By Angela Yang
Maria Erb was swept to the U.S. as an infant from South Korea, and grew up with her Dutch family on a dairy farm in Vermont.
Her parents never cared much for education, and if not for her own drive to apply to college, she might have spent her life as a dairy farmer, like many of her relatives. But she knew that wasn’t the life for her.
“I just believed that there was something more for me out there,” Erb said. “I understood that in order to make a change or get out of my life on the farm, by going to college, that would open doors for me. And it truly, truly did.”
After initially graduating from the University of New Hampshire then going on to get her master’s degree from the University of Vermont, she has grown passionate about helping other first-generation students access higher education.
As the founding director of Boston University’s Newbury Center, a support hub for first-gen students, Erb said she is eager to get started. She remembers applying to college herself: she only tried for one school, and to her surprise, she was admitted.
Erb, who graduated second in her high school class, said she later discovered that year’s applicant pool was highly competitive. She didn’t understand much of that at the time, but what she did know was that she didn’t have the luxury of shooting for every basket:
“You hear now so many students applying for so many colleges, but it was also costly,” Erb said. “I couldn’t afford to do that.”
That low-income family background followed her throughout her college years. And those challenges weren’t unique to her — they can be typical for many first-gen college students.
“We look back on that, and it’s like of course that made sense, as first-gen students, that we weren’t able to participate in study abroad or we didn’t do unpaid internships because we couldn’t afford to,” she said. “Our main thing was having to work several jobs … so that we could afford to just live day to day.”
Erb aims for the Newbury Center to establish a sense of community among first-gen students across campus in hopes that those who share experiences like hers can realize they are not alone, and that they have a support system.
For BU senior Anna Pham, that sort of community is exactly what she needed as a first-gen student. She said she’s never felt fully able to share her college experience with her parents, because they had never experienced that lifestyle.
“BU is a very big school with so many resources, but I think something that isn’t really talked about too much is the first-gen experience,” she said. “And I felt like during my time here, I kind of hid that side of me.”
Pham was born in California to immigrant parents from Vietnam. She said she feels lucky to have grown up in a “very loving” family, but that when college application season rolled around, she had to search for support elsewhere to navigate the process.
Her parents primarily spoke Vietnamese, while she primarily spoke English. Pham said the language barrier made it difficult for her parents to help her fill out documents or proofread her essays.
Though she couldn’t always ask for college-related support from her parents, Pham did learn to seek mentorship in her peers and instructors. She recommends finding a faculty member who was also a first-gen student, or making use of school resources like the Center for Career Development at BU.
Erb also recognizes this need for mentorship among students who didn’t come from a household that has gone through the higher-education system. These students are less likely to have family connections to industry professionals who might be willing to offer extra work experience or career guidance.
She said she hopes to help students start building that sort of network through the Newbury Center. Along with that, Erb plans to offer leadership opportunities and host workshops that further career development skills.
“How do we prepare first-gen students the best to move forward? How do you negotiate a salary and your benefits if you get a job offer?” Erb said. “People don’t necessarily teach that to you. But how can we provide some of those skills to students so they’re better prepared when they’re faced with that situation?”
This year, Pham will move on from BU to face those kinds of challenges. She said if she were to leave advice for other first-gen college students, she would tell them to take advantage of their school’s resources — and to be unapologetic about the background they come from.
“Being a first-gen student, I think that just gives you a more creative edge to who you are,” Pham said. “And I think that’s something that shouldn’t be hidden.”