"Be that squeaky wheel and get your questions answered"

Introducing Matt

Hi Matt, can you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and your first-gen background?   I've lived in St. Louis my whole life. I grew up in Jefferson County which is a more rural suburb of St. Louis. My parents got divorced when I was about two—my mom didn’t graduate high school, my dad finished high school and went straight into the military. Neither of my parents had a full understanding of what college is really like. It was a unique journey for me in that the kids I grew up with, the people I knew, my extended family—none of them expected or encouraged me to go to college.  When I started making plans, my parents were excited and supportive, but because of our very limited financial resources, they were understandably skeptical. They didn’t really understand how tuition would work, how financial aid was awarded, none of that was familiar to them. Plus, my original plan was to go to school and pursue a bachelor of fine arts in acting, which was probably terrifying to them. A lot of it was just stumbling through it and trying to get information from people who’d gone through the process before.   Why were you set on going to college, despite the lack on emphasis on higher education?   My dad died when I was thirteen, but we were very close when I was young. Every weekend I was with him we would go and watch a movie. The movies we saw exposed me to a whole different world than what was around me.  I remember watching    Dead Poets Society   , a film about a college preparatory school, and it blew me away. Then, around middle school or high school, I watched    Higher Learning    which is a very intense movie about race-relations and diversity in college and university life.  These films made me fall in love with the idea of being on a college campus, studying on the quad, being in the library. It was a very romantic obsession of mine. College seemed to enable you to learn all these different things and choose what you wanted to spend time on.  I knew from a very early age, maybe since 7th or 8th grade, that I wanted to go to college—the question was how I would get there and how I would pay for it.   You mentioned that the idea of going to college and getting to spend time studying and reading really appealed to you—were you an avid reader growing up?   Not really actually, at least not until high school. My mom, is one of the most intelligent people I know and she read constantly. I stumbled into reading my junior or senior year of high school. I remember reading a   Brave New World   and being so drawn by it. I proceeded to devour dystopian novels and then moved on to other novels and plays and eventually to nonfiction, by which point I’d developed a strong love for reading. This discovery incentivized me even more to pursue a college education because I saw that as a place where the topics I read so much about could be discussed and debated.   Is there anything you would change about the way you approached your college journey?   I would go back and take more rigorous courses in high school. My senior year I coasted through and took a lot of electives because I didn’t really know that I could transfer credits if I took more advanced classes. I could’ve saved a lot of money and time by doing that.  I also would’ve looked at a broader range of colleges. I ended up going to the   University of Missouri   because it was close by and cheap and I knew that it would be challenging, but I never dreamed of applying to a “reach school”.

Hi Matt, can you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and your first-gen background?

I've lived in St. Louis my whole life. I grew up in Jefferson County which is a more rural suburb of St. Louis. My parents got divorced when I was about two—my mom didn’t graduate high school, my dad finished high school and went straight into the military. Neither of my parents had a full understanding of what college is really like. It was a unique journey for me in that the kids I grew up with, the people I knew, my extended family—none of them expected or encouraged me to go to college.

When I started making plans, my parents were excited and supportive, but because of our very limited financial resources, they were understandably skeptical. They didn’t really understand how tuition would work, how financial aid was awarded, none of that was familiar to them. Plus, my original plan was to go to school and pursue a bachelor of fine arts in acting, which was probably terrifying to them. A lot of it was just stumbling through it and trying to get information from people who’d gone through the process before.

Why were you set on going to college, despite the lack on emphasis on higher education?

My dad died when I was thirteen, but we were very close when I was young. Every weekend I was with him we would go and watch a movie. The movies we saw exposed me to a whole different world than what was around me.

I remember watching Dead Poets Society, a film about a college preparatory school, and it blew me away. Then, around middle school or high school, I watched Higher Learning which is a very intense movie about race-relations and diversity in college and university life.  These films made me fall in love with the idea of being on a college campus, studying on the quad, being in the library. It was a very romantic obsession of mine. College seemed to enable you to learn all these different things and choose what you wanted to spend time on.

