A force for first-generation success
September 17, 2019
JT Addair was at a welcome reception in 2017 for students who were first in their family to attend college when a woman approached, warmly introduced herself as “Patty,” and asked him about his experience as a first-generation student at Virginia Tech. Addair responded candidly and, at times, critically. He didn’t catch her affiliation with the event or university.
The next thing Addair knew, he and several of his peers had been invited to Burruss Hall for a meeting with “Patty,” who he now understood was Patty Perillo, Virginia Tech’s vice president for student affairs.
Perillo, a first-generation graduate herself, wanted to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly: What was working well for the students? How could the university support them better? What did they need most?
From that meeting, an alliance formed that is establishing Virginia Tech as a more supportive place for future first-generation Hokies.
Perillo mobilized students, faculty, and staff across campus in a first-generation advisory committee that included Addair. Together, the committee members developed plans for a new position for a director of first-generation programs. Another first-generation graduate, Paula Robichaud ’77, stepped in with a gift to fund the position. And, after a national search, Charmaine Troy – first in her family to earn a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a doctorate – was named the university’s founding director of first-generation programs.
“It’s phenomenal to have them in our corner,” said Addair, now a senior, who is the cofounder and president of 1G@VT, a campus organization for first-generation students, and also serves as Troy’s student assistant for first-generation programs. “They were willing to go above and beyond to help us.”
The support system arrives at an ideal time for the growing numbers of incoming Hokies who are the first degree-seeking members of their families. President Tim Sands has called for 40 percent of Virginia Tech’s incoming class of 2022 to be made up of underrepresented and underserved students. Of this year’s freshman class, 36 percent are from underrepresented or underserved groups, including first-generation students, veterans, and low-income students – making it the most diverse group to date.
First-generation students like Addair will tell you that getting into college is the easy part. Once on campus, these students often face academic, financial, and cultural hurdles that threaten to derail their paths to graduation.
“I was completely clueless,” Addair said. “I didn’t know how to navigate a big university or how to access resources like financial aid and academic advising. I was struggling, and my grades were suffering. I was either going to fail out or drop out.”
According to a 2018 report from the Center for First-Generation Student Success, only 27 percent of all first-generation college students graduate within four years. At Virginia Tech, first-generation students graduate at more than twice that rate, with over 60 percent earning their degrees in four years, and more than 82 percent within six years. Still, those numbers lag behind graduation rates for students from college-going households.
The data also reveal that first-generation students are well worth the efforts required to retain them, thanks to their upward generational mobility and heightened sense of responsibility to family and community. A 2012 study in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that first-generation students were two-to-three times more likely than their continuing-generation peers to identify helping family, giving back to community, providing a better life for their children, and being a role model as primary goals in their educations.
That’s why Addair, Perillo, Robichaud, and Troy wear their first-generation status as both a badge of honor and a mantle of duty. It’s also why they teamed up to launch and lead a comprehensive system of first-generation Hokie support – one that starts long before students arrive on campus and continues throughout their college careers. The initiative calls for the ongoing development of resources and tools that contribute to first-generation success such as peer mentors, faculty and staff advisors, orientation programming, workshops, expanded outreach, spaces to gather and connect, and even a future living-learning program.
Addair is thrilled to see some of it coming to fruition before his graduation in 2020.
JT Addair: First-gen student leader
No one is more surprised than JT Addair himself that he’s made it this far.
Growing up in a low-income household in Rural Retreat, Virginia, he struggled to balance his studies with an unstable home life. After being admitted to the Southwest Virginia Governor’s School and connecting with Virginia Tech TRiO Program advisors, Addair learned about higher education – and began to see it as his salvation from the cycle of poverty.
Addair arrived at Virginia Tech in 2016, homeless, estranged from his family, and fretting over how he would pay for college.
“[Virginia Tech] was the first time I had structure in my life with a stable place to stay,” he said. “I felt relief and determination to make my life better than it was.”
Lacking guidance on how to apply for independent financial status, Addair took on a $1,000-a-month tuition payment plan. He enrolled in six classes his first semester, while working 40 to 50 hours a week at an area restaurant and in a work-study to pay the bills.
Addair’s grades faltered. He had no social life or support system. He showed up for his work-study in the TRiO program – which reaches out to pre-college first-generation and low-income students – but didn’t share his problems with people who were positioned to help him.
That’s when chemistry instructor Jeannine Eddleton asked Addair to come see her for a routine mid-semester check-in.
“She saw me struggling,” Addair said. “She asked if I needed help. That was the turning point.”
Eddleton became Addair’s first mentor – connecting him to campus resources like Cook Counseling Center and the Office of University Scholarships and Financial Aid and helping him plan out his academic future.
By the end of his second semester, everything had turned around. Addair found his niche as a public relations major. He had a network of advisors, friends, and a clearer path to graduation.
But Addair wanted to do more to help the other struggling students who were hidden in plain sight. At the encouragement of Sarah Umbarger-Wells, former assistant director of Virginia Tech’s TRiO Talent Search Program, Addair and several classmates founded 1G@VT, a campus organization for first-generation Hokies.
