Heritage: Summer 2021

Dr. April O'brien holds up a sign that says We Are First Generation - First Gen Faculty

Champions for the Next Generation

To dedicate your life to education and become a professor, you must have a passion for helping students learn and find their full potential. The road to success is never walked alone. Successful students are shaped by those who care for them and share in their dreams.

Many students are fortunate to be surrounded by support their entire lives, while countless others have not. That is where first-generation programs at SHSU step in, filling voids that exist for students who can’t lean on family when faced with the challenges college can present.

SHSU’s First-Gen Champion initiative was created to help. The goal is to support students through faculty and staff advocates, who followed the same difficult path to a college education.

A few of SHSU’s First-Gen Champion faculty members (all previous first-gen students themselves) recently shared with Heritage Magazine their passions for helping students, the impact their education has had on their career, and how they encourage their students to further their lives.

Brian Matthew Jordan holding a We Are First Generation Sign.

Brian Matthew Jordan

Alma mater: Yale University
Degrees: History MA, MPhil, PhD
Joined SHSU in ’15, Department of History

“The work we do every day—in the classroom, as a faculty, as an institution—changes lives. Ideas are the most powerful, transformative, and liberating force in the world. We offer an apprenticeship in living engaged, meaningful and productive lives.

As a first-generation college student from a working-class, Midwestern family, ‘fitting in’ at an elite institution was the biggest challenge. I didn’t know the difference between a chair, a dean and a provost. I identify with our students and remember well just how bewildering and anxiety-producing academic life was as an eager first-year student. I feel as though my students connect with me on day one when I announce to them (with great pride) that I was the first person in my family to go to college—let alone complete a doctoral degree.

First-generation students need to know that this community understands, respects and supports them. They need to know that we appreciate how transformative our work is—and how special they are as a cohort. I am here for any first-generation student who needs advice, or just a word of encouragement.”

April O'Brien holding a We Are First Generaion sign.

April O’Brien

Alma mater: Clemson University
Degree: Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design PhD
Joined SHSU in ’19, Department of English

“When I was an undergrad, the chair of the department told me that I didn’t have what it takes to be successful in grad school, and that stopped me from continuing on after my bachelor’s degree for eight years. I never want to be that person to the students that I encounter each semester. Instead, I want to be the voice of encouragement to my students who question whether they, too, ‘have what it takes.’

I am so thankful to work at SHSU and to be able to work with students who are breaking new ground each year. Sometimes students need tangible support and other times they just need to hear that they have what it takes. I am here for both.”

Bobby Lane holding a We Are First Generation sign.

Robert (Bobby) Lane

Alma maters: Sam Houston State University, Texas A&M University
Degree: Agricultural Education, BS, MS, PhD
Joined SHSU in ’73, Department of Agriculture

“The 18 to 24 age is an especially vulnerable one. Young people are gaining their independence and emerging into the adult phase with many family-related, financial and personal issues. They are trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, knowing that their academic choices and performance will be a major determining factor in all of that. There can be some serious setbacks, psychological and otherwise, if assistance and guidance are not available. Ultimately, the decision to seek help is their own, but they must have access to that guidance and be made aware of its availability.

My experiences helped me better understand at least some of the many challenges first-gen students face. I can convey some of the difficulties I faced as an 18-year-old in college and offer sound advice to those that want it.”

Joyce McCauley holding a We Are First Generation sign.

Joyce McCauley

Alma maters: University of South Florida, University of Guam, Texas Women’s University Degrees: Education BA, Literacy MA, Literacy PhD Joined SHSU in ’94, Department of Education

“Faculty members and administrators at SHSU are focused on student success. There is an unusual amount of time and effort (that many don’t see) put into figuring out ways to support our students not only in learning content, but, more importantly, in ways that support them emotionally. I believe the word gets around that we care—and going on to school, to fulfill a dream, doesn’t seem quite as scary to first-gen students we mentor.

The only way some of my students can be in my class is through great sacrifice—personally, financially, and/or emotionally. They need much more of my support and encouragement. They need safe spaces to talk, to share worries and concerns, to help think through problems, to keep their goal close, real and meaningful. That is where I feel I am most helpful. I ask questions and listen. I suggest possible resources. In the end, I hope I have helped students find answers to their own challenges.”

Donavan Haines holding a We Are First Generation sign.

Donovan Haines

Alma mater: Wichita State University
Degrees: Biochemistry BS, Chemistry PhD,
Joined SHSU in ’08, Department of Chemistry

“Honestly, I did not know what college was about when I arrived there. I had always lived on farms and feedlots, so moving into a dormitory in a small city was a huge adjustment. There was always something to do other than study. What made all the difference was sometime later when a biochemistry professor asked if I wanted to join his research lab. Suddenly I had good role models around me, and we worked together as team.

Our students need us. They need us to teach well. They need us to mentor well. They need us to connect. They need us to explain, not just content but how a degree works, what programs exist that might help them, how to decide what steps they should take next. Everything we do here makes a difference, and we are surrounded by people who are engaged and working incredibly hard to help those students reach their potential.

I adore the subject I get to teach (the chemistry of living things) and the students I get to teach it to. I’m so glad a good mentor took the time, during those early undergraduate years, to show me what it was all actually for before it was too late for me.”