CU Denver campus with the word celebrating first-gen week

First-Gen Faculty Have Advice for First-Gen Students

November 8, 2021

Monday, Nov. 8 is national First-Generation College Celebration day. It marks the beginning of First-Gen Week at CU Denver, honoring students who are the first in their families to attend college. But what about First-Gen faculty? Do they exist? Yes. We spoke to two professors who are the first in their families to graduate from college—and the first in their families to become academics.

Not only does CU Denver have a lot of first-gen students, we also have quite a few first-gen faculty, including Clinical Assistant Professor Robin Brandehoff, PhD, who teaches in the School of Education & Human Development, and Professor Hani Mansour, PhD, who teaches in the Economics Department.

Even some of CU Denver’s leadership team are first-gen college graduates, including Provost Constancio Nakuma, PhD, and Vice Chancellor Monique Snowden, PhD. “Being the first in one’s family to attend college is both a blessing and responsibility,” Snowden said. “My family made numerous sacrifices to support and lift me up, and in the process made higher education attainable as opposed to elusive.”

Brandehoff Graduates High School While Taking Care of her Family

Brandehoff never intended to go to college. In fact, she is the first person in her family to graduate from high school. She spent her childhood in Hawaii and California. “Essentially, I grew up in the projects in both Maui and East LA,” she said. When she got to high school, she had to leave twice to take care of a brother on the autism spectrum. “In my family, we were always struggling just to put food on the table. I started working when I was 12. When my mom got really, really sick, I had to drop out, mainly to take care of my brother.”

But Brandehoff got support from an unlikely source. “I grew up in a gang-impacted area, and it was actually my neighbor, who was a prominent gang leader, who sat me down on his porch one day,” she said. After she told him she wasn’t planning on graduating from high school or going to college, he gave her some advice. “He was one of those mentors that really listened and really made sure that I saw things from multiple perspectives. He told me, ‘You’re the hope of this neighborhood, and I want my little girls to look up to you and, one day, to go to college.’”

Nobody in Brandehoff’s social circle had ever gone to college, so she had no idea where to start. After the porch talk, she got on the computer and applied to a few local colleges—and she chose the one that offered her the most scholarship funding. “Whittier College was in my hometown,” she said, “so it meant I could still take care of my family and I could still work.”

Mansour Chose Economics Through Process of Elimination

Almost 7,500 miles away in Haifa, Israel, Mansour knew he wanted to go to college. Although his parents did not pursue higher education, he did well enough in school to enable him to pursue a college degree. “I don’t quite know how I decided to go to college, but I felt like it was almost implicit, like it was always the plan,” he said.

In Israel, as with other international systems of higher education, you need to declare a major before you begin university studies. Mansour didn’t have much to go on—except that he knew he didn’t want to be a lawyer or an engineer, and that he didn’t like the humanities or the hard sciences. “I ended up majoring in economics and accounting, thinking I wanted to be an accountant,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about accounting or economics, and my parents didn’t know anything about either of these two things.”

With the help of his friends who were also applying to college, Mansour managed to get through the application process, and he enrolled at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He graduated and became a certified public accountant (CPA), which he hated, as it turned out.

Navigating College When You Don’t Know What Questions to Ask

Although Brandehoff and Mansour come from different cultures and different countries, they both had a lot of questions about college—but neither one really wanted to ask. Had they been confident enough to ask, they wouldn’t even have known what to ask. This is why both faculty members now like to help their first-generation students.

“I had no idea how college worked,” Brandehoff admitted. She got through college in her own way, but she does not recommend her strategy. “I read my student handbook cover to cover. I practically memorized that entire book,” she said. Unfortunately, she had no advisor, so she didn’t have guidance about what classes she needed to take in order to graduate. “I just sort of followed the mantra that I always heard about college, which is you get to take any classes you want.”

Meanwhile, Mansour made his own mistakes, including not caring about his GPA and not forming relationships with his professors. “When I was an undergraduate student—and I think this is really key for differentiating between first-generation students and students who have family who went through college—I didn’t know that I needed to do well in my classes,” he said. “I didn’t really care about my GPA, not realizing that down the road it was going to haunt me.”  

Do Professors Have Imposter Syndrome?

Brandehoff ended up majoring in theater because she liked taking theater classes. It had been something she’d done in high school as an escapist strategy. “I was always really drawn to acting and living a life that wasn’t mine,” she said. After she graduated, she wanted to give back to her community, so she went on to pursue a master’s in education. “I wanted to give back to a lot of the mentors I had and work with gang-affiliated kids like I was,” she said. She ended up working as a high school teacher and administrator for over twelve years.

Mansour abandoned his CPA life after three years to attend graduate school for economics. “My parents did not understand that decision because a CPA makes a good amount of money,” he said. He knew enough to know he liked economics and hoped it would open other opportunities for him. He had no idea he would end up liking research and teaching, which made him consider an academic career.

According to his master’s professors, that would require a PhD—and a trip to the U.S. He applied and got into a doctoral program in economics at the University of California Santa Barbara, but that didn’t mean he actually knew what he was doing. “When I got to the U.S., there was still so much unknown about exactly what the program was like,” he said. “What do the courses entail? What does the research process look like? What does it mean to be an academic?”

Perhaps Brandehoff and Mansour didn’t know the term for what they experienced in graduate school, but they both had a classic case of “Imposter Syndrome,” a feeling you don’t belong or that your success is not legitimate. “I was always terrified of people finding out I didn’t belong in college,” Brandehoff said. “I think that Imposter Syndrome is absolutely real and even now as a professor, I still feel panicky sometimes—how did I get here and how will I be able to stay?” Mansour has experienced similar feelings. “The funny thing is that Imposter Syndrome is something that I think all academics have, regardless of whether it’s true or not,” he said. “Do I even belong in this setting? Is my research even important? Does anyone care?”

Reach Out, Make Connections, and Take Advantage of Resources

After Brandehoff earned her doctoral degree, she switched from teaching high school to college students. She focuses on mentoring gang-affiliated youth and teaching first-generation students of color. One of her core principles is the belief that mentors can come from anywhere. “A lot of my mentors were not folks that could be formal mentors in Big Brother or Girls Club or things like that,” she said. “They had records, they were gang members—but they were also very very influential in my life and I attribute my being here to them.”

As a faculty member, Brandehoff likes to connect with students, primarily first-generation students who need help figuring out how to fill out a FAFSA form or how to register for classes. “As a classroom teacher and also as a professor, I now make sure that my own story is transparent,” she said. “I like letting my students know that I am a first-generation high school and college graduate. I think that’s a really important part of my identity.” She recommends that students reach out to professors and try to really connect.

Mansour wants his students to do what he didn’t do. “Get to know your professors, go to office hours,” he said. “I wish I knew that I would need recommendations from those professors.” He admits he’s jealous of all the resources students have at CU Denver. “I’m still surprised how little students on our campus take advantage of the resources available to them.” His advice is simple: “Go knock on doors during office hours. Create these relationships while you’re in college.”

Brandehoff put it simply. “Any question that pops up—immediately write it down,” she said. “It’s never a ridiculous question because you don’t know what you don’t know.”