More than 1 in 4 students in the O’Neill School are the first in their families to pursue a degree in higher education. Many first generation students’ stories are inspiring—yet they can face significant barriers throughout their college careers.
Dr. Siân Mooney, dean of the O’Neill School, was one of them. She says when she was pursuing her undergraduate degree, the designation of a first generation college student had not yet been invented. It wasn’t until she completed her Ph.D. and became a professor that she started hearing the term.
“I suddenly realized that was me; I’m a first gen student,” she recalls. “Understanding that helped me realize why some decisions and events were challenging for me. I also realized how many people in my early career helped take care of and guide me, even when I didn’t know it.”
Dean Mooney grew up in a very small island community in rural Wales in the United Kingdom. She says that her family knew very few people who had attended college and she didn’t see herself as someone who could achieve what—at the time—seemed to be such an elevated educational status.
“A university education seemed to be for other people,” Mooney says. “However, my mother really pushed me to think about it and really wanted me to go to university.”
Now, Dean Mooney wants to make sure O’Neill’s first gen students know they have that same support from O’Neill faculty and staff. She shared details about her time as a first gen student, advice on how to overcome barriers, and how the experience has influenced who she is today.
What challenges did you face as a first-generation student?
“A significant challenge was that no one in my family knew much about going to college, what degree options led to different careers, or how to go about searching for scholarships or other financial support. For a long time I wasn’t sure that getting a degree was something I wanted to do at all. Probably because I had no idea how much of a positive difference the education I ultimately received would make in my life. I was fortunate to have very good, kind, and interested professors.
“I would love to say I was a model student … but I was not! One challenge was that I didn’t take college seriously enough because I didn’t have friends and family around me with experience to advise me. However, I was fortunate to find new friends and faculty mentors along the way who helped me make good decisions.”
What do you wish you had known when you were first in college and what advice do you have for current first-generation students?
“I wish I had known that my professors could be my greatest advocates and are truly interested in the success of their students. I was lucky to meet a professor who recognized my potential and helped me. Get to know your professors. They want you to succeed and they probably have more in common with you than you think!
“The advice I have is to actively and deliberately begin building your professional and social networks while you are still in school. Create strong peer support networks and study groups. Show up at the many events that provide you with opportunities to network and socialize with your peers, faculty, staff, employers, and alumni. I encourage every student to make use of the many resources the O’Neill School and Indiana University provide to help you succeed. Strive to give the best of yourselves and also to see, appreciate, and learn from the best in others.”
How did overcoming those challenges set you up for success in your current job?
“Navigating unfamiliar terrain, largely on my own, has been a wonderful foundation for success in my career. I have learned not to be discouraged and to understand that failure and setbacks are a natural part of success—you learn from these experiences and they can actually help you in the long-run.
“I also have learned to look for mentors and seek advice and input from other people. I was very fortunate that I met a professor early in my undergraduate career who helped me in many ways. I started working for him as an undergraduate research assistant. He helped guide me and took an interest in my future success, ultimately encouraging me to attend graduate school in Canada. Admittedly, he first had to explain to me what graduate school was!
“I have learned that no matter where you start in life, no matter your background, you can succeed with hard work and determination. Do not be afraid to both seek out and accept help along the way. I would not be where I am today if I had failed to learn that lesson.”