A First-Generation Story: Kelly Wesener Michael

Knowing what it’s like to navigate college on her own, Wesener Michael encourages students to self-advocate

Kelly Wiesener-Michael

Talking college options, Kelly Wesener Michael told her high school counselor she’d like to be Julie on the classic ’80s television show, “The Love Boat.”

Her mother had encouraged the career aspiration, telling her daughter she’d be a good Julie. A degree in communications sounded like the best route, her counselor told her.

But Wesener Michael’s parents had never been to college, and she knew if she went, she’d be pretty much on her own. 

“They were very clear on, ‘We can’t help you. We don’t know what that is all about,’” remembered Wesener Michael, the associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students at NIU.

College wasn’t even on Wesener Michael’s radar growing up. She’d planned to be a cosmetologist.

“My high school teachers would pull me aside and say, ‘You really need to go to college. You’re wasting your mind,’” she remembered. “My response was, ‘It’s my mind to waste.’”

A job at a car wash had changed her mind. She stood all day, folding towels, thinking that just might be some of what she’d end up doing without a college degree.

That night, she wandered into her parents’ bedroom and told them of her college plans.

They didn’t discourage her, but they never really pushed her either, and they couldn’t help her much financially. She snagged scholarships and worked as a community advisor to make her own way through the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, earning a bachelor’s degree in communication and media studies.

Every week, her mother sent her a $10 bill in in the mail.

“That was a way they felt they could contribute,” she said.

On campus, Wesener Michael felt confident.

“In looking back, I feel really fortunate that I never ran into any significant glitches,” she said. “I don’t know if I would have had the wherewithal to really navigate that. I was always like, ‘I’ll figure it out.’”

A willingness to just kind of dive in carried her through.

When an advertising class didn’t click for her, she asked her residence hall advisor for advice on future career options. Pointing to the job section in a print edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, he told her, “You can do anything in here.”

He suggested she pursue a master’s degree.

Determined to work in higher education, Wesener Michael went on to earn a master’s degree in college student counseling and personnel services from Western Illinois University, followed by a Doctor of Education in higher education/higher education administration from Indiana University Bloomington.

She now sees the advantage her children will have based on her own college experience. She can help them navigate their way through, give them guidance.

Offering advice to today’s first-generation students, she said, “For me, it’s just you have to be willing to ask for what you need. Sometimes, it’s really necessary to say, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘This is the problem I’m having.’

“Unless you are a self-advocate, no one can fix those problems for you. Everybody who works on a college campus, we’re here because we love working with students so we want to be helpful. That’s why we come to work, to support their success.”

That’s especially the case at NIU.

With the infrastructure of a larger institution and the care of a smaller institution, NIU provides the perfect balance, Wesener Michael said.

“Most institutions of this size don’t have this same level of personal interaction, care, concern and support for their students as this institution,” she said. “This balance I have not found up until this point. That’s what I love about this place for me.”

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