First-generation students find a home at Creighton

Mar 23, 2021 By Micah Mertes

Of Creighton’s Class of 2024, 14% of students are the first in their families to go to college. Raising that number is among Creighton's top priorities.

Featured Testimonial About Creighton University

First-generation students at Creighton

It's been great to have so many options to utilize as a first-generation student. If I'm really going through a tough time, I'll know where to find someone I can trust and rely on.

Jacob Idra
Jacob Idra Business student

Creighton was recently recognized nationally for its commitment to improving experiences and outcomes for first-generation students. Learn more about the resources and support Creighton provides.

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Finding a home

Creighton student Angelina Manasan's liver failed before her first birthday, and every year since has been a fight for the life she wants to lead. 

Marla and Angelina Manasan
Marla and Angelina Manasan

Her mother, Marla Manasan, gave her half her own liver when a match couldn't be found. This saved Angelina's life but left her with an autoimmune disease. 

Ever since, she's been in and out of hospitals. And for every doctor's appointment and surgery, for every infusion and feeding tube, her mother's been by her side. 

So, moving from San Diego to Omaha for college — 1,600 miles away from the literal life-support system of her mother — was no easy decision for Angelina, now a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences.

As a woman of color with a health condition and raised by a single mother (who didn't go to college herself), Angelina's odds of attaining a degree were stacked against her. It was vital to find the right school.

"First off, I needed to find a school that was close to a hospital," she says. "I needed to find a school that would be supportive of me and my condition because I'm guaranteed to miss some class time; it's inevitable."

She fell in love with Creighton, in part, because even before she was a student, people at the University were telling her how they could best support.

Her freshman year, donor-funded scholarships helped her pay for tuition and fees. Almost immediately, she was in touch with Creighton's Disability Services office and TRiO Student Support Services. They've been there for Angelina every time she’s needed help. When Angelina had surgery last May, the SSS team talked to her teachers for her and got her all the resources she needed. 

Every one of her professors has been accommodating and empathetic, Angelina says. Everyone has supported her "not just as a student but as a whole person." 

It's not just a slogan, she says. It's real. 

"At Creighton, it goes beyond school and academics. I've been afforded an opportunity not only to go to a great college. I've joined a community. I've found a home."

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When it comes to first-generation Creighton students, Angelina's story is among the ideal — a student from an underrepresented background finding a support system that helps her thrive academically and become part of a community. 

That support system includes scholarships and a network of student services and organizations. It includes a community of faculty, staff and alumni committed to meeting the everyday needs of each and every student throughout their Creighton journey.

Of Creighton’s Class of 2024, 14% of students are the first in their families to go to college. Raising that number is among Creighton's top priorities. 

“Creighton University is devoted to the success of first-generation students," says Mardell Wilson, EdD, Creighton provost. "And our innovative programming has provided a welcoming and supportive environment.”

In fact, because of its many programs designed to ensure the success of first-generation students, Creighton was recently awarded the designation of First-gen Forward by the Center for First-generation Student Success, an initiative of NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and The Suder Foundation.

As a First-gen Forward institution, Creighton faculty and staff will have new opportunities to engage with peer institutions also committed to creating more inclusive environments for first-generation students. 

Ideally, the effect of this commitment will be cumulative and self-reinforcing. Creating more opportunities for students from underrepresented walks of life leads to a more diverse campus, ethnically and socioeconomically.

More diversity generates more diversity, creating a richer variety of experiences and an even more welcoming campus. A home.

"Creighton’s recognition as a First-gen Forward institution illustrates the University’s commitment to ensuring that first-generation students are recognized for the ways they enrich our campus," says Krystal Rice, director of TRiO Student Support Services. 

"SSS is just one place that supports first-generation students at Creighton. Across campus, we will continue to build programming that lifts these students' voices and equips campus partners with the resources they need."

We spoke with a handful of first-generation Creighton students about their experiences, the challenges they've faced and the support they've received. 

Their stories underline an important idea to keep in mind — 

It's not just what Creighton can bring to first-generation students. It's what first-generation students can bring to Creighton. 

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Jacob Idra

Jacob Idra

Heider College of Business, Class of 2022
Omaha, Nebraska

Jacob was born in the South Sudan and raised in North Omaha. 

Now, he says, it's his life mission to serve the next generation of children in each of his homes. 

In 2018, Jacob founded the Omaha-based nonprofit ROSS Leaders, which aims to unify the South Sudanese and Greater African community through programs dedicated to education, health and cultural awareness. He's also an advocate for educational opportunities, writing editorials and testifying before the Nebraska Legislature on the topic.

