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First In The Family

November 15, 2013

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When Elmer Catalan was 11, he loved going to work with his dad at the family’s landscaping business. It was all he ever saw himself doing. His parents, however, had other plans. Catalan’s mother and father immigrated to the United States from Mexico before he was born. Here, they realized the possibility to build a greater future for their children.

Like one-third of college students, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Catalan is a first-generation student. The sophomore business major sees his education at TLU as the chance of a lifetime.

“My parent’s highest level of education was middle school,” Catalan, 19, said. “I saw how hard they had to work in manual labor jobs because they had no other options. They always told me how important it was to get an education so that I could have more choices. My plan was to just go to community college, but one day, my high school advisor told me about TLU.”

Soon after, Catalan and his father visited the campus. He was drawn to the atmosphere and TLU’s ability to provide individual attention to students. Now in his second year, Catalan sees the closeness of his professors and the opportunity he has to communicate with them.

“Here, professors aren’t just teaching subjects,” Catalan said. “They’re getting to know their students. They’re always willing to help and connect us. I love that TLU is a liberal arts university and you can start conversations about little things you found out about in a class that might not have anything to do with your major. You can relate to others this way and that’s really important.”

After being at TLU and talking with other first-generation students, Catalan said he has met people from all walks of life who are first-generation students and have their own story. Judy Hoffmann, associate professor of geography, shares her experience as both a TLU alumna and first-generation student.

“First, I always want to let my first-gen students know it’s all going to be OK,” Hoffmann said. “Most of them have thought about life without a college education and their desire and self discipline is fueled by that. For them, and for me, a college degree was a ticket out. It was a chance to transform myself. It’s powerful.”

For Hoffmann, her bachelor’s degree, which led to a master’s and eventually a Ph.D., broke the cycle she said. Growing up on Jefferson Street, just minutes from the TLU campus, she never dreamed she would one day be teaching college students.

“I could not even imagine my life today,” Hoffmann said. “TLU opened that door for me. First-generation students tend to be intimidated by college. I can see it and sense it. They want an education so badly, but they might fear being unable to answer questions or seek them out. I can identify and share my story to hopefully help them once again realize it will all work out for them.”

While Catalan understands the feelings of intimidation and the unknown, his main motivation to be an example for his younger siblings is what truly drives him.

“There is definitely fear and pressure to succeed as a first-generation student; but you have to remember how important education is,” Catalan said. “I want to be an inspiration, but I also want to work hard and get a degree so I can one day give my family a better life and show my younger siblings they can too.”

TLU Firsts

For many first-generation college students, the journey at TLU can be full of questions for students and their families. The TLU Firsts program, launched in fall 2012, is specifically geared toward helping this group of students adjust to university life. By providing support in areas like financial aid, registration and student life, TLU Firsts help first-generation students and their families feel at home on campus. For more information about TLU Firsts, contact Malikah Harvey, director of first year and campus programs at

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