I knew from a very early age, maybe since 7th or 8th grade, that I wanted to go to college—the question was how I would get there and how I would pay for it.

You mentioned that the idea of going to college and getting to spend time studying and reading really appealed to you—were you an avid reader growing up?

Not really actually, at least not until high school. My mom, is one of the most intelligent people I know and she read constantly. I stumbled into reading my junior or senior year of high school. I remember reading a Brave New World and being so drawn by it. I proceeded to devour dystopian novels and then moved on to other novels and plays and eventually to nonfiction, by which point I’d developed a strong love for reading. This discovery incentivized me even more to pursue a college education because I saw that as a place where the topics I read so much about could be discussed and debated.

Is there anything you would change about the way you approached your college journey?

I would go back and take more rigorous courses in high school. My senior year I coasted through and took a lot of electives because I didn’t really know that I could transfer credits if I took more advanced classes. I could’ve saved a lot of money and time by doing that.

I also would’ve looked at a broader range of colleges. I ended up going to the University of Missouri because it was close by and cheap and I knew that it would be challenging, but I never dreamed of applying to a “reach school”.

Matt is a huge fan of film, a passion influenced by his father.    Once you got to college, what did you focus on and what led you to do that?   I gave up my acting dream, and once I realized that I loved reading and was a strong writer, I chose English as my major. A little bit later, I added a double major of communications to develop a more differentiated skillset. I figured this would make me more marketable and allow me to find a job after college, even though at the time I had no idea what that would be.   What did you do after graduation?   I graduated in 2005 and kind of bounced around after graduation until I discovered higher education as a career option. In college, I wasn’t really involved on campus for the first two years. I spent that time trying to stay afloat and manage all the tuition bills that were coming my way, so I didn't necessarily explore viable career options through clubs or extracurriculars. I began to be more active on campus my junior year.  My first job out of  college was working in an advertisement/PR agency. That job really wasn’t for me and I didn’t enjoy the work and so I quit and worked for a short time at Barnes and Noble , which was in part driven by my love for books. I then went through a period where I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, I knew that I didn’t enjoy advertisement and I didn’t want to do retail long-term. I did a lot of reflecting and thought about how much I enjoyed my college experience and how much I had worked to get there and get through it and I thought maybe working at a college or university would be a good fit for me.  I reached out to some people I knew who had taken that direction and that’s when I realized that higher education, as a career, was a good fit for me. I got my first job at a proprietary two-year institution working in financial aid which got my foot in the door. I then moved on to the University of Missouri, St. Louis and worked at their financial aid office and now I’m at   Washington University at the school of Social Work  . So in that way it’s been a gradual progression.  After working at the University of Missouri, St. Louis for a few years I decided to start my master’s of education in higher education administration when I realized this is definitely the career for me. I got my master’s at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.   I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier. You talked about not being really involved in campus activities for the couple of years you were in college. Was that a conscious decision that you made?   It’s something that just kind of happened. This is something that is actually written a lot about in the literature surrounding first-gen students and something that I hear a lot from the students I work with. It just takes a long time to figure it out. Financially, I floundered in a lot of ways. It was hard for me to make sense of the monetary aspect surrounding my education and, at the time, the resources available weren’t the most accessible or transparent which led to a lot of confusion on my part. I was mostly trying to figure out finances and how to even pay my bill and looking back, it’s very obvious what happened, but at the time, I didn’t know what was going on and my parents also had no idea how to deal with the bill or how to interpret it. A lot of my focus the first two years was just working and making sure my tuition bill was paid correctly and on time.  I also spent a lot of time with tutors and the faculty to make sure I was doing what I needed to do academically. When I got to college I’d never seen a syllabus before so it took me a long time to understand how crucial it is and how it can really help you plan out your entire semester. That was honestly my first two years— trying to understand the culture of college.

Matt is a huge fan of film, a passion influenced by his father.

Once you got to college, what did you focus on and what led you to do that?

I gave up my acting dream, and once I realized that I loved reading and was a strong writer, I chose English as my major. A little bit later, I added a double major of communications to develop a more differentiated skillset. I figured this would make me more marketable and allow me to find a job after college, even though at the time I had no idea what that would be.

