Published: Feb. 1, 2019 By

phil distefano

College Changed My Life

You sometimes mention that you were a first-generation college student. It’s in your official CU Boulder biography. Why is that important for people to know?

One of the best things I can do is identify myself as a first-generation student to show the enormous opportunities that are available by graduating from college and perhaps going on to graduate school. It shows the importance of a higher education degree. Higher education opens up so many opportunities.

When you were in high school, was there doubt that you would attend college?

There was great doubt. I grew up in a blue-collar steel-mill town (Steubenville, Ohio). The norm, especially for males, was to go into the steel mill to work. I didn’t think about going to college. I thought I would follow my friends and older brother and go into the steel mills and coal mines. An English teacher encouraged me to go to college because she thought I had the academic ability to be successful.

What was your college experience like at Ohio State?

It was a very different experience than what I had ever known. Ohio State 50 years ago had 40,000 students. It was much larger than anything I had experienced. Getting used to the academics, living on my own and working, I found myself in a very different place.

How did you overcome the barriers?

Since I was the first in my family, including my extended family, I certainly didn’t want to fail, and I found myself studying more than I ever had to be sure I was successful.

In what ways is the college experience often different for first-generation students than for the children of college graduates?

There wasn’t anyone to talk to in my family about their college experiences. The only experience I had to draw on was high school. I had to figure things out for myself on how to be successful in college.

Do you have any advice for first-generation students today?

Take advantage of all the opportunities at the university, opportunities that you may not have otherwise experienced. There will certainly be challenges, but the opportunities outweigh the challenges — and may even result from them.

Illustration by Melinda Josie