Jolie Schafer vividly remembers her close childhood friend battling cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that clogs the lungs with mucus and damages other vital organs.
“He was in and out of the hospital a lot,” Schafer says. “His lungs collapsed several times, and he almost died.”
But in 2004, when Schafer was 13, her friend, Chase McGowen, became the first person in Texas to undergo a lifesaving double-lung and liver transplant. Today he lives in Austin and is doing well.
Schafer credits Chase’s story with piquing her interest in science and inspiring her to pursue a career in medical research.
“I want to contribute to finding cures for diseases that cut lives short and cause people to suffer,” she says.
This fall, Schafer will graduate with a Ph.D. from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. Jointly run by MD Anderson and The University of Texas Health Science Center, the school offers graduate-level degrees to those preparing for careers as biomedical scientists. Schafer is a student in the Immunology Program and specializes in “natural killer cells,” which destroy tumor cells while sparing healthy ones. (See more on "Utilizing the body's natural born killers")
Charting new territory
But attending college after high school wasn’t a “given,” Schafer says. Tuition was steep, and she worried about burdening her mother, a hairdresser, and father, an IT consultant for a state agency.
“My parents wanted the best for me and were very supportive of me going to college,” she says, “but I didn’t want to load them down with debt.”
An athletic scholarship to play volleyball at Houston Baptist University paid for her undergraduate education and lessened financial worries. But out-of-town games sometimes forced her to miss classes.
“I had to work twice as hard to teach myself the material I missed,” she says.
Several of Schafer’s professors were impressed by her dedication and encouraged her to apply to graduate school.
“They helped me realize my potential,” she says. “No one else in my family had attended college, so I was charting new territory, and that can be intimidating.”
Schafer excelled academically, and this year was awarded a public policy fellowship from the Archer Center, which serves as the Washington, D.C., campus of The University of Texas System. As a fellow, she’ll spend the summer learning how science and government work together to improve human health.
“Navigating the world of higher education hasn’t always been easy,” she says. “My parents couldn’t offer advice because college was unknown to them, but they always cheered me on.”
Graduate School faculty member Melinda Yates, Ph.D., knows firsthand the obstacles first-generation students like Schafer face when traversing the world of higher education.
Yates and her identical twin sister are the first in their family to attend college.
Growing up in rural Indiana surrounded by “lots of corn and cows and not much else,” Yates says, motivated the sisters to broaden their horizons. Both earned Ph.D.s and now work in academia. Yates is an assistant professor of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine at MD Anderson who conducts research to prevent and treat uterine and ovarian cancers. Her sister is an academic and career advisor for science students at a university in Oregon.
In undergraduate and graduate school, Yates noticed that the obstacles confronting first-generation students like herself were different from those encountered by more privileged peers.
Some “first-gens” as they are called, felt isolated and pulled between two worlds – the one in which they grew up, and the academic world in which they now resided. Many felt lost in school, where it seemed everyone but themselves knew the unwritten rules. A distinct feeling of “otherness” made them hesitant to ask for help and guidance – doing so would reveal they didn’t belong.
Further challenges awaited first-gens who pushed forward to grad school.
“Biomedical science Ph.D. students are tasked not only with the academic rigors of advanced coursework and scientific writing,” Yates says, “but also with social and cultural dilemmas like finding trusted mentors, learning the academic research language or even knowing how to dress while attending national scientific conferences.”
Some first-gens, Yates remembers from her student days, wrestled with “breakaway guilt,” worrying they’d abandoned their parents or siblings who counted on them. Most families didn’t comprehend the college experience, much less the intricacies of a Ph.D. program. Parents expressed pride that their children were excelling, even though they didn’t understand their field of study.
Perceived as different by family members at home and poles apart from classmates at school, some first-gens Yates knew weren’t sure where to turn for support. She wondered, “What would it take to change that?”
The answer came four years ago when she formed the GSBS’s First Generation Student Group. The organization serves as a peer community where first-gens engage in frank discussions about the challenges they face, and together navigate the rigors of higher education.
“Being a first-generation student hasn’t always been easy, but the First Generation Student Group has given me the confidence and reassurance I need to succeed,” says Schafer, the group’s president.
Faculty members and biomedical science leaders from industry, government and academia often attend meetings to help students professionally network and explore career paths.
“It’s a ‘holistic advising’ approach,” Yates says, “where students learn to overcome academic obstacles, gain life-management skills like financial planning or stress management, celebrate their successes and embrace their first-gen identity.”
First-gens are not all the same, she says, but instead cut across all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. All, however, benefit from mentoring and communing with others.
“They may not know which professional societies to join, how to present research at an academic conference, or even how graduate school works in general,” Yates says. “Mentors can help them figure it out.”
The graduate school’s dean, Michelle Barton, Ph.D., is herself a first-generation student. She grew up on an Illinois farm, working outside and driving a tractor.
When she first arrived at college, she felt like “a fish out of water.”
“There’s so much value in making connections with other first-gens and having a network of people who understand your struggles,” says Barton, a professor of Epigenetics and Molecular Carcinogenesis.
Yates points out that first-gens aren’t less-than or lacking in any way. They’ve simply racked up a different set of life experiences than their non-first-gen counterparts.
“Those experiences,” she says, “are equally valuable and build character.”
With their backgrounds of hard work, financial discipline and fierce independence, first-gens are driven and determined.
“They’ve had to figure things out, do things for themselves, and help support their families,” Yates says. “That’s made them strong. They’ll stick it out when the going gets tough.”
That “grit” is exactly what employers and university admissions committees want to see. Casting adversity on one’s résumé as a skill-building asset is a new, upbeat take on the first-gen identity – one that highlights their resilience and adaptability.
“There’s a flip side to everything,” Yates says.
First in their family
Benjamin Lopez was an intensely curious child who spent most of his time reading and learning. He excelled in primary school in Mexico.
“My family congratulated me on every achievement,” he says, “so I was driven to succeed in school and make them proud.”
After his family moved to Louisiana, Lopez enrolled in the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts, a charter school that Lopez says “had an amazing faculty and a breadth and depth of courses I’d only dreamed of.”
After graduating, he attended Rice University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in bioengineering.
Lopez says he chose to work in the biomedical field because of its benefit to society, a “give-back” mentality shared by many firstgen students.
“It would be irresponsible of me to not realize my potential, or to use my talents strictly for my personal gain,” he says.
And he’s grateful to be a grad student.
“I’m getting paid a stipend to learn and explore and help others,” he says. “How amazing is that?”
As a first-generation Mexican-American graduate student, Luisa Coronel is proud to be a role model.
“I want to show people like me that they can reach their goals if they’re ambitious and persistent,” she says.
Coronel earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of California, San Diego. While there, she participated in the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development Program, which helps students from disadvantaged economic and social backgrounds transition from undergraduate to Ph.D. programs in science.
“Without that program, I wouldn’t have known how to apply for graduate school or who to ask for help,” she says. “I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work in a lab and gain the crucial experience needed for acceptance to graduate school.”
But when she arrived at grad school, Coronel quickly realized she’d taken an alternate route compared to most of her peers.
“I didn’t meet many people who shared my experiences,” she says. “The First Generation Student Group helped me know I wasn’t alone.”
Today Coronel is an officer in the Association for Minority Biomedical Researchers, “because it’s important to give back and support diversity in science,” she says.
After graduation, she plans a career in higher education.
Cavan Bailey was raised by a single mom in a working-class New Jersey neighborhood.
“It was pretty rough,” he says. “We lived paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes we relied on welfare and unemployment benefits.”
Determined to create a different life after high school, Bailey enrolled in community college and later graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience.
To pay for his education, he sought financial aid, won scholarships and did without “extras.”
“It was challenging,” he says, “but I made it.”
Now he’s pursuing a doctorate degree and, after graduation, plans to work for a pharmaceutical or biotechnology company researching new therapies for brain tumors.
Bailey remembers the learning curve he experienced as a new grad student.
Today, he serves as a mentor for incoming students, helping them tackle the issues he’s already faced: financial struggles, “fitting in” with the academic research culture, becoming and remaining a successful student, and choosing a career path.
He also mentors undergraduate students who participate in the graduate school’s summer workshops and programs, and offers advice on how to apply to graduate school.
“I appreciate the people who’ve helped me along the way,” he says, “and I’m grateful I now can help others.”