First-gen students and faculty connect over waffles and advice

A panel was held Tuesday, allowing first-generation students and faculty to share knowledge, advice and experiences.

David Mullen

Over plates stacked with warm waffles, a panel of University of Minnesota faculty and staff members recalled their experiences as first-generation college students Tuesday evening.

A group of around 20 students attended the First-Generation Panel and Waffle Bar in Bruininks Hall, an event encouraging discussion and advice-sharing between faculty, staff and students with similar backgrounds.

The event, organized by Multicultural and First Generation College Students, a program within the College of Liberal Arts, featured four panelists.

The panel members were asked questions about their experiences and how they navigated college without much guidance from family members. 

“It’s our job to pay it forward to these students,” said Juan Telles, one of the panelists and an academic adviser in CLA. “I went through the same struggles as these students, and it’s important for them to realize that there is someone else out there who went through it too.” 

The purpose of the panel was to “provide students the opportunity to meet one-on-one with these successful faculty and staff members who have come so far at the University,” said Rebekah Charles, president of MCFGS. 

Panelist Leah Milojevic, assistant director for CLA Diversity Student Support Program, said she came to the University in 2002 as a first-generation student and never left. 

“The biggest challenge as a first-gen student was I didn’t know what to ask,” Milojevic said.

Now, as a University staff member, Milojevic says she works to share her knowledge and give back to students with similar experiences.

“It’s my calling, and I have a special place in my heart for first-gen students,” she said.

Cydney Gaines, who spoke on the panel and is a multicultural associate within the Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence at the University, said she wants to give hope to first-generation students. 

“Just do whatever it takes to be successful,” Gaines said after she was asked what students should take away from Tuesday’s event. “I want to help first-gen students know it’s possible to earn your degree in a way that’s conducive to whatever goals a student wants to achieve.”

Melissa Koenig, panelist and professor in the Institute of Child Development, said she wanted to hold a discussion between first-generation students and faculty.

“I was really excited to start conversations with students. I don’t want first-generation students to walk around in silence,” Koenig said.

MCFGS was founded one year ago by siblings Eric and Rebekah Charles, first-generation students who felt they didn’t belong in other student groups. The group has since grown to 71 members.

“We want to foster a community of belonging for multicultural and first-gen students,” said Rebekah Charles.