What’s your Creighton experience been like?

Academically, it's been everything I would want and more. I've been challenged in the classroom. I've had great professors who I've been able to engage with.

Socially, to be honest, it's been a challenge. I'm a Black student in a predominantly white institution, and that can be hard, especially in these times.

But I have been able to find communities within the broader Creighton community that have been accepting of me. Overall, it's been a good experience. I'm blessed to receive the support I've received, to be a part of this community. 

Even within the challenges at Creighton, I see opportunities to get better as a community.

What services have helped you as a first-generation student?

I love Student Support Services. It's been so great for me. It's helped me stay organized and build good habits when my plate gets full. My advisors in the Fr. Markoe, SJ Leadership Program have also been so supportive. 

It's been great to have all those options to utilize as a first-generation student. If I'm really going through a tough time, I'll know where to find someone I can trust and rely on.

How has Creighton helped you give back to your communities?

I was part of the Creighton University President’s Scholars (CUPS) program, which mentors and tutors students in North Omaha. In CUPS, I was able to hold a leadership position that taught me how to coordinate a team while running a successful community program.  

I’ve enjoyed the community outreach efforts at Creighton. Being a part of outreach programs around campus has connected me to some great people who are actively living out our Jesuit values. 

Everything I'm learning and experiencing at Creighton, it's all going to go back into supporting my communities. 

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Alison Sundrup

Alison Sundrup

Heider College of Business, Class of 2023
Aurora, Colorado

Alison was adopted from China and raised by a single mother. It means everything to her mom that she's getting a great education.

"She's worked two jobs pretty much my whole life to support my sister and me and ensure that we get a good education," Alison says of her mother. "She's made many sacrifices in order for me to be at Creighton.

“I want to make her proud, and I want to support others the way others have supported me.”

How has Creighton supported you as a first-generation student?

Scholarship opportunities have helped significantly. And on campus, Student Support Services (SSS) is great. They have workshops explaining FAFSA and the extra assistance students can get. They offer progress meetings to help you keep up your GPA. You can always find someone to help you there.

It's not just SSS. It's the whole community. Everyone is very supportive at Creighton, but they also don't treat you like you're someone at a disadvantage because you're first-generation.

That's what the Creighton tour guides say to prospective students: “It's the people that set Creighton apart.” It's true.

What’s your experience here been like so far?

While we're getting a great education, we're also learning how to better the world. I really love the emphasis on community service at Creighton because it reminds us all that we were called by God to help others and spread love.

As a first-generation student, I always strive to be better, because I know so many other people haven’t had the chance to go to college. I pray that in the future I can also give back to students wishing to better their lives.  

How have you been able to give back at Creighton? 

My freshman year I volunteered with Completely Kids through the Schlegel Center for Service and Justice’s 402 service program. Once a week, we would go to Jackson Elementary and help tutor children after school. That experience was so fun, and it opened my eyes to the barriers that children face in schools when their first language isn't English. 

I also served on the Welcome Week team and was able to celebrate the freshmen joining us this year. I love mentoring. It always makes me happy when I make someone's transition to college a little easier or even just when I'm able to offer my friendship.   

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Celina Prince

Celina Prince, MS’16

School of Dentistry, Class of 2021
Ortonville, Michigan  

Celina felt out of place when she came to Creighton. A farm girl from Michigan whose parents didn’t go to college, she was a rarity in her dental class.

“Because I worked on farms my whole life, when I started in the dental clinic, I was like, ‘What is professional?’ I wasn’t raised by professionals. I wasn’t around them 24-7. I felt like I didn’t know how to act.”

She’d get a patient who reminded her of home, and she couldn’t help but be really friendly and familiar. She’d joke around.

At first, she worried that maybe she wasn’t being formal or respectful enough for professional life. But along the way she’s realized that her realness, her openness, her good humor are actually assets. And her classmates and professors have embraced her for it.

“When the clinic gets a new patient who has a high level of anxiety and dental fear,” she says, “they almost always send them to me.”

Her personality (and in some cases lack of formality) puts people at ease. For underserved patients, she’s not afraid to relate her own experiences. And she’s all the better dentist for it.

This realization has shaped her career plans. One day, she hopes to own her own practice and create “a sanctuary” for patients with high dental anxiety.

Why did you want to go into dentistry?

I grew up in one of those rural areas that deals with a lot of substance abuse. And that influenced me to want to go into some kind of health care, so I could help the people I know.

