Solidarity and Sisterhood

First-Generation Students Overcome Education Barriers

By Emily Rivas

Image courtesy of moriza via Flickr.

For many students, the transition from high school into university or college is a difficult step to take. But it can be even more difficult for students, especially women, who are the first in their family to attend post-secondary. The Live2Lead conference held at Ryerson University Jan. 25-26 featured its First Generation Project to address the barriers and achievements of students who are the first in their families to attend post-secondary.

“We really want to create change-makers,” says 25-year-old Ghazala Knight, project manager of Live2Lead conference and third-year student in politics and governance at Ryerson.  “We want to show that first-generation students, although faced with adversity and obstacles, are able to overcome whatever may be in front of them and really make those changes in this world world that we can do.”

The two-day conference, hosted by Ryerson’s Tri-Mentoring program, featured workshops, speakers and tutorials meant to empower students to take leadership positions within their school and to begin networking to prepare for future careers.

“The purpose of today is for first-generation students to come out and learn about leadership opportunities. The whole theme of it is called Define The Leader Within, so it’s about learning who they are and then extending that to the community here at Ryerson, and then taking it back to their own community, and then extending that globally,” says Knight.

The First Generation Project, part of the Tri-Mentoring program at Ryerson, aims to increase the number of students entering and graduating from post-secondary.  They support students by offering information on scholarships and bursaries, networking and volunteer opportunities, and social events.

For female students who are the first in their family to attend post-secondary, the first steps in immersing oneself into the education system can be difficult. However, many women at the conference said they feel privileged that they have access to the post-secondary education that their parents didn’t.

Christina Tachtampa, a first-generation student, is in her third year at Ryerson in the Arts and Contemporary Studies program, majoring in history. She is a volunteer with the Alternative Spring Break group at Ryerson, an organization that encourages students to volunteer overseas during their spring break. One of her history teachers, Professor Arne Kislenko, introduced her to the organization, which eventually enabled her to lead a volunteer team in Kenya last year at a girls’ orphanage.

Tachtampa is of Greek descent and came to Canada only 10 years ago. She’s originally from Plati, a small agricultural village that’s a 20 minute drive away from Kalamata, Greece. Though her parents have always pushed her to go “beyond borders” (hence her participation with Alternative Spring Break), she says education is not always seen as important in her village.

“My community does not push for kids to educate themselves. They push for kids to go out and look for work,” says Tachtampa.

Tachtampa says that life in Plati is mainly focused on the family business or marriage. The 23-year-old is grateful that her father, who she lives with her in Canada, doesn’t have this outlook, but says that a lot of the older generation still does.

With the decline of Greece’s economy, Tachtampa says many of her friends who graduated from university programs have not been able to find jobs. Her sister, who lives in Greece, is being pressured to join the marines due to the family’s poor economic circumstances.

“Education in Greece won’t get you anywhere. People don’t have the opportunities anymore. I feel like the government isn’t giving any opportunities to the students,” says Tachtampa.

First-generation female students also find that being one of the first of your siblings to attend post-secondary might mean stepping out of the gender roles that society forces on you. Female engineers, specifically, find that it’s still a man’s world. Although we’d like to think sexism doesn’t exist anymore, they say, it’s still very present in their field.

“I’ve encountered a lot of situations where I’ve been seen as just a female who doesn’t know what guys are expected to know, such as mathematics or science. But in reality, we have just as much mental capacity and potential. We’re always played out in a certain image, and it’s just not fair,” says Caroline Wojtyla, 19, a first-year civil engineering student at Ryerson.

Wojtyla is the second of her family to attend post-secondary, her older sister being the first. She volunteers with Engineers Without Borders at Ryerson, an organization she first heard about before becoming an engineering student, and is ecstatic that she already has had a role in organizing an event for the organization despite only being in her first year at the school.

To Wojtyla, however, being a first-generation female engineer means she is going against the gender roles society has put on females.

“In social media, women are depicted as being only interested in their appearance,” she says. “I think women have so much more potential than that.”

Wojtyla is grateful to her hardworking parents and to the fact that she can attend post-secondary for engineering. She says back when her grandmother was looking for a degree, all she could take was home economics.

Jessica Kubik is president of The National Society of Black Engineers at Ryerson and a fourth-year electrical engineering student. As a young, first-generation student, Kubik is passionate about helping the organization increase the number of black students in engineering and supporting them academically both in high school and university.

However, she also agrees that female engineers have been stereotyped.

“There are very few women in engineering,” she says. “People say that you’re just going to be around a bunch of guys and you’re not going to be successful in your field. Some people may have sexist notions, but if everyone thinks that way, then nothing is going to change.”

Because many first-generation females come from immigrant parents who have different cultural customs and don’t really know how school systems work in North America, many often find themselves having to explain themselves for simple reasons such as staying late at school.

First-generation Ryerson Alumni and lead mentor for the Faculty of Arts, Salisha Mohammed, says that she remembers her Trinidadian parents questioning why she always had to stay so late at school, but says they now understand. Mohammed encourages first-generation women to not be afraid to get involved with the school and to always seek guidance when in need.

In today’s society, we now see more first-generation women graduating from post-secondary and making an impact. Take the recent Aboriginal activism, for example. The Globe and Mail ran an article on a 22-year-old first-generation Cree woman named Erica Lee, who was raised by a single mother, but is now a fourth-year political philosophy student at the University of Saskatchewan and an organizer of the Idle No More Movement. According to The Globe, about two-thirds of aboriginals in college or university are female, and are a major part of why Aboriginal activism has grown.

Education is power, and the parents of these women are willing to give them what they never had.

“I really believe that women in our generation have the opportunity to have those top jobs and CEO positions,” says Ghazala Knight. “ It’s our turn to stand out and really move forward.” M

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