Alumni Spotlight: Sabrina Chmelir C’19, Research Assistant at NORC at the University of Chicago

Sabrina was born on a military base in Germany and grew up in New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Washington State before coming to NJ. She applied to Drew as a transfer student and liked that Drew was a small liberal arts college that provided an opportunity to develop close relationships to faculty and the availability of one-on-one support.  She asked Admissions if she could speak to someone at Drew and had an opportunity to speak to someone at “WOCO: A Feminist House”. She said, “I was looking for a sense of community and a way to engage with those campus communities and I liked that Drew was attentive to my questions and needs, as opposed to bigger schools where you couldn’t get through.” Sabrina majored in Sociology and minored in International Relations because of an interest in social structures.

Can you tell me what inspired you to create the DrewFirst Club?

I realized I had a lot of challenges when I started Drew as I was balancing work (2 jobs/30 to 40 hours a week) and classes.  I knew that my experience was different than a lot of my peers.  I noticed that though some low income students had access to some resources, many did not.  I never knew what questions to ask until I made mistakes, i.e. not turning in an assignment on time because I didn’t know how to, or not being able to afford a text book and never telling anyone.  I didn’t have institutional knowledge from family members since I was the first in my family to go to college. I had conversations with other first-generation students who were often doing the same thing, such as procrastinating, skipping class because they were so tired from working until 2 a.m., or they had to send money back home.  It was an awkward situation where they felt they couldn’t tell their professors.  It’s hard to understand these challenges unless you go through it personally.  These are class issues that I think some people in academia are often far removed from.  I started to learn about resources like the writing center for tutoring, etc. and started telling friends where to go for help, and told them to document it so they can inform their professor or I’d advise them to go to the Dean’s office if they were having difficulties, etc. I became a resource for my peers.  I applied to the Semester on Social Entrepreneurship nycREC and there was a cap for applications.  I was just below the grade cutoff  and they originally rejected my application. I thought it was unfair with my understanding of social entrepreneurship so I asked to meet with Prof. Olmsted to talk about it.  I asked her to look at my track record and see how I’ve improved academically from the first year.  I told her I was working a lot outside of classes and talked to her about how so many first-generation students have so many outside social factors that impact their success at school.  I also explained social entrepreneurship could help in solving those complex issues through unique solutions.  I said I was already a social entrepreneur since I had started this initiative and this was my attempt at solving some of these challenges.  Prof. Olmsted understood and accepted me into the Semester.

I did create the DrewFIRST club initially but soon I realized that I didn’t want to create a first-generation “club” I wanted it institutionalized.  I gathered data from other colleges and I saw that we were behind other schools. The E.O.S. was great but I felt there was a gap in their services since it only assisted first-gen students from NJ and a lot of first-gen students were coming from other states and countries.  I was trying to build a coalition for first-gens, but it was hard to manage because of some of the push back. Clubs can get funding through student government but I didn’t want to go ad hoc every year for an institutional problem.  I wanted to educate faculty and staff on the first-gen experience so they would know how to ask questions in advisor meetings that deal with sensitive topics including being mindful about family situations, the inability to pay for books, etc.  All professors should keep their required books at the library for those who can’t afford to buy them. These are things that are inclusive.  You have to think about the complexities of a student’s situation. I wanted retention numbers for first-gen students but there were confidentiality issues. But again, I also needed the support I was building and realized doing it alone was unsustainable. First-gen initiatives can’t be sustained over time when students lead it.

Based on your experience what do you think are the three biggest challenges for first-generation students?

First, identifying your needs to understand the type of support you need. Second, is getting the support you need.  For instance, if students are behind in all of their classes, where do they turn? There is academic advising that help with study skills and overall course work. I knew it was there but I didn’t know how much help it would be with all of my other courses.  Third is sustainability efforts by the institution itself, and what students can do for when working towards long term institutional change. Overall, people are supportive but if there is not a peer program established within the institution, i.e., with one person doing program activities and leading it that is not a student, then it is not sustainable. First generation college students face systemic issues. If higher institutions of learning are keen on displaying their “diversity,” offer diverse methods of support to support your financially diverse school population. Lastly, sustainability for people doing this work it also means self-care, it’s important to understand how you can serve yourself before you serve others!

You are currently working as a Research Assistant at NORC at the University of Chicago. Can you talk about your work? 

NORC at the University of Chicago is an independent research organization. We have expertise in survey research – GSS, the first nationally representative longitudinal study was founded here (fun fact I used this data in my Methodology course—Thanks Professor Andrews!). I work in the Public Health Research Department – where most of my work is supporting research and program evaluation.

What do you think is the key to your success in your field or in general?

I’m very critical. Being open about it how critical you are this is a key factor. In my interview for my present job they asked how sociology relates to public health?  I responded that sociology founded public health. Sometime people are afraid to speak up for the things that are important to them or their community. I’m not afraid of repercussions or consequences from being openly critical because I have nothing to lose—I am the first to graduate college or be in this position in life.

What advice would you give first-generation students who are just starting at Drew?

Talk to your professors and develop strong relationships with them and do your work!

 

 

 

 

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