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Going to college did not come naturally for University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s Jennifer Schuttlefield Christus.

As a first-generation college student, applying for financial aid, registering for classes … really navigating the whole system … boiled down to trial and error.

Jennifer Schuttlefield Christus

“I didn’t know about anything. It was all new to me,” Christus said. “Simple processes like buying text books, seeing how expensive they are, then selling them back was a learning experience.”

While her parents were supportive and offered suggestions, they didn’t have first-hand experience to help her along the way.

“I stumbled. I made mistakes but kept going. I found classmates to study with or friends to hang out with. Eventually, I ended up with a really good boss who was a scientist who had started his own company. It was because of his encouragement and support that made me believe I could go to graduate school,” she explained.

Those early struggles figuring out how to “do” college stuck with Christus, who today serves as an associate chemistry professor at UW Oshkosh and the director of the UW System Women and Science Program.

Focused on first gens

Last week, Christus wore her “Ask me about being first-gen proud!” button as the Oshkosh campus community came together to celebrate the first-ever First Gen College Week.

Activities included workshops about financial aid and graduate school options, a crowdsourced poem about first-gen students’ experiences and the launch of a UWO chapter of Tri-Alpha, a national honor society for first-gens.

Cordelia Bowlus, UWO McNair Program director, secured a small grant from the Center for First-Generation Student Success, an initiative of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and the Suder Foundation, to support the week’s events.

Bowlus, the daughter of two professors, always knew she would go to college. At UWO, she gained a deep appreciation for what it means to students who become the first in their family to complete a bachelor’s degree.

“Through my work as an academic adviser and more recently with TRIO students and our Division of Academic Support and Inclusive Excellence staff, I have become keenly aware of the impact support services have on promoting first-generation students’ success,” she said. “Just as importantly, I also see on a daily basis how first-generation students, through their diverse experiences and perspectives, enrich our campus culture.”

A first for our firsts

Bowlus worked with Lisa Arguello, UWO’s PreCollege Program coordinator, to start the new Tri-Alpha chapter and induct the following first 18 members on Nov. 8:

  • Megan Bartkowski, Crivitz, senior, special and regular education major
  • Gillian Bellman, Oshkosh, senior, history major
  • Lauren Blume, Waukesha, senior, psychology major
  • Ashton Campbell, Burlington, senior, nursing major
  • Yanet Fernandez, Oshkosh, senior, mathematics major
  • Nallely Galindo, Berlin, senior, psychology major
  • Ethan Groshens, Kaukauna, senior, chemistry major
  • Hallie Lemke, Mount Calvary, senior, social work major
  • Tannyr Locy, Hortonville, senior, special and regular education major
  • Selena Perez, Green Bay, sophomore, mathematics major
  • Jazmine Peterson, Whitewater, sophomore, psychology and criminal justice major
  • Elijah Plonsky, Oshkosh, junior, English major
  • Nayma Salazar Flores, Beaver Dam, senior, nursing major
  • Anise Madeline Shipley, Oshkosh, senior, sociology major
  • Claire Stone, Lockport, Illinois, senior, Japanese studies major
  • Sheiana Taylor, Oshkosh, senior, biomedical science major
  • Lauren Terrill, Oconomowoc, senior, radio TV film major
  • Mai Xee Yang, Milwaukee, junior, human services leadership major

To qualify for the honor society, the students needed a minimum of 30 credits, a 3.2 GPA and a recommendation of a faculty or staff member.

Bowlus said moving forward, the new inductees will work to plan and promote future first-gen celebrations on campus.

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