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Program to help more first-generation students overcome obstacles at King's College

First-generation students at King's College include, from left, Carlos Contreras, Nicole McMillan and Ariana Piestrak.
Sarah Hofius Hall
First-generation students at King's College include, from left, Carlos Contreras, Nicole McMillan and Ariana Piestrak.

First-generation college students often struggle with navigating higher education. A new program at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre could change that.

“I wanted to not only achieve my own dreams, but also achieve the ones that my parents once had for themselves,” King’s College junior Carlos Contreras said.

About 37% of students at the Luzerne County school are the first in their family to attend college – including Contreras. That brings unique challenges.

Research shows those students often struggle more often with seeking help and overcoming what is known as imposter syndrome. That’s when students feel like they’re unqualified or don’t belong.

Nationwide, about 50% of their students are the first in their families to attend college, according to the Center for First-Generation Student Success.

With the help of a grant from the Willary Foundation, King’s will launch a program called “Monarchs on a Mission.” The college, founded in 1946 to educate the sons of coal miners, has always provided services to students. The new program will enhance those supports.

Kelly M. Lettieri, director of KC Pathways, will help lead the efforts. She says students often need help filing for financial aid, securing textbooks and balancing the demands of higher education.

“However, they are the most determined students that I've interacted with a lot of times, and they're the ones that really have had to learn how to navigate those systems,” she said. “And I think when they have support around them, it just allows them to move forward with success.”

Participating students will meet for seven 90-minute sessions. Students will learn more about cultural awareness, relationship management, effective decision making and career preparation.

This initiative builds on another effort by the college. Last year, the college launched its Luzerne and Lackawanna Education Opportunity Program, a financial aid initiative that covers tuition for local, first-time students with families that earn less than $50,000 per year. This program has supported more than 80 students so far.

Rochelle Plummer, associate vice president for academic success, was the first in her family to attend college. She knows how those students feel. She wants to help them build resiliency, counter imposter syndrome and learn how to cope with being homesick.

“This is why these sorts of programs that focus on first generation students can be so impactful and are so critical to their success,” she said.

Nicole McMillan is a senior from Hunlock Creek. The first-generation student says she was nervous to ask questions when she got to King’s.

“You find out a lot of things that your parents can't necessarily help you with, because they never experienced it themselves,” she said.

She wants to attend law school and eventually become a judge.

McMillan said her family is proud of her. So is the family of Ariana Piestrak, a freshman from Nanticoke, who said asking questions is critical to the success of first-generation students.

Piestrak wants to work for the state police. She didn’t plan on attending college, but her mom pushed her.

“I just had this extra push. She was like, ‘You should just do it, like go out there,’” Piestrak said. “She's proud of me and the work I've accomplished.”

Contreras, whose parents are immigrants from Mexico, understands their sacrifice. He serves as a role model for his three younger siblings. He dreams of starting a nonprofit organization to help children overcome the challenges he once faced.

He said he is breaking the cycle of doing things only because he has to, to now doing things because he wants to.

“Because that's what I desire. That's what I dream of, and the sky's the limit,” he said. “There's no limit.”

Sarah Hofius Hall worked at The Times-Tribune in Scranton since 2006. For nearly all of that time, Hall covered education, visiting the region's classrooms and reporting on issues important to students, teachers, families and taxpayers.

You can email Sarah at sarahhall@wvia.org