What did you do after graduation?

I graduated in 2005 and kind of bounced around after graduation until I discovered higher education as a career option. In college, I wasn’t really involved on campus for the first two years. I spent that time trying to stay afloat and manage all the tuition bills that were coming my way, so I didn't necessarily explore viable career options through clubs or extracurriculars. I began to be more active on campus my junior year.

My first job out of  college was working in an advertisement/PR agency. That job really wasn’t for me and I didn’t enjoy the work and so I quit and worked for a short time at Barnes and Noble , which was in part driven by my love for books. I then went through a period where I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, I knew that I didn’t enjoy advertisement and I didn’t want to do retail long-term. I did a lot of reflecting and thought about how much I enjoyed my college experience and how much I had worked to get there and get through it and I thought maybe working at a college or university would be a good fit for me.

I reached out to some people I knew who had taken that direction and that’s when I realized that higher education, as a career, was a good fit for me. I got my first job at a proprietary two-year institution working in financial aid which got my foot in the door. I then moved on to the University of Missouri, St. Louis and worked at their financial aid office and now I’m at Washington University at the school of Social Work. So in that way it’s been a gradual progression.

After working at the University of Missouri, St. Louis for a few years I decided to start my master’s of education in higher education administration when I realized this is definitely the career for me. I got my master’s at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier. You talked about not being really involved in campus activities for the couple of years you were in college. Was that a conscious decision that you made?

It’s something that just kind of happened. This is something that is actually written a lot about in the literature surrounding first-gen students and something that I hear a lot from the students I work with. It just takes a long time to figure it out. Financially, I floundered in a lot of ways. It was hard for me to make sense of the monetary aspect surrounding my education and, at the time, the resources available weren’t the most accessible or transparent which led to a lot of confusion on my part. I was mostly trying to figure out finances and how to even pay my bill and looking back, it’s very obvious what happened, but at the time, I didn’t know what was going on and my parents also had no idea how to deal with the bill or how to interpret it. A lot of my focus the first two years was just working and making sure my tuition bill was paid correctly and on time.

I also spent a lot of time with tutors and the faculty to make sure I was doing what I needed to do academically. When I got to college I’d never seen a syllabus before so it took me a long time to understand how crucial it is and how it can really help you plan out your entire semester. That was honestly my first two years—trying to understand the culture of college.

A library at the University of Washington, where Matt now works. As his love of books developed, so did the possibilities for his academic focus.    What advice would you give to students who maybe don’t have it figured out and who feel like the mistakes they make or the things they don’t know are a direct reflection on their ability to contribute to a college environment?   My first piece of advice is to remember that if you were accepted to the school, you belong there. Plenty of people are scared and confused, it’s not just you. The next piece of advice is ask questions. I didn’t know that I could ask for extra support from my faculty members. I was trying not to bother them as much as possible because I thought that was the relationship. You have that right and responsibility to yourself.   How did studying the first-gen experience from an academic perspective shape or inform the way in which you thought of your own college journey?   It’s interesting because at the time that I was doing my master’s, between 2008-2011, there wasn’t a wealth of literature on first-generation student experiences, not like there is now. So to answer your question, it was interesting, but it was difficult to hone in on the first-gen college experience because it was tied up with other issues like being low-income, etc. What I found out was that there were a lot of overlapping issues. For me, studying the first-gen experience resonated in a lot of ways. For example, the feeling of being othered or of not being able to get involved because you can’t cut your hours at work is one I'm familiar with. So in a way, even though I was out of college, it made me feel better about those choices that I had to make.  I also found the diversity of experiences  within  the first-gen experience very interesting. For example, going into college my connection with my family was relatively strong and I also didn’t have an obligation to send money home to my family. I didn’t feel ostracized by them for making the decision to go to college. Now, it did create some tension, but it wasn’t like I went back for Thanksgiving and was experiencing a different home situation, which some students do.   You currently work in financial aid, what is one common mistake you see students make when dealing with financial aid/concerns?   Because financial aid, overall, is both perceived and is really confusing, a lot of people are afraid or too frustrated to ask questions.  Be that squeaky wheel—you need to get your questions answered.   One of the most frustrating things about financial aid is that every college awards financial aid differently. Fees are different, scholarships are awarded differently—there’s no consistency between institutions. You need to do everything you can to compare apples to apples across different schools.   If you could give any piece of advice to financial aid offices to ensure that students are being served, what would that be?   The model of financial aid offices has to change. There has been a lot of change across higher education in recent years, but unfortunately I think it’s gone more towards a one-stop model where you have a lot of offices where it’s the financial aid office, the registrar’s office, and admissions, because they think it’s the most convenient for the students and, a lot of times, it is. But I think we’re sacrificing counseling for customer service and those are very different things.  Our financial aid offices need to be very intentional about their counseling availability, which is easier said than done. The bigger the school, the harder it becomes. I think their needs to be an effort made to provide one-on-one counseling as often and in-depth as students need it. Now that’s going to potentially require extra counselors, longer hours of operation, and other such changes, but we need to meet students where they are. We need to be very aware of what our students need and delivering that. The only way you know out what students need is through asking. I don’t think we listen to the students as much as we should in terms of enacting change.

