Rachael Suddarth, PhD, Associate Professor in the Master of Speech-Language Pathology program, keeps a "Bee-First!" sign proudly signifying her own First-Gen status on her office door.
"I want everyone to know that this is my background and students can come talk to me," she said, "and maybe I understand where they are coming from in a way some other people don't."
Growing up, Suddarth was academically successful and the plan always was for her to attend to college. "It was challenging because my parents didn't know how to help me navigate the system. When I was a freshman, my dad went to my guidance counselor and asked, 'How do I make sure my daughter gets a scholarship so she can go to college?'" Her guidance counselor responded that it was unlikely she would get a scholarship or go to college.
"My dad said, 'We are going to do it anyway.'" Intent on doing so, Suddarth got involved in every high school sport, joined the student council, participated in theatre, and maintained a 4.0 GPA. She applied to Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. "It was the only college I applied to, and it was because they offered a free application," she said.
"Today I know that I could have called any college and told them I couldn't afford to pay for the application and ask them to waive the fee," she said. "But back then, no one told me that. None of the colleges that contacted me told me that. My guidance counselor never told me that. And my parents wouldn't have known that. So, I applied to the one place we could afford."
Suddarth arrived at Truman State on a full-ride scholarship but soon faced other challenges to navigate on her own, such as choosing a major without any guidance or background on what programs would support her career goal and figuring out how she could feed herself on Sunday nights when the cafeteria was closed.
Through all of those experiences, and more, Suddarth came to realize that she is resilient. "And, that I can problem-solve right? It helped me become a personal problem solver, having to tell myself, ‘All right, I'm going to sit down with this website and I'm going to keep looking until I can find my answer.' It taught me to be very independent as a person when I navigate the world," she said.
"And what it helped me learn as an educator is that I can't assume everyone knows how to navigate the system, so I try to be an educator by invitation. I don't just sit back and wait for someone to show up at my office, I invite them."
Rachael Suddarth, PhD
"... I can’t assume everyone knows how to navigate the system, so I try to be an educator by invitation. I don't just sit back and wait for someone to show up at my office, I invite them."
Suddarth also encourages her first-generation graduate students to reach higher. "I try to move them towards additional education, ask them to envision what it would look like and what it could be to go on and earn a PhD, so it's not just generation after generation after generation of people who know how college works, but that there are new voices."
All faculty in the MSLP program are committed to meeting the needs of students who do not have the same level of family support as most of their peers. "I'll send little notes to students just to let them know, hey, I see you. I see you are working hard and to remind them that I am here, that they are valuable and they have an important role to play," Suddarth said.
First-Generation Day is an important celebration. "I would have loved it when I was a student. It would have been very valuable because I would have made connections with other students who were facing the same challenges, just to know there is a person I can reach out to and talk to," she said.
"The message I want to share with first-generation students is to trust in yourself and that you have the ability to be here, and that St. Ambrose will help you problem-solve. That's what we're all about. We want to see you succeed because we care about you as a person," Suddarth said. "Just having that knowledge – that we are valuable because we are people – can go a long way, and always know that we are stronger than we think we are. We can do great things."