A first-generation college student: John Siblik

“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.


John Siblik

John Siblik

Not everyone in John Siblik’s family thought he should pursue art in college.

The Lemont native started out majoring in computer science at Northern Illinois University. One drawing class his sophomore year and, “The rest is kind of history. I knew I was committed to study art from here on out.

“I think my family inspired me with a certain kind of mental toughness that I grew up with,” said Siblik, the director of the School of Art and Design and an associate professor at NIU.

“There was a lot of razzing and ribbing from my uncles. It wasn’t just a lot of pats on the back. They were not easy on me. It allowed me to respond, ‘I’m going to succeed.'”

The first in his family to go to college, Siblik switched to a double major of art education and fine arts, earning a Bachelor of Science in Art Education and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1988.

His experience might not have matched with the opportunities his uncles and other family members saw for themselves, but college exposed Siblik to a wide range of fields of study. Through faculty, peers and visiting scholars, he gained access to a wealth of opportunities.

“At the time, I did not know the extent of the Art Education field,” he said of his double major. “I really appreciated the philosophy, pedagogy and psychology courses. The methods courses were very demanding, but did allow me to develop a skillset in administration, along with my passion of being a fine artist. I also was exposed to the importance of community engagement, which remains an important aspect of my artistic practice and 28 years as an educator.”

An artist as well, his mother likely would have gone to college if her parents would have allowed her to study art.

They were willing to pay for secretarial training.

“She put herself through beautician school as a creative outlet instead,” Siblik said. “As a kid, I remember finding the drawings she did in beauty school. The drawings were of different hairstyles, but I was amazed at the drawings as figure studies. Still today, she is regarded as an outstanding colorist.”

Siblik’s father managed grocery stores and, at that time, it was not always necessary to have a business degree to go into management.

Siblik attended Joliet Catholic High School, which merged with St. Francis Academy to become Joliet Catholic Academy in 1990. Most of his classmates went to college after graduation.

“It was expected that I would go to school,” he said. “I was a strong enough student. In a lot of ways, I think I fit the profile of an NIU student at that time, and probably still today, a solid B student who worked hard and set some goals.”

His family had agreed to a 50-50 deal, paying the tuition, while Siblik was expected to take out loans and whatever else he needed to pay the rest. A summer job in construction helped him cover books, art supplies and rent.

While at NIU, Siblik said he gained confidence, learned to put himself out there.

“I don’t remember having a lot of anxiety about anything when it came to going away to college,” he said. “It was a perfect situation. I had a lot of friends that also came here from high school. A cousin came here with me. I had a lot of support, plus I was only an hour and a half away from home.”

After graduating from NIU, Siblik established an art practice before starting a teaching career in 1990 and earning his master’s degree in fine arts from Southern Illinois University in 1995.

“I wanted to prove to myself I would be able to continue making art without having the assignments I had from an instructor. That’s a big hurdle for some,” he said.

He taught for 21 years, before earning administrative positions at Upper Iowa University and returning to NIU in 2015 as director of the School of Art and Design.

Siblik is accessible to students to let them know the path they need to take to be successful. He tries to be very open about the process. Teaching is more like giving the playbook away, Siblik said.

For him, the path wasn’t always easy. He had a tough time learning to write in the different formats required of his various classes.

“Writing is not my strength,” he said. “I kind of felt like I had strong ideas, but I did not have a good grasp on the right format faculty were expecting me to write in. That was probably the thing that was most frustrating for me.”

He also remembers forgetting to study for a geology test and skipping it.

Some floormates in the same class told him afterward he shouldn’t have missed it. He spoke to the professor. “I totally blew it,” he told him. “I should have come to the test. I wasn’t ready. I’m here now if you’ll give me a second chance.”

The professor allowed him to take the test, and he did well. But he knew he simply was lucky.

“Don’t expect them to always give you a chance like that,” he’d advise students. “I used my one get-out-of-jail-free card at that time and didn’t really use one again. It kind of told me, ‘You’re going to have to figure this out for yourself. It’s a large university, a lot of resources, but you’re going to have to advocate for yourself.'”

Finding a group of peers that can be a positive influence helps.

“At a big university like this, it’s not that hard to do,” he said. “But it’s next to impossible if you try and go it alone. If you need help, please ask. In addition, you are going to have to know yourself, your  strengths and weaknesses.

“If you do not have very good study habits to begin with, find somebody that does and attach yourself to him or her. You will have a much easier time if you can establish a routine that carves out the time you will need to study and discover all kinds of opportunities you never knew existed until you make the time to look.”


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.

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