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A first-generation college student: Mandy Wescott

August 27, 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 Wescott

Mandy Wescott

“Everyone seems so together.”

Mandy Wescott couldn’t escape that thought when she went to college as the first in her family.

“I slipped into the trap of judging my insides by everyone else’s outsides,” she remembered. She told herself, “Maybe I shouldn’t be here.”

It’s a familiar thought for many first-generation college students, a group expected to represent about half of the incoming freshmen at NIU. They often have a sort of imposter syndrome, this feeling of not quite belonging.

Wescott, along with other staff, faculty and students who were the first in their families to go to college, are sharing their stories to encourage first-generation students to seek them out, along with the many resources available to them at NIU.

“I was in my 30s when I went to college,” said Wescott, a program advisor in the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology. “Imagine someone who’s 18 feeling that, with everything that goes into being 18.

“Everybody’s lost. If you’ve never been in that situation, you’re doubly lost. We see you and hear you. Tell me what’s going on. Let me help you.”

Being the first in your family to attend college is something to be proud of, Wescott stresses.

Wescott’s path to Northern Illinois University–even to college in general–wasn’t typical or expected where she grew up in Grimsby, England.

Her parents worked hard in the blue-collar fishing town. Her father served in the military before working as a factory engineer, while her mother worked part-time on a food production line. An only child and an early and avid reader, Wescott grew up loving books.

“Going to college just wasn’t on anybody’s radar,” she said. “To be honest, at that point, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do except I knew I wanted to join the military. I didn’t want to work in a factory or store. There’s nothing wrong with that. I just didn’t want to, so I joined the military as a way of expanding my world.”

Wescott served 12 years in the Royal Air Force. Upon returning home, she worked in publishing for awhile, but education beckoned. Thanks to grants, a student loan and odd jobs cleaning houses and making pizza, coffee, whatever it took, she afforded a degree in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 2001.

“Once I started along the education path, my parents were firmly in my corner,” she said. “They were fiercely proud.”

Still drawn to university life, Wescott came to the United State to study American Literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, earning her master’s degree there in 2003. As a graduate assistant, she taught a few literature and composition classes.

She then taught for awhile as an adjunct professor at the College of DuPage before becoming a success specialist at NIU in 2012. She recently landed her current position, where she enjoys working directly with students, many of whom are first-generation.

“Don’t be afraid to tell people you’re a first-generation college student,” she tells them. “It’s not a negative mark. It’s a great thing, and people want to help you succeed.”

They often feel added pressures. Many juggle family responsibilities with college. They feel like they should be working to support their families.

“They see their family making a lot of sacrifices or being really stressed out by the financing and paperwork and how the billing works,” Wescott said. “They feel the weight: ‘I’ve got to get through in four years because it’s a lot of money.’”

Wescott assures them it’s worth the investment, to take their time, be open-minded and enjoy the experience.

View your first-generation perspective as a strength, she tells them. You’ll have a lot to offer as a future mentor. You’re an asset at NIU.

“We’re richer for having them here,” she said.

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.