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First Too at MU: First-Generation Faculty Initiative

At Monmouth University, we transcend the conventional university experience—we are a thriving community dedicated to sending a powerful message to our first-generation students: “You belong here, and your potential is boundless.”

The First-Generation Faculty Initiative at MU, co-created by Nicole Pulliam, Ph.D., and Stephanie Bobbitt, Ph.D., is a groundbreaking endeavor aimed at amplifying the presence of faculty and academic leaders who, much like our students, paved the way as first-generation college attendees. Rooted in innovation, this initiative is guided by a singular mission—to foster a profound sense of inclusion, ultimately bolstering the retention and success rates of our first-generation scholars.

MU’s First-Generation Faculty Initiative comprises a dynamic network of educators who share a common bond as first-generation college students themselves. Actively involved within the university community, these faculty members proudly embrace and champion their first-generation identities. Serving as unwavering advocates, they dedicate themselves to elevating the first-generation community at Monmouth University.

This project was made possible in part due to funding from the Diversity Innovation Grant Program coordinated by the Office of the Provost and Intercultural Center at Monmouth University.

Initiative Co-Creators

Photo of Stephanie R. Bobbitt

Stephanie Bobbitt, Ph.D.

Department of Educational Counseling and Leadership, School of Education

Being a first-generation college graduate and then faculty member takes an incredible amount of hard work, persistence, and resilience. I never imagined I could have a different life from what was expected of me, so I am proud to have realized what once felt like an impossible dream.

Photo of Dr. Nicole Pulliam

Nicole Pulliam, Ph.D.

Department of Educational Counseling and Leadership, School of Education

I am proud to be the first to pave a critical path for my children and future generations. Being the first should be celebrated as a point of pride, rather than an identity to be ashamed of. I am proud to be a trailblazer who can pave the way for other first-generation faculty, students, and all others who find themselves in isolated, unknown territories. This initiative fosters a celebratory community, where we can thrive in spaces as a first-generation collective.

Proud First-Gen Faculty

Photo of Jason E. Adolf, Ph.D.

Jason Adolf, Ph.D.

Department of Biology, School of Science
Photo of Polina Amburg

Polina Amburg, Ph.D., RN, M.S.

Department of Nursing, School of Nursing and Health Studies

I was born and raised in Ukraine. I spoke only a few words of English when I came to the US. My family valued education. My parents had to work hard to support and put me through college. They sacrificed their own careers to help me achieve my goals. I am the first person in my family to get a college degree in the United States. I am forever grateful to my family and my teachers, who supported me and gave me this opportunity to become the person I am today.

Liz Bahr

Department of Occupation Therapy, School of Nursing and Health Studies

As a first-generation college student, I’ve developed my resilience, gratitude, and passion for education. I’m the first person in my family to receive a four-year degree, master’s degree, and doctorate. My family is proud and supportive of my journey and are role models of determination.

Photo of Kerry Carley-Rizzuto, Ed.D.

Kerry Carley-Rizzuto, Ed.D.

Department of Educational Counseling and Leadership, School of Education

I worked hard to finish college and then to receive my doctoral degree. I always think that I fulfilled a dream that my grandmother had; she could not become a teacher because she had to stay home and take care of her father and her brothers. Now I am teaching other young women and men how to become teachers and leaders in education. I hope that I can inspire them the way that my grandmother inspired me.

Professor Amanda Connelly, Instructor, English

Amanda Connelly, M.A.

Department of English, School of Humanities and Social Sciences

I have been able to achieve dreams my mother never felt she had the opportunity to while pursuing my own goals!

Photo of Michael Cronin

Michael Cronin, Ph.D., LCSW

Department of Social Work, School of Social Work

I am most proud of the fact that I had the motivation and perseverance to figure out how to go to college, My parents had no resources and little advice about this experience other than strongly encouraging me to pursue higher education.

Tracey Dubey

Department of Career Development, School of Humanities and Social Science

I set my mind to accomplish something, bigger and better, then parents and I accomplished that.

Photo of Kiameesha R. Evans, M.P.H., MCHES

Kiameesha R. Evans, Dr.PH, MPH, MCHES®

Department of Health and Physical Education, School of Nursing and Health Studies
Photo of Dr. Jason Fitzgerald

Jason Fitzgerald, Ph.D.

Department of Educational Counseling and Leadership, School of Education
Photo of Danielle Frith

Danielle Frith

Department of Special Education, School of Education

I am a first-generation college graduate, an alumna of Monmouth University, and now full-time faculty! My college degree opened up many doors for me professionally and personally and brought me full-circle back to the University, a place I am proud of! Being a first-generation college graduate allowed me to model for my own children the value of higher education.

