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SCU First Gen Staff/Faculty Profiles

Tonya Nilsson
Senior Lecturer, Civil, Environmental and Sustainable Engineering
Where did you attend college?

College of the Desert (community college) transferred to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo

What was your college experience like as a first-generation college student?

FYI - I want to be forthcoming as there are different definitions of first-generation. Neither of my parents have 4 year degrees. My Mom has a 2 year and my Dad finished his 2 year after I went to college. My sister started college 1 year ahead of me and dropped out after her first year, returning years later. So, I was the first in my immediate family to get a 4-year degree. I'll keep answering so if this is considered first-generation, you have my thoughts. As far as the experience, I always had blinders on to others' opinions and just put my head down but it was hard being a female engineering student. I decided to go to 2 year school first because I was afraid of failing out of 4 year. So I starting working at a KFC full-time and taking classes. My Mom just assumed I would be at the KFC forever and didn't think I would get my degree, especially since my sister quit college. My Dad was proud of me but he was also really insecure about not having a degree and felt I was surpassing his knowledge so he would give me hard time and belittle any accomplishments.

After the first year of community college at a small satellite campus, I moved an hour away from home so I could be near the main community college campus. My parents never saw the crazy schedule I kept trying to work full time and take a full load so they never really understood when I wouldn't have time to visit. I kept working up to 20 hours per week after I transferred to Cal Poly and got heavily involved in two engineering clubs. That meant I spent very little time doing anything but work, school or sleeping. Thank goodness for the amazing friendships I made with my classmates. We kept each other sane!

What message do you have to share with current first-generation college students?

Use your resources and don't be embarrassed to ask for what you need. I suffered (and still do) from major imposter syndrome and assumed my acceptance to both Cal Poly, SLO and Stanford (where I did my Masters) must have been a mistake. Fortunately for me, I connected with some other female engineering students who were honest enough to share they felt the same way. That really helped. Also, since I paid my way through my undergrad via working, grants and loans, I always felt my education was mine and something I was working hard to pay for. As such, I stopped worrying about asking questions and made use of all those office hours that I had paid for in advance!