Storytelling event helps first-generation students find their place

Maria Ly
Staff Writer

Maverick Firsts hosted this year’s “Finding Your Place: Storytelling About College” event to help create a space for first generation students to share their stories this past Friday at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Dr. Dave Engen, a professor in Communication Studies, said, “The reason that we have these events, and we’ve done them for several years now, sometimes with a bunch of stories sometimes with a couple of stories, because we believe that you can connect with others through storytelling, and hearing complex, nuanced, complicated stories about this college journey can help us create our own path through college.”

The event featured guest speaker Dr. Rachael Hanel, a professor in the Mass Media department and an MNSU alumni, to tell her story about being a gravedigger’s daughter and her experiences today as a first-generation college student. 

She showed the audience a picture of her father, who in the photo was 13 years old at the time posing with a big smile on his face with pigs at his family’s farm. 

She began to recount her memories of her father as he graduated high school and went straight to work at the University of Minnesota Waseca, now a women’s prison, as a general laborer in a pig barn. 

The photo now hangs in Dr. Hanel’s office as it reminds her where she comes from. 

Dr. Hanel said, “This really reminds me where I came from, I feel pretty connected, I feel like I have pretty strong roots to this place and the family that I came from, and I don’t ever want to forget that, so to have this picture here on campus is a really good reminder of that.”

Instead of sharing her memories in college as a student, Dr. Hanel wanted the audience to know that being a first-generation college student will always be a part of your identity and to never forget that. 

“A lot of things that you’re going through here, trying to navigate the system and trying to find your place, that’s always going to be a part of your life, and once you get your diploma, it’s not going to be boom you’re done and this is never who I am anymore, it will always be a part of you and your identity,” she said. 

Dr. Hanel says even today at work in the university, she still finds herself struggling to find her place.

She talked about her struggles during a conversation at a meeting where her colleagues were discussing the word “rhetoric” and about how it was being used and if it was the word that fit to describe what they were trying to use it for. She felt she couldn’t contribute to the conversation whatsoever and began to feel out of place. 

Dr. Hanel said, “As I am listening talk about this word where I can’t contribute to the conversation, this is an example where I’m thinking to myself, I’m not quite feeling like I’m in the right place, this is feeling a bit uncomfortable to me, I just don’t have the background that I need to contribute to this.”

She felt like she had imposter syndrome – a sense that you know that you’re qualified to be where you are but the little voice in your head tells you otherwise. This is not a feeling uncommon to her as a first-generation student. 

Dr. Hanel advises students who are feeling out of place or like an imposter, to think about your strengths and what you can contribute. 

She finds her personal strengths to be perseverance, a strong work ethic, independence, etc. 

She said, “I’m going to feel very strongly that those are my personal strengths because that of my background, because I saw my dad working really hard and have this drive and have this independence in order to succeed and make a living.”

She encourages students to continue thinking about their own strengths and to work hard as it will serve them well in the long run. As a first-generation student, one may not get the help they need from their family, so relying on one’s strengths may be all they have. 

Dr. Hanel said, “You can’t really rely on your family. They want to help you but they haven’t been here before, they don’t know how to navigate this place, it’s up to you to find events like this, to find resources like this that exists to help you out.”

The audience was then able to share their own stories with each other at their separate tables and groups as they were encouraged to share a six-word story describing their academic journey. 

One student shared their story as they wrote, “Fell down, broke down, got up,” a story that reflects their long journey as they have been working on a bachelor’s degree for almost seven years. 

Students were also able to discuss and give suggestions about something from MNSU that they’re currently not getting. Some students expressed their concerns with wanting a smoother transition or program for transfer students coming to MNSU, better incorporation and use of D2L by professors, utilizing several different learning styles in the classroom, more accountability on professors, etc. 

Dr. Engen hopes students were able to share their stories during this event and had a chance to network and connect with one another. He hopes that students will take charge and create a student organization for first-generation students to further help students find their place 

He said, “Our group can’t start a student organization, but we’re really hoping a student will show an interest in starting an organization on campus for first generation students which is being done all around the country and in other schools.”

For students who missed the event but is interested in hearing student stories navigating college, Dr. Engen encourages them to listen to MNSU’s and Century College’s podcast “Finding Your Place” which can be found at:

Header photo: Dr. Rachael Hanel, an associate professor at MNSU, speaks to students during “Finding Your Place: Storytelling about College” event Friday, Nov. 8, 2019 in Mankato Minn. (Prasad Pol/MSU Reporter)

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