Laura Giacobbe

Laura Giacobbe

Library Services, Library

As the daughter of two immigrant parents, who left their homelands for the hope of opportunity for their children to have better access to education, I am honored to be a first-generation college graduate. Each time I walk into the library, where I am a librarian, I envision my ancestors from South America smiling down upon me. I wouldn’t have been able to obtain my degree if it wasn’t for their hard work and dedication. I worked hard to obtain my education, but I certainly didn’t do it alone. I had support and help from my family and community. There are still many barriers in place for communities of color and having networks and opportunities to share information through storytelling and other healing practices, can help to ease the emotional burden of living in a racially segregated society. I am happy to support other first-gen students as they navigate their way through college.

Jennifer Harpootlian, Lecturer, English

Jennifer Harpootlian, M.A.

Department of English, School of Humanities and Social Sciences

What makes me proud to be a first-generation college graduate is knowing all of the sacrifice that my mother made to make it possible for me to go to college.

Wendy Harriott, Ph.D.

Department of Special Education, School of Education

I am proud to now be interim dean of the School of Education.

Christa Hogan, MSW, LCSW

Christa Hogan, MSW, LCSW

Department of Social Work, School of Social Work
Photo of Shannon K. Hokanson

Shannon Hokanson

Department of Communications, School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Photo of Ai Kamei

Ai Kamei, Ph.D.

Department of Special Education, School of Education

Rolf Kamp

Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering, School of Science
Photo of Jeremy Lackman

Jeremy Lackman, Ph.D.

Department of Health and Physical Education, School of Nursing and Health Studies

I know that if I can come from where I came from, and end up where I ended up, I can do anything. I was the first to get a bachelor’s, and of course, first to get a master’s and a doctorate. Being first gen means that I figured it out on my own and I am proud to have left small town USA and got to attend many Universities all over this country, join the Peace Corps, and work in Costa Rica and the USA as a professor.

Amy Lombardo, M.S.Ed.

Department of Educational Counseling and Leadership, School of Education

As a first-generation college graduate in my family, I have made my parents proud and provided a pathway for my younger siblings to follow their dreams. In addition, my years as a college student have allowed me to step out of my comfort zone and self-advocate for myself while educating my parents about the college process. As a high school counselor, working with diverse students, I am educating the next first-generation college students to follow their pathway, providing them with the tools and advocacy they will need as they embark on their journey. Finally, as a proud Latina woman, I encourage all first-generation college students to follow their dream.

Photo of Kathryn L. Lubniewski, Ph.D.

Kathryn Lubniewski, Ph.D.

Department of Special Education, School of Education
Photo of Janet Mahoney, Ph.D., RN, APN-C, NEA-BC

Janet Mahoney, Ph.D., RN, APN-C, NEA-BC

Department of Nursing, School of Nursing and Health Studies

Have faith, work hard, and be grateful for everyone in your life.

Anna Maisano-Cuscina

Department of World Languages and Culture, School of Humanities and Social Sciences

My parents had only elementary school education in Italy and were determined to have their children attend college. They were very proud of my accomplishments when I received my Bachelor of Arts degree and pursued a degree in Education. I am the first woman of my extended family to also receive a Master of Arts degree and teach at the University level.

Killian Mann

Department of History and Anthropology, School of Humanities and Social Sciences

We may not know what is, but knowing what was might just tell us what could be. #DiversifyAcademia #closethegap #FutureSoBrightiNeedShades

Annie O’Rourke

Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering, School of Science

My parents didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, but they made sure their children went to college. I am proud to be a college graduate!

Headshot of Joe Palazzolo in a suit wearing the Monmouth University spirit logo as a badge on his suit jacket.

Joe Palazzolo, Ed.D.

Department of Management and Leadership, School of Business

Going to college and graduating wasn’t just an accomplishment for me, but validation for my family that the American Dream can still be found in this country. It wasn’t easy, it was a bit bewildering at times, and sometimes it felt like I was figuring out how to get through the woods without a map. However, the support that the University provided me (I was an undergraduate here) and the mentoring that I received from Monmouth University’s professors helped guide the way. I’m happy to help the next generation of Hawks find their way!

Photo of John Patro

John Patro Jr. , OTD, OTR/L

Department of Occupational Therapy, School of Nursing and Health Studies

I am so proud to be a first-generation graduate and faculty member. My parents worked very hard to make a college education accessible and supported me to achieve my educational goals. I remember how exciting and terrifying it was to begin my college career. I want to be a resource for first-generation students at Monmouth!

Photo of Zaneta Rago

Zaneta Rago-Craft

Department of Educational Counseling and Leadership, School of Education
Photo of Dennis E. Rhoads, Ph.D.

Dennis E. Rhoads, Ph.D.

Department of Biology, School of Science

I never thought about myself being a first-generation student until first reading about the First to Fly initiative on campus. But it was an immediate “ah-hah” moment as I reflected upon it, and began to link some of my initial struggles with not having that home base of college experience. In some ways, these persisted even into graduate school. That persistence could no doubt have been avoided, and much of the earlier stress reduced, had there been a first-generation support network way back then.

