First-Gen Students, Now Faculty and StaffThese five Gustavus faculty and staff know first hand what it’s like to be a first-generation college student.
Posted on May 7th, 2024 by

Gustavus Adolphus College first-generation college students and faculty and staff. Left to right: Lisa Dembouski, Education; Tim Kennedy ’82, Marketing and Communication; KP Pauly, Admission; Eric Elias, Biology; Pamela Kittelson, Biology

These first-gen faculty and staff know what it can be like. Left to right: Lisa Dembouski, Education; Tim Kennedy ’82, Marketing and Communication; KP Pauly, Admission; Eric Elias, Biology; Pamela Kittelson, Biology


Except for a few striking differences, the stories of these Gustavus faculty and staff members of the Tri-Alpha fraternity for first-generation students are remarkably similar to today’s first-gens.

“I have a distinct memory in junior high of asking my dad if he would teach me how to plaster,” says Tim Kennedy ’82, Vice President of Marketing and Communication at Gustavus. “He emphatically said, ‘No! It is a good life, but it is really hard on your body, and you are going to go to college and have a career that you are passionate about.’ It sounds corny but I was motivated to go to and succeed in college because I did not want to let my parents down.” 

“My parents scraped by to afford a home in a school district that was ‘highly rated,’” says Pamela Kittelson, professor of Biology, who attended Colorado College as an undergraduate. “None of us had any real idea what we were doing or what to ask or look for.” The message, she says, was “keep my GPA high and do not get pregnant or drop out.”

All five of these firsts had parents who endorsed their higher education pursuits in theory. It was harder in practice. 

“My family and I did not know the difference between tech and community college, public and private, residential and non-residential,” says KP Pauly, assistant dean of Transfer Admission and MAT & PSEO Coordinator, who received their undergraduate and graduate degrees from Minnesota State University, Mankato. “The financial aid process was a whole other ball game for us, too. I really had no understanding of my student loan situation until after I graduated from undergrad.” 

Biology continuing instructor Eric Elias had parents who expected he would go to college, “but I recall feeling the burden of cost,” he says. “Campus visits to [far away] schools would have meant spending money on gas and overnight stays in hotels—expenses that I knew would stretch budgets.” When he got to the University of Minnesota, “all of it felt like flying by the seat of your pants all of the time. It was a lot of trial and error.”

“I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I didn’t know THAT I didn’t know.” —Professor Lisa Dembouski

Says Lisa Dembouski, professor of Education, who attended the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University, “I needed to listen to others, ask questions, find people who could help guide me, and/or just fumble my way through, because I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I didn’t know that I didn’t know.”

How did these five make it through? “My friends during undergrad really helped me acclimate to the environment,” says Pauly. “Then I connected with Residential Life, and that really was a community I leaned on.” For Kittelson, “No one helped me navigate college beyond providing the ingredients necessary to ‘get the job done.’  No one talked about ‘first-gen’ then.” Gustie alum Kennedy had mentors beginning on Move-In Day. Still, “I had to keep assuring myself that I belonged, even if at times I thought I was a little out of my league. It seemed like the students whose parents had gone to college or had siblings go had a better idea of how to navigate the process.” 

“The academic advising I received in the 1980s pales in comparison to what students experience now at Gustavus.”
—Professor Pamela Kittelson

Now for the key differences. Today, Gustavus first-generation college students and first-generation immigrants still have college knowledge gaps, but the level of support is far greater. These professors and staff members know it—and they are part of it too. 

“Unlike my experience, Gusties have access to multiple, excellent advisors and mentors who can help them navigate their journey,” says Kittelson. Today, as a professor as well as Director of the Fellowships Office, she is particularly attuned to the needs of first-gen students. Says Pauly, “Some students are timid and lack information, so I get to be the person to provide support to them. Others are very thorough, doing most of their college checklist items on their own. I spend a lot of time speaking with them to ensure they are experts at understanding their financial aid.” Says Dembouski, “I try hard to make myself and my work transparent and clear, to anticipate questions or potential points of confusion and mitigate those right away, and make myself accessible and approachable so my students know they can ask for whatever they need. ‘The only stupid question is the unasked one,’ is my mantra.”

This is what Tim Kennedy, who has mentored hundreds of first-generation college students at Gustavus, knows about his fellow firsts: “They are smart, driven, and hungry for experience. They are not afraid to ask for help and they are grateful for the opportunity to get a college education.” He tells them Gustavus, “is the best investment you can possibly make in yourself, and that they are absolutely worth that investment.”

Elias agrees, “because people at Gustavus are deeply invested in their success with the support, resources, and services to overcome many of the barriers and challenges.”

“I can also say the liberal arts have the power to change lives,” says Kittelson. “I know because they changed my life.” 

Support for Today’s Firsts, and Others Too

The Gustie Guarantee is a minimum of $100,000 in scholarships ($25,000 per year; filing the FAFSA is required). For families in Minnesota that make less than $80,000 per year, a student’s first-year tuition is free, with continuing support the following three years. And if a student can’t finish in four years, a ninth semester’s tuition will be covered too.

GAIN Institute, from the Center for Inclusive Excellence, provides mentoring to incoming Gusties who identify as first-generation, multilingual, a person of color, and/or indigenous. It’s a pre-college week of team building, resource connections, networking, college-level academic previews, and campus and community wayfinding.

First Forward Network provides guidance, direction, and resources as students transition from high school to college—and as they continue to navigate their journey through college. 

Peer MALT (Mentor, Academic Leader, and Teacher) is a third- or fourth-year Gustie student who comes into a First Term Seminar each week to share their experiences, discuss the transition to college, and inform first-years about college resources.

Advising Day is a whole day each semester dedicated to personalized academic and career advice tailored to a student’s journey (in addition to their real human advisor from day one).

 Tri-Alpha is a national honor society for first-gen students (current or past), chartered at Gustavus in 2022.


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication Luc Hatlestad


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