A library at the University of Washington, where Matt now works. As his love of books developed, so did the possibilities for his academic focus.

What advice would you give to students who maybe don’t have it figured out and who feel like the mistakes they make or the things they don’t know are a direct reflection on their ability to contribute to a college environment?

My first piece of advice is to remember that if you were accepted to the school, you belong there. Plenty of people are scared and confused, it’s not just you. The next piece of advice is ask questions. I didn’t know that I could ask for extra support from my faculty members. I was trying not to bother them as much as possible because I thought that was the relationship. You have that right and responsibility to yourself.

How did studying the first-gen experience from an academic perspective shape or inform the way in which you thought of your own college journey?

It’s interesting because at the time that I was doing my master’s, between 2008-2011, there wasn’t a wealth of literature on first-generation student experiences, not like there is now. So to answer your question, it was interesting, but it was difficult to hone in on the first-gen college experience because it was tied up with other issues like being low-income, etc. What I found out was that there were a lot of overlapping issues. For me, studying the first-gen experience resonated in a lot of ways. For example, the feeling of being othered or of not being able to get involved because you can’t cut your hours at work is one I'm familiar with. So in a way, even though I was out of college, it made me feel better about those choices that I had to make.

I also found the diversity of experiences within the first-gen experience very interesting. For example, going into college my connection with my family was relatively strong and I also didn’t have an obligation to send money home to my family. I didn’t feel ostracized by them for making the decision to go to college. Now, it did create some tension, but it wasn’t like I went back for Thanksgiving and was experiencing a different home situation, which some students do.

You currently work in financial aid, what is one common mistake you see students make when dealing with financial aid/concerns?

Because financial aid, overall, is both perceived and is really confusing, a lot of people are afraid or too frustrated to ask questions. Be that squeaky wheel—you need to get your questions answered.

One of the most frustrating things about financial aid is that every college awards financial aid differently. Fees are different, scholarships are awarded differently—there’s no consistency between institutions. You need to do everything you can to compare apples to apples across different schools.

If you could give any piece of advice to financial aid offices to ensure that students are being served, what would that be?

The model of financial aid offices has to change. There has been a lot of change across higher education in recent years, but unfortunately I think it’s gone more towards a one-stop model where you have a lot of offices where it’s the financial aid office, the registrar’s office, and admissions, because they think it’s the most convenient for the students and, a lot of times, it is. But I think we’re sacrificing counseling for customer service and those are very different things.

Our financial aid offices need to be very intentional about their counseling availability, which is easier said than done. The bigger the school, the harder it becomes. I think their needs to be an effort made to provide one-on-one counseling as often and in-depth as students need it. Now that’s going to potentially require extra counselors, longer hours of operation, and other such changes, but we need to meet students where they are. We need to be very aware of what our students need and delivering that. The only way you know out what students need is through asking. I don’t think we listen to the students as much as we should in terms of enacting change.