Tamara Rial-Faigenbaum

Department of Health and Physical Education, School of Nursing and Health Studies

Proud to be a first-generation college graduate and proud for the immense effort my parents did to provide me with an education.

Gina Rivera-Paradiso

Department of Psychology, School of Humanities and Social Sciences

Understanding the sacrifices and lifestyle that is provided by family, to support the decision of embracing education to the level of completion, is both an empowering and humbling experience. It gave me an overwhelming, immeasurable amount of gratitude that I will always value as the foundation of my educational journey. I am forever grateful.

Photo of Rebecca P. Sanford, Ph.D.

Rebecca Sanford, Ph.D.

Department of Communication, School of Humanities and Social Sciences

Education is truly a gift that lasts forever. Education creates opportunity, provides perspective, and inspires growth.

Photo of Michelle L. Schpakow

Michelle Schpakow, Ed.D.

Department of Curriculum and Instruction, School of Education
Photo of Rashida Scott-Cruz

Rashida Scott-Cruz

Department of Music and Theater, School of Humanities and Social Sciences

I am grateful to be considered a first-generation college graduate who provides diversity, support and mentorship for students who are systemically marginalized due to societal norms. Reflecting the student population being served is essential.

Photo of Sean Sterrett

Sean Sterrett, Ph.D.

Department Biology, School of Science

I’m only just now beginning to understand why being first generation is interesting (being that I feel successful in what I do), but also why challenges exist for our students. I suppose I’m most proud of being part of a community that recognizes barriers, develops a caring community and working towards an equitable framework for all our students.

Francine Swift holding a landline phone to her ear

Francine Swift

Department of Educational Counseling and Leadership, School of Education

Being a college student takes tenacity and drive. Doing so without the support and encouragement of family who can share their experiences is much more difficult. I’m not sure I realized the accomplishment at the time, but I am proud to be a first-generation college and graduate school graduate. I’m even prouder to be able to share experiences, provide resources, and encourage others who are #FirstTooAtMU.

Joe Torchia, Lecturer, English

Joseph Torchia, M.A.

Department of English, School of Humanities and Social Sciences

My parents, neither of whom are college-educated, have instilled a great amount of work ethic and resilience in me. I have applied these traits to academic work both as a student and now as a professor, and I am proud of all I have accomplished, and all I can “give back” to the Monmouth University community.

Photo of Nancy Uddin, Ph.D.

Nancy Uddin, Ph.D.

Department of Accounting, School of Business
Photo of Paul E. Urbanski

Paul Urbanski, Ph.D., MSSW

Department of Social Work, School of Social Work

My father left school in the eighth grade so he could go to work and help support his family. He had an inquisitive mind, believed in the importance of getting an education, and even put up a blackboard next to our kitchen table on which he would ask us questions. To this day, the only question I remember is, “what is the melting temperature of salt?” (1472 degrees F). The result was three sons being the first his family’s history to go to college, with two sons receiving medical degrees (MD), and one a doctoral degree (Ph.D.). This was a source of pride for our father and his belief in the potential of a new generation.

Dr. Lisa Vetere, Associate Professor, English

Lisa Vetere, Ph.D.

Department of English, School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Angello Villarreal

Angello Villarreal, Ed.D.

Department of World Languages and Cultures, School of Humanities and Social Sciences

You can’t be who you can’t see… My parents never attended school because they were about to have me at the age of 19. I am their wildest dreams!

Photo of Kurt W. Wagner

Kurt Wagner

Library Services, Library

Attending and finishing college not only provided me with opportunities I would not have had, otherwise, but it also expanded what I knew was possible to achieve and made it clear that I could achieve anything, if I worked hard and applied what I learned.

Patrick Walden

Patrick R. Walden, Ph.D., CCC-SLP

Department of Speech Pathology, School of Education

I am proud to be a first-generation college graduate because it provides support to the idea that our strength often lies primarily within. Our circumstances of origin do not necessarily dictate the reality of our present.

Vecihi Zambak, Ph.D.

Department of Curriculum and Instruction, School of Education

I am proud to say I was a first-generation college student when I first started my bachelor study in secondary mathematics at Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey. Interestingly, neither of my grandmothers knew how to read. Also, neither of my parents went to school beyond 8th grade. My father had to start working in a car shop since his grades were not good in middle school, and his parents thought that to learn a craft was a better option instead of going to school. For many years he repaired expensive cars of medical doctors and lawyers who had college degrees. As he was surrounded by educated people, he envied them and advised me to study more if I want to change my destiny. For me, being a first gen means being brave and ambitious to make a change in your life. Since then, I have been certain to take the opportunity to make changes in my life, if there is any.

Melissa Ziobro

Melissa Ziobro, M.A.

Department of History and Anthropology, School of Humanities and Social Sciences