Adversity, Grit Led Duo to Create First-Generation Graduate Student Coalition

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October 04, 2021

Jesse McCain, a graduate student at the University of Virginia, says there is a mistaken belief that graduate students have “somehow shed the challenges of being the first in their families to experience higher education.”

The Tucson, Arizona, native says nothing could be further from the truth.

“In reality, we carry our family and social background with us into every stage of our educational journey,” he said. “It’s more that the context has changed and evolved, and there are a number of familiar challenges that first-generation students encounter in the cultures of graduate school.”

Growing up in Arizona, McCain was in elementary school when his father suffered a “life-changing” injury. He was never able to return to work and McCain’s mother became her husband’s caretaker.

Despite the family’s challenges, the younger McCain said his parents were always determined that their son continue his education beyond high school.

“Despite the fact that neither of my parents had the opportunity to attend college, they always made it a priority for me,” McCain recalled. “Even if they didn’t quite understand what it meant to pursue a higher education, they knew it was important and a possible path out of financial hardship.”

His parents encouraged their son to seek out scholarships and be resourceful. “During high school, I was humbled and fortunate to receive a four-year, full-ride undergraduate scholarship for first-generation students in Arizona called the Dorrance Scholarship,” he said. “This program allowed me to pay for college, travel internationally and build community with other students who shared a similar background. It was a life-changing experience that gave me opportunities my parents would have never dreamed of.”

McCain said his family and undergraduate experiences “were pivotal in shaping my professional interests in inequality and higher education, which is what eventually brought me to graduate school at UVA.” McCain is pursuing his Ph.D. in higher education in the School of Education & Human Development.

Ivana Brancaccio of Las Vegas, who is pursuing her MBA from the Darden School of Business, spent part her undergraduate years at American University interning for U.S. Senator Harry Reid.

Her parents make their living by making draperies and worked hard so that their daughter and son could go to the best schools, but they “fell on hard times when the housing crisis hit our home city of Las Vegas.”

“Growing up, I remember my dad would tell me that he never wanted me to work with my hands,” she said. “He wanted me to work with my mind.”

“Similar to Jesse’s story, my father also suffers from a back injury that is related to his work after years of installing and working with heavy materials and hardware,” she said.

An undergraduate student during the financial crisis, Brancaccio said she remembered “feeling pressured to graduate early.”

“Opportunities like studying abroad seemed very elusive to me at the time,” she said. “I graduated undergrad in three years so that I could go home and work as soon as possible and repay my student loans.”

Both McCain and Brancaccio say that even in graduate school, they have struggled with feelings of belonging and, as Brancaccio said, “self-doubt tied to feelings of being an imposter in academic spaces, managing family responsibilities that may be particularly demanding, and navigating professional life.”

McCain said graduate and professional school also involve “a lot of status signaling and professional networking, and first-generation students (many who also come from low-income families) may feel out of place in knowing how to navigate these social expectations which are crucial to be successful.”

So, the pair decided to create a new community for first-generation graduate students at UVA, one that supports and empowers that population.

The First Generation Graduate Student Coalition is holding its kick-off event Thursday from 3 to 5 p.m. in the Pavilion 1 garden, with special guest President Jim Ryan, himself a first-generation student.

McCain and Brancaccio talked with UVA Today about how their experiences led them to create the new coalition and how it will operate and support other first-generation students at UVA.

Q. One of the coalition’s Instagram posts was about imposter syndrome. How does that manifest for you?

Brancaccio: There are many times where I feel out of place or lost in the classroom, and I have seriously questioned whether I made the right choice to come to grad school. I felt like I was risking it all by leaving my job, where I had finally grown confident, and moving away from my professional network of mentors and my friends in D.C. (Brancaccio was the deputy communications director and senior adviser to U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen.)

I think this is very common for other students to feel this way, but can be particularly acute for first-gen students making this change without a safety net. There are so many support networks across UVA, including Counseling and Psychological Services, that help students to overcome and conquer these very real emotions and mental health struggles. 

Q. How, why and when did you decide to create the coalition?

McCain: The coalition came about organically, based on my experiences at UVA. When I started here two years ago, I noticed there was a lot of energy focused on first-generation undergraduate support systems, but graduate students weren’t really acknowledged. I would meet other first-generation graduate students who were surprised that I was interested in that aspect of their background, and we would often talk about the unique aspects of being first-gen in graduate school.

Last year, I worked with my adviser and mentor, [education professor] Josipa Roksa (who also was a first-generation college student), to launch a University-wide survey for first-gen grads at UVA to share their experiences, which generated more than 200 responses from across the University. The conversations and data made it clear that there was a need and opportunity to make this community more visible.

Brancaccio: I came on board as co-president over the summer. Jesse had reached out to talk over Zoom, and we instantly connected over our similar stories. Once we got to Grounds, we scheduled a meeting with the rest of our board, which includes members from different backgrounds, each representing a different grad/professional school at UVA.

We asked at the start of the meeting: “What does being first-gen mean to you?” We were all struck by the common themes among our board: perseverance, grit, and all of the highs and lows that come with being the first in our families to go to college and now grad school.

Q. What kinds of opportunities does the new group offer?

McCain: Ultimately, the First-Generation Graduate Student Coalition is about helping first-generation graduate students make meaningful connections with others who share similar struggles and perspectives. We hope to provide a community and support network, and a place where first-gen grads can be comfortable in talking about more vulnerable topics.

We are also committed to empowering first-gen graduate students to engage their identities as a source of strength and as an asset. This includes resilience, bringing diverse perspectives to their programs and professional lives, independence, and drive to succeed and make a difference.

In my experience this is a very passionate community, and the coalition is all about gathering this energy in one place to inspire important conversations and change at UVA.

Q. What is the best way for students to become involved in the coalition and what other events and opportunities do you have planned for the semester?

McCain:  The best way to get involved is to reach out and send an email to firstgengradsuva@gmail.com or connect with us on Instagram at @firstgengradsuva. We can add you to our listserv and make sure you are aware of upcoming events and programming.

We’d love to hear from you and why being a first-generation student in graduate school is important to you. Share your story with us! In terms of events, we want to emphasize community building, including dinners with other first-gen grad students and faculty, professional development events and networking receptions.

Q. What is next?

Brancaccio: The coalition is in the process of establishing an initial community, and we are interested in connecting with first-gen graduate students across the University to help us learn more about their experiences and needs. We look forward to working together to serve this community and provide meaningful opportunities for engagement in the future.

McCain: Leading this organization means a tremendous amount to me because our vision reflects core aspects of my life and who I am. As first-generation students, sharing our stories is about celebrating what it means to be the first in our families to go to college and drawing attention to our needs. I look forward to meeting other graduate students who want to join us in this mission and engage in work that has the potential to transform how we think about graduate student life at UVA.

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications