A first-generation college student: Mark Frank

“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.


Mark Frank

Mark Frank

One Saturday years ago, a young Mark Frank begrudgingly spent his morning digging in the yard with his brother to fix a leaking water pipe.

The family couldn’t afford to hire someone, and the house had no water. The two finished up digging just in time to play in an afternoon baseball game.

“If you don’t want to do those things when you’re older, make sure you get a good education,” their father told them at the time. “Then get a good job so you can pay some schmuck like me to do the job.”

They listened. Frank’s brother was slightly older, but both ended up earning bachelor’s degrees the same year as the first in their family to go to college.

Frank, a professor in the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences at NIU, earned his Bachelor of Science from State University of New York College at Fredonia in 1994. He earned a master’s degree in 1996 and a Ph.D. in 2001 from the University of Maryland.

Times were different for Frank’s parents growing up in the 1960s. His father went from high school to the U.S. Air Force to working as a jet engine mechanic, while his mother took jobs in retail.  You could make a living without a college degree back then.

While raising their sons, they saw economic decline.

“They encouraged us to do well in school, which is not what they got from their parents,” Frank remembered. “We had to learn to do a lot of things. If the muffler fell off the car, we had to get a new one and put it on ourselves. We couldn’t afford to take it to the dealer or mechanic.”

He’s thankful for that experience as it drove him through college. He developed a fascination with how things work, an understanding of what it would take to get him where he needs to be.

Frank started out in electrical engineering, but changed his major after an organic chemistry class challenged him to identify unknown liquids and powders. He liked figuring things out on his own–basically, research. He also knew he’d want to teach one day.

He didn’t have much money, but he made it work.

“You got used to not having things other people have,” he said. “It didn’t really matter. What really mattered for me, anyway, was I was learning new things.”

Frank encourages students to find something they enjoy doing, perhaps even take classes outside their major to help them grow. A philosophy class he took in college still sticks with him.

With less state funding for education, today’s students face a larger financial burden, often having to take out substantial loans and work to afford college, Frank said.

“When you come to college as a first-generation student, I think it’s good to have your sights set on a goal, not just attend college, but think to yourself, ‘Where do I see myself?’ There are lots of us here that want to help,” he said.

“We want the students to succeed. I’ve talked to students about my journey. It shows them, especially first-generation students, this is something obtainable. This can be done. It might not be an easy path, but it’s there.”


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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email