Paying it Forward to Help Aspiring First Generation Professors Find their Path

Even the most talented students need nudges of confidence to pursue a Ph.D.

Howard Friedman (left), distinguished professor of psychology at UCR, was a mentor to alumna Gloria Luong (middle), who is now an assistant professor at Colorado State University. UCR alumna Carla Arredondo (right) is headed for Colorado State University for graduate work.

By Jeanette Marantos

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — It doesn’t take much to make waves in still water. Just a gentle touch can send ripples  — and repercussions — far beyond our view.

And so it goes at UC Riverside, where first-generation student Gloria Luong, the 2006 Outstanding Student in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Science, took a nervous plunge into graduate work, became a college professor, and now, 10 years later, is extending her hand to help Carla Arredondo, another first-generation UCR alumna, pursue a Ph.D. of her own.

Arredondo, a 2014 psychology graduate, will start her doctoral work in August at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where Luong is an assistant professor of human development and family studies. Arredondo’s interest in studying the stressors that affect Latino health dovetails beautifully with her new advisor’s overall research into how stress affects the health of people in different cultures.

“It’s exciting and scary,” Arredondo said. “There were so many things I didn’t know about going to graduate school.  My parents were immigrants from Mexico so they didn’t have any familiarity with education in the U.S., or what it means to get a Ph.D. They were always supportive of me getting a bachelor’s degree, but they’re still trying to understand the scope of what I’ll be doing in graduate school.”

Luong understands. Her parents were Vietnamese refugees who gave up their goals of going to college to support their family, she said. They always expected Luong to go far in college, but they couldn’t understand her decision to become a professor instead of a physician.

“They just saw medicine as the more practical choice, since we’ll always need medical doctors, but they weren’t sure we’ll need psychology professors,” she said.

Her parents support her choice now, but Luong said she well remembers how isolated and uncertain she felt about going to graduate school.

“It’s really embarrassing how clueless I was back then,” she said. “Carla is really well qualified; she’s a shining star. But being a first-generation student not knowing what you’re doing… I guess I empathize with her, because I know how being from a different background can make it more difficult for people to succeed.”

Both women credit their mentor, Howard Friedman, UCR’s distinguished professor of psychology, for giving them the skills and confidence they needed to consider graduate school. In fact, it was Friedman who brought the two together when Luong called him looking for a talented researcher.

Friedman said he immediately thought of Arredondo. “Her mother is a janitor and her father is a landscaper, yet Carla thrives at the top academic ranks,” he said. “At first, she was terrified of even thinking about graduate school … so she smartly took her time, talked to lots of people (including me) and came to understand that she really is a natural scholar who can put her talents and abilities to optimal use.”

One thing worried Arredondo — her GRE standardized test scores for graduate school admission weren’t as high as she hoped.  But Luong advocated for her at Colorado State, she said, and convinced the admissions committee to bring her on board.

Luong downplayed her role, saying Arredondo’s strong resume (including sterling grades at UCR) and excellent research ideas made the difference.

“She was already a top candidate. I just made it clear to the admissions committee that I wanted her on board,” Luong said. “I didn’t want all the qualifications she exhibited to be overshadowed by one low score. And I reminded them that GRE scores are not super predictive of how people do in graduate school….my own GREs weren’t something I would publish or advertise.”

Still, Luong said, “The way Carla is talking about me is how I feel about Howard (Friedman),” Luong said. “I had a vague notion I wanted to be a professor, but no idea what the tangible steps were to attain that goal. He said, ‘You have to do research, but it would also be really great if you minored in statistics,’ and that minor has been invaluable in my career. Those skills I started honing as an undergraduate I would not have had without his guidance. He really went above and beyond what any faculty ever needs to do.”

But Friedman says mentoring and encouraging students like Luong and Arredondo is  paying it forward. “My greatest satisfaction as a professor is working with these talented undergraduates.  You can’t do it on a large scale, but you can find the best. It’s about giving them opportunities and showing them that somebody cares. And then they can pass it along to somebody else….”

The same way people helped him almost 50 years ago, he said, when he was the clueless student, the grandson of four Eastern European immigrants, and parents who had very limited experience with higher education. He was doing well in high school, but had no idea where his talents could take him until someone recommended that he apply to Yale, a school he’d never considered. That direction, he believes, changed the course of his life.

“I always figured I’d go to college, but to think I would become an intellectual leader and have the title of Distinguished Professor….I never even expected to be a professor,” Friedman said. “Even when I was in graduate school (at Harvard), it was always other people pointing the way and helping me understand what was really possible. This is the way higher education works at its best and is something I love about UCR.”

Arredondo has already gotten that message. In August, she’ll join the ranks of graduate researchers, but until then, she’s continuing the pay-it-forward tradition through her job at UCR’s Early Academic Outreach Program, helping talented students at high schools throughout Riverside County find their own path to college.

A similar program opened her eyes to UCR when she was a high school sophomore in tiny Banning, California. “I always had a natural drive to excel, but before I joined the Upward Bound program, I had absolutely no idea how to apply for college. I just assumed college was a natural step after graduation; I had no idea about everything you had to do in high school to get into college,” Arredondo said.

“This work I’m doing now (through UCR) has everything to do with my experience. I’m hoping I can catch a student like myself, who doesn’t think she needs support, or can’t see the benefits of looking ahead. It’s about giving back, because you know there are things that can be done to help more students succeed.”

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