How has Creighton supported you as a first-generation student?

Honestly, in dental school, I’ve been too busy to benefit from a lot of the services that some of my friends did when they were Creighton undergrads. I’ve just been too busy.

But it’s a really supportive community, and my professors are so accessible, and a few have been a huge influence on me. The overall environment in the clinic is so much fun and fast-paced and challenging and enriching.

And the support I’ve received from scholarships just reveals that sense of community at Creighton. Knowing that someone is looking out for you is really impactful and rewarding.

What will you miss most about Creighton?

I’ll miss the community. As a first-generation student from a small, rural town, I’ve had a profound experience being surrounded by such brilliant and ambitious people.

I firmly believe that you are the summation of the five people closest to you. Being at Creighton has allowed me to find truly inspiring friends who I hope will be a big influence in my life for years to come.       

It's definitely surreal that dental school is almost over. It hasn't set in. All of us students are kind of looking at each other and saying, “Wait, we’re supposed to leave?”

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Diana Rojas-Chavez

Diana Rojas-Chavez

School of Pharmacy and Health Professions, Class of 2023
From San Diego, now living in Fort Bragg, North Carolina

Somewhere along the way, through all her struggles, Diana says, “I found a fight in me that wouldn’t give up until I had the title of ‘PharmD’ after my name.”

Diana is a pharmacy Distance Pathway student with two children and a husband in the U.S. Army who can be stationed halfway across the world at a moment’s notice. She also works from home offering medication therapy management, primarily for geriatric patients.

For pharmacy school, she needed a program and a community that was flexible to the needs of a military family and a working mother. She says she’s found that (and so much more) at Creighton.

What’s your Creighton experience been like?

Even just having this program was a blessing because it allowed me to continue my education without having to sacrifice the things most important to me.

Creighton definitely facilitates my learning. Not only because it’s given me the opportunity to learn through the science and classroom material. Creighton also offers a lot of opportunities for professional development and self-care. And those things are just as important to being a well-rounded health care professional.

What are some ways Creighton has supported you as a first-generation student?

I had some issues last semester — I was alone with my children, my husband was stationed across the country, and my mother was in critical condition with COVID. (Diana’s mother was in the ICU for nearly a month but has since recovered. Diana also got very sick with COVID while taking care of her mother before she was hospitalized.)

I just reached out to Creighton for help. I contacted the educational department. I called my advisors. I spoke with the chaplain. I met with a group of Creighton students who are military spouses. They all helped me so much. They took care of me not just as a student, but a person.

And honestly, I rocked that semester. I got a 4.0 last year. And it’s because I had people around me, someone I could reach out to when I wasn’t OK. Every time, every person I contacted, they were like, “Here’s my number. Text me or call me whenever you need.”

That goes way beyond what you we learn in a book, you know? That’s something more.

I think the way they took care of me was not specific to me being a first-generation student, but just being part of the Creighton family.

There are both systemic and psychological barriers for first-generation students. Can you describe some you’ve seen in your own experience?

In researching pharmacy schools and looking at the Creighton demographics, or just even in my own pharmacy cohort, the number of Hispanic/Latinx students is small. But I knew Creighton was the best option for me, and the demographics were not going to stop me as I have already come a long way.

But I would like to see more first-generation students like me at Creighton. Offering scholarships and programs creates opportunities that many first-generation students may have not even thought possible. And it brings diversity to Creighton.

I remember thinking even as a child, “I can't afford college. We can’t even afford rent next month.”

Now, I do STEM outreach for elementary students in underserved areas. And I’ll have second-graders talking finances to me — “My mom says college is too much money.”

That’s already our frame of mind as children, and that’s so difficult to overcome.

When I go back to where I grew up, I share my experience with children who, like me, didn’t believe college was possible. I say, “We go to college, too. We get degrees, too. We get scholarships, too.”

What have scholarships meant to you?

I don’t think I’d be at Creighton without the help of scholarships. People who support my scholarships or the programs helping students like me, their impact goes way beyond me. It’s something greater. It’s a ripple effect.

When we take our success back to our communities, back to our roots, to show the upcoming first generations students that it can be done, it creates this long-lasting effect in those communities. 

When I can go to a great college like Creighton, I can show another generation of students, “Hey, that person looks like me, and they went to college. I can do this, too.”

People who are helping even just one first-generation student get their degree are helping more people than they’ll ever know.

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Learn more about the resources and support Creighton provides to first-generation students.