UCR’s First Generation Faculty Talk About Their Academic Journey

Vice Chancellor Michael Pazzani, Costo professor for American Indian affairs Clifford Trafzer and lecturer Kawai Tam talk about being their college experiences and how it made the difference

Last year, 59 percent of the University of California, Riverside’s incoming freshmen were the first in their family to go to college. In UCR Magazine’s Fall 2012 issue (which you can read in print or on the iPad), we share the lives of these first-timers. What challenges do they face, and what is UC Riverside doing to help them through their academic journey? We also talk to faculty members whose lives wouldn’t have been the same without higher education. Here are their stories.

Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development, Michael Pazzani Photo by Carlos Puma

“My mother always stressed the importance of education. I remember her saying,‘I’m as smart as those lawyers, they just have more education.’”

Michael Pazzani, vice chancellor for research and economic development

My maternal grandmother was an orphan who came to the United States from Italy at age 18.  My mother, the youngest daughter in a family of 11 children, learned to type in high school and became a legal secretary.  My father, the son of Italian immigrants, was a milkman and then a fireman. (Yes, my childhood pet was a Dalmatian.)

From my father, I learned the value of hard work.  My mother always stressed the importance of education. I remember her saying, “I’m as smart as those lawyers, they just have more education.”

Like two of my siblings, I attended the University of Connecticut for my undergraduate work.  After graduating with a degree in computer science, I got married, had two children and worked outside of Route 128 in the Boston area, the 1980s hotbed of computing.  After attending a few conferences, I decided that it was better to be a speaker than an attendee and enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the University of California, Los Angeles.

My education, coupled with hard work, enabled me to become a programmer, a professor, a founder of a start-up company, a funder at the National Science Foundation and now a vice chancellor.

If I had to change anything about my upbringing, I wish my parents had taught me to speak Italian.  Today, speaking another language is viewed as an asset, but in their generation, it was perceived as a liability.

I also wish someone had told me about the finances of graduate school.  I had no idea when I was an undergraduate that most Ph.D. students were offered fellowships, teaching or research assistantship to pay for graduate school.

Now, I encourage faculty to talk with freshmen about graduate school so they can make informed decisions about their advanced degrees.


Kawai Tam, lecturer at the Bourns College of Engineering Photo by Michael Elderman

“[My parents’] dream became our dream. …[They] ingrained in us that education was the pathway to a better life.”

Kawai Tam, lecturer, Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering

Higher education in Hong Kong was limited to the elite and the wealthy. None of my relatives in Hong Kong could afford university. However, my parents had a dream that their children would have this opportunity. With courage and determination, they left behind everything that they knew to immigrate to Montreal, Quebec, Canada with their three young children in tow. They overcame having to learn French and integrating in a foreign environment; working long hours at factory and restaurant jobs to make the dream come true for their children so that they would know a better life.

Their dream became our dream and my parents did their best to prepare us. I recall when I was five years old, my Dad made a sheet of the multiplication tables and we would recite them in Chinese and commit them to memory. My parents ingrained in us that education was the pathway to a better life.

And so my oldest brother studied electrical engineering and my second oldest brother studied mechanical engineering. When my turn came, I decided to follow in their footsteps but specialize in chemical engineering. I thought that engineering and science were cool, but I also knew that it would be a challenge because it is a male-dominated field. My parents instilled in us that with hard work, one could accomplish anything to which we set our minds. Thus, my parents’ dream was accomplished; all four children (including my younger brother) are university graduates.

However, my dream did not stop at a bachelor’s degree. I was given the sage advice to stay in school for as long as possible when I graduated during an economic recession. I guess I took this advice literally; it led to my pursuit of  a master’s and doctorate degrees. Today I am still in school doing the teaching! It was not easy being the first in my generation to pursue a graduate degree, but I had outstanding mentors, including my then-future husband. Without my parents’ foresight and sacrifice, there would not be a “Dr. Tam” in our family. Today, it is my privilege to mentor others, many of whom are the first in their generation to attend college to achieve their dreams.


Clifford Trafzer, Costo professor of American Indian affairs Photo by Gabe Acosta

“I have always wanted to succeed for my family as well as myself, a way of saying thank you for the opportunities I received and they never had.”

Clifford Trafzer, Costo professor of American Indian affairs

“I am the first in my family to graduate from college,” Trafzer says. Both his parents graduated from only eighth grade during World War II, after which his father ran off to join the navy.  After the war, Trafzer’s father started Mesa Upholstery as a family business.  “I grew up in the upholstery shop ‘spitting tacks’ before the age of staples. My mom did the books,” Trafzer said.

When he graduated from high school in 1967, Trafzer received a scholarship to attend the local community college, Arizona Western College (AWC).  Then he received an Economic Opportunity Grant and National Defense Loan from National Arizona University.

“One afternoon after work, my dad and I drove seven hours to Flagstaff to find out the meaning of the financial aid.  We camped on the way up, sleeping beside the Verde River south of Flagstaff.”  On the way home, Trafzer became fearful of going to a university and told his father he should go to AWC instead. His father’s response? “I don’t know much about colleges but I think a university will be better than a junior college.  I think you should go to the university.”

Trafzer said, “He had not gone to high school but he knew the value of education.”

Trafzer’s maternal grandfather, who was Indian and had a fourth-grade education, felt the same way. One day in 1961after a storm, Trafzer’s grandfather asked him to take a ride in his blue Ford Falcon. “He drove me to the U of Arizona and down a road on campus that loops up to and past Old Main.  He parked and we got out.  He said, ‘When you get older, I want you to go to college.  I think you would make a good lawyer.’  This surprised me as we had never talked about higher education.”

Although Trafzer’s family did not go to college, these two events touched him deeply. “It affected my decision to go to college and to do as well as I possibly could,” Trafzer said. “I have always wanted to succeed for my family as well as myself, a way of saying thank you for the opportunities I received and they never had.”



Media Contact

Tel: (951) 827-2645
E-mail: lille.bose@ucr.edu

Related Links

Archived under: Inside UCR, , , ,

Top of Page