His work as an outspoken advocate and leader of the group soon attracted Perillo’s attention.
“It was abundantly clear that JT was leading the way around first-gen initiatives and claimed responsibility in a way the institution needed to,” Perillo said. “We both feel strongly that when you’re the first in anything, you have an obligation to bring others along. That became part of our connection.”
Perillo welcomed Addair and 1G@VT as partners. Since their initial meeting in 2017, Perillo has tapped Addair to serve on the first-generation advisory committee, employed him to develop first-gen outreach materials and workshops, and appointed him the first student assistant to Troy, director of first-generation programs.
In his role last year as president of 1G@VT, Addair saw the organization grow to approximately 100 student, staff, and faculty members. Student Affairs honored him with the Aspire! Award for Courageous Leadership, recognizing his advocacy on behalf of first-generation Hokies. Addair has enjoyed the work so much, he’s considering a career in Student Affairs.
“It’s been heartening to see so many faculty, staff, and administrators getting involved,” Addair said. “They are on the front lines of helping students. They’ve shown they really care.”
Paula Robichaud: First-gen alumna/advocate
Paula Robichaud believes that first-generation students are deserving recipients who may pay it forward in the spirit of Ut Prosim.
She’s living proof. As a first-generation student at Virginia Tech, Robichaud worked in the university’s dining centers and refereed intramural sports to help pay her tuition. She also developed a resilience characteristic to many first-generation students that enabled her to adapt and thrive.
After graduating in 1977, Robichaud worked her way from waitressing in Ocean City, Maryland, to Wall Street, first as an equity trader at T. Rowe Price, and then as an institutional sales trader and vice president of capital markets at Merrill Lynch. Later, while raising her family, she earned a master’s in counseling psychology and entered private practice as a licensed marriage and family therapist in California.
A longtime supporter of Virginia Tech, Robichaud has helped many students realize the dream of going to college through her support of the Presidential Scholarship Initiative and the Robichaud Family Scholarships.
Her gift to Student Affairs came at a critical time – making the first-generation initiative and hiring of its program director possible just in time for an influx of Hokies in need of that assistance.
“Because of this gift, every first-generation student will know that [Virginia Tech] is an institution that’s investing in them,” Perillo said. “She’s allowed us to formally start a program and hire leadership that will direct our efforts from here on out, taking us to places we never could have dreamed of before.”
For her embodiment of the Ut Prosim way of life, Robichaud received an Alumni Aspire! Award last year.
“I want to give back to the university that helped me find my place in the world,” Robichaud said. “I want to pay it forward by supporting Virginia Tech students who, in turn, will make opportunities possible for those who follow them. Everybody should have a chance at a good education, to see what they can do with it. Isn’t that the American dream? We are all in this together. It’s as simple as that.”
Patty Perillo: First-gen administrator
A bright middle child in a family of eight kids, Patty Perillo became the first in her family to attend college when she enrolled at the University of Delaware in 1986. Practically overnight, she went from being a big fish in a small pond to feeling like an alien in a mysterious universe.
“I can look back on many moments where I felt lost,” she said. “I was surprised by the enormity of the classes and having a teacher who didn’t know my name. I didn’t know the language. Everybody else seemed to know about bursars, registrars, and financial aid, or when it was time to drop/add. I didn’t even know such things existed.”
Those experiences inspired and still inform Perillo’s 30-year career as a collaborative and caring student affairs leader. She’s known for her propensity to engage students as partners and problem-solvers in the university – often approaching them in their territory, as she did with Addair at the student welcome reception.
“I want to ensure our students stay on the path that is rightfully theirs,” she said. “If we lose them along the way, we lose all that untapped potential of things they might discover and problems they might solve.”
Charmaine Troy: First-gen program director
Charmaine Troy is all about “firsts.” She was first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s and doctorate. For more than a decade, she’s dedicated her career to helping others proudly achieve “firsts” in higher education.
Troy arrived at Virginia Tech in August to tackle yet another “first.” As the inaugural director for first-generation student support, she’s guiding the effort to develop and implement the university-wide program promoting first-generation Hokie success. Troy has a long track record of helping underserved populations, having previously led programs at Georgia Gwinnett College and Morgan State University in Maryland.
“My motivation for promoting first-generation student success comes from my personal experience as an African American first-generation student,” she said. “When I arrived on campus my freshman year, I found it difficult to navigate the large number of campus resources and use them to enhance my college experience. I also didn’t know how to balance my academic goals, social life, and working off-campus. I owe my success at that time to faculty and staff who chose to mentor me. They introduced me to resources and experiences that would benefit my academic goals, gave me encouragement, and taught me how to effectively self-advocate. Over the years, I continue to pay it forward to other first-generation students through my work.”
Troy added, “I am very excited about my new position. I look forward to welcoming and advocating for our first-generation college students and collaborating with various departments to create the programming that will support them.”
Marya Barlow is a contributing writer for Virginia Tech Magazine.