m a First-Gen College Student” will bring together first-generation students, faculty, staff and recent alumni with Welcome Events from 4 to 6 p.m. Sept. 4 and from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 5 at Founders Memorial Library.

To help launch the program, we’re telling just some of the many first-generation stories here at NIU.

Mandy Faretta-Stutenberg

Mandy Faretta-Stutenberg

Mandy Faretta-Stutenberg’s family never really understood why she wanted to go to college.

“They were like, ‘Well, OK. That’s weird. Good luck,’” remembered Faretta-Stutenberg, an assistant professor of Spanish Linguistics and director of the Spanish Basic Language Program at NIU.

She grew up in the small town of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. College simply wasn’t part of her family’s culture. Hard workers, proud, they just didn’t see the need for continuing education after high school.

A high school counselor saw things differently. He called Faretta-Stutenberg into his office, suggested she spend her lunch hour and the next class period filling out college applications and scholarship and financial aid forms.

“You can make it happen,” he told her.

Faretta-Stutenberg ended up being awarded the school’s Future Leader Award, along with a scholarship covering four years’ worth of tuition and fees.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish with a certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She then earned a master’s degree in Hispanic Linguistics and a Ph.D. in Hispanic Linguistics with a Doctoral Concentration in Neuroscience from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The road to those degrees was serendipitous. For Faretta-Stutenberg, college was a complete unknown.

“The first time I set foot on the [University of Wisconsin-Madison] campus was when I went for registration right before the fall semester started,” she said. “It’s a huge institution. As a first-generation student, I think I probably was a little bit lost in the crowd.”

Nervous before her first class, she left early to find a room across campus. She couldn’t find it anywhere.

“Finally, I found someone in the hall and asked them for help. They told me the room I was looking for didn’t exist and asked to see my schedule,” she said. “Well, it turns out I was in the wrong building–and my building was across campus.”

Horrified she’d be late, she ran across campus–“up a huge hill!”

Out of breath, she opened the door to find the entire class already seated. The instructor stopped speaking, and everyone stared. As she apologized for being late and sat down, the instructor finished up and told the class they could leave a few minutes early.

She didn’t have a cell phone or watch at the time. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “How late had I been?

“Turns out, I burst into the class prior to mine. Even with my ridiculous detour, I was still early for class.”

It became easier, but Faretta-Stutenberg had to overcome obstacles from the start. Just getting into college was a feat. Her family didn’t own a computer. She didn’t have an email account or access to Internet so she’d go to high school early to use the computer lab.

Once in college, she was overwhelmed. She didn’t know what a syllabus was or simple things, such as why professors kept office hours. She assumed those hours were additional class times and showed up.

“I was like, ‘This is weird. Where is everybody?’ The professor was like, ‘What do you want to talk about?’” she said. “By the end of that meeting, she explained what office hours are for. It seemed obvious everyone else knew that. That first semester, I felt like everyone else had a better clue than me.”

Fluent in Spanish, she’d started out thinking pre-law, with plans to perhaps pursue immigration law.

By the end of her first semester, she’d decided she wanted to teach Spanish. As she studied abroad one semester, a Spanish professor actually had to explain to her what a master’s degree was because she didn’t know anything about it. He and others encouraged her to pursue her advanced degrees and opened her mind to one day becoming a professor.

It’s an achievement she couldn’t fathom years ago.

“Going to college completely changed my life,” she said. “I’m in a completely different place than I would have been, and I’m really happy.”

She knows college might not be for everyone, but she hopes to encourage others, especially first-generation students, not to limit themselves. Seek her out or find someone else at NIU to check in with once in awhile for support, she said.

“You deserve to be here. It doesn’t matter what your background is, you deserve to be here, and you make of it what you make of it,” she said.

“Don’t be afraid to ask even what seems like the silly question or even to say, ‘What questions should I have?’”

Enjoy food, music and giveaways and hear stories about the personal experiences of those who were the first in their families to attend four-year colleges at Welcome Events on Sept. 4 and 5 at Founders Memorial Library.

Learn about the resources available here, including the Breaking Barriers bi-weekly support group for first-generation college students, the Mentoring Valuable Peers program, future career events, supportive and accessible NIU policies, financial aid and scholarship information and more.

Are you a first-generation faculty or staff member? Drop in to a Welcome Event and take home a laminated “I am a first gen college graduate” door decoration to put in your office. Let first-generation college students know they’re not alone and support is available.