From Dead Poets Society, one of the films that influenced Matt growing up.     Anything you’d like to add?   I think with the first-generation experience, there’s still so much we need to do. For example, UC Berkeley does a great job with that and Brown University just launched a new first-gen office and I’m always encouraged when I see new initiatives, but I wish it was more common. More so than that, I wish we were celebrating first-gen students. Something I’m working on is making sure my students are proud of being first-gen. This year I’m getting honor cords for my students to wear at commencement. There are a lot of great efforts being made to celebrate the first-gen experience, but I want to see this become more common.   Why do you think this happens?   I think it’s a cycle of what higher education is. If you think about it, a vast majority of faculty and senior level administrators like the provost, they’re not first-generation students. So I think a part of it is that they don’t understand because it wasn’t their experience. Of course, that’s not all of them, by any means, but I think that’s part of it. But also, right now higher education is being pulled in many different directions—diversity, gender equity, sexual assault and violence prevention, to name a few—and so we have so many issues we’re working on that supporting first-gen students is one of a myriad issues that are important today. We’re asking a lot of institutions, but I do think this should be at the forefront, because it’s not something that should be a hindrance to students.      Rapid Fire Round:     1. Who inspires you?  My wife. She’s an incredibly strong person, a brilliant attorney, and she’s the kindest, calmest person I’ve ever met. When I don’t know what to do in a situation I always think, “What would Lisa do?” #WWLD    2. How do you stay motivated?  I get really excited when I see something click for a student and that motivates me to continue the work I’m doing.    3. What historical figure would you invite to dinner?  George Carlin. I know he’s not necessarily a historical figure, but he was my dad and I’s favorite comedian.    4. What is your favorite movie?   Tie between Pulp Fiction and Memento—my two favorite movies by my two favorite directors.    5. A risk you’ve taken?  Quitting my first job out of college without any jobs lined up and barely any savings.     A huge thanks to Matt for sitting down and sharing his story. If you'd like to keep up with our posts, follow us on   Instagram   or like our   Facebook page !       

From Dead Poets Society, one of the films that influenced Matt growing up. 

Anything you’d like to add?

I think with the first-generation experience, there’s still so much we need to do. For example, UC Berkeley does a great job with that and Brown University just launched a new first-gen office and I’m always encouraged when I see new initiatives, but I wish it was more common. More so than that, I wish we were celebrating first-gen students. Something I’m working on is making sure my students are proud of being first-gen. This year I’m getting honor cords for my students to wear at commencement. There are a lot of great efforts being made to celebrate the first-gen experience, but I want to see this become more common.

Why do you think this happens?

I think it’s a cycle of what higher education is. If you think about it, a vast majority of faculty and senior level administrators like the provost, they’re not first-generation students. So I think a part of it is that they don’t understand because it wasn’t their experience. Of course, that’s not all of them, by any means, but I think that’s part of it. But also, right now higher education is being pulled in many different directions—diversity, gender equity, sexual assault and violence prevention, to name a few—and so we have so many issues we’re working on that supporting first-gen students is one of a myriad issues that are important today. We’re asking a lot of institutions, but I do think this should be at the forefront, because it’s not something that should be a hindrance to students.

 

Rapid Fire Round:

1. Who inspires you? My wife. She’s an incredibly strong person, a brilliant attorney, and she’s the kindest, calmest person I’ve ever met. When I don’t know what to do in a situation I always think, “What would Lisa do?” #WWLD

2. How do you stay motivated? I get really excited when I see something click for a student and that motivates me to continue the work I’m doing.

3. What historical figure would you invite to dinner? George Carlin. I know he’s not necessarily a historical figure, but he was my dad and I’s favorite comedian.

4. What is your favorite movie?  Tie between Pulp Fiction and Memento—my two favorite movies by my two favorite directors.

5. A risk you’ve taken? Quitting my first job out of college without any jobs lined up and barely any savings.

 

A huge thanks to Matt for sitting down and sharing his story. If you'd like to keep up with our posts, follow us on Instagram or like our Facebook page!