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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

First Lady Shares Her First-Generation College Experience in Hispanic Heritage Month Talk

By Amber Kennedy

When Old Dominion University First Lady Marisela Rosas Hemphill, Ph.D., stepped onto her first college campus, she was silent.

Four years later, after finding a supportive campus family and interning with her college president, she had found her voice, and she's continued to use it to advocate for affordable, accessible higher education for all students.

Experiencing that transformation as a first-generation college student inspired a career dedicated to helping students find their voices, she told an audience during a Hispanic Heritage Month conversation with Barbara Molina-Lopez, president of the Latino Student Alliance, and Luis GuadaƱo, president of the Hispanic Latino Employee Association and associate professor of world languages and cultures. The event, hosted in-person for members of the organizations and shared with a virtual audience, offered an opportunity for the First Lady to talk about her heritage, her passion for student services and her hopes for her new role.

She also sees herself as a motivator for the ODU community.

"My job is to be a cheerleader, be an advocate, tell the story of ODU, and help people understand how they can tell the story," said Dr. Rosas Hemphill, who looks forward to enjoying campus events with President Brian O. Hemphill, Ph.D., and their 8-year-old twins, Catalina and Cruz.

Dr. Rosas Hemphill has worked extensively in student services in higher education, including prior appointments as director of student activities/associate director of campus life at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York; associate dean of students at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York; and special assistant to the vice president of university relations at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. Dr. Rosas Hemphill's scholarly research has been focused on college student activism, learning outcomes and first-generation college students.

Dr. Rosas Hemphill, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Zacatecas, Mexico, knows first-hand the experience of being both a first-generation student and a child of immigrants navigating the college system. She recalled feeling imposter syndrome and advised students to ignore self-doubt, saying, "You absolutely belong here. You have a place at the table."

For students feeling the stress of the unfamiliar or unknown, she recommended talking with trusted mentors.

"I would encourage people to articulate their concerns and worries, because they're not alone and a lot of those concerns are shared," she said.

Enduring the growing pains associated with leaving home and being exposed to new ideas and perspectives can be one of the biggest challenges.

"Give yourself grace and give your families grace, because you're changing and they see that," she said. "Share what you're going through. They'll only go along as far as they are able, but bring them along on that journey."

When asked how ODU can connect with the Hispanic and Latino communities locally, Dr. Rosas Hemphill recalled a college representative who was always present at community festivals when she was growing up.

"She became a trusted person families could go to if they had questions about college," she said. "We need to make sure we are present in our communities and that we are visible. You can't be successful without connecting with families."

Dr. Rosas Hemphill shared her heritage with the audience, answering one question in Spanish, talking about the family's love of her mother's carnitas and poignantly describing annual family visits to Mexico to help her children know and value their history and culture.

"I tell my children: Your skin color tells a story. It tells me about triumph, sorrow, mountains climbed, pain endured and dreams attained," she said. "It is your story, and one you need to tell."

As a new Monarch, she is excited her children will grow up on a diverse college campus where they will learn so many of those stories, both different and similar to their own. She encourages students to approach their family if they see them crossing campus.

When someday she looks back on their time at ODU, she said, "I'd love to know that we were a family, that we cared about each other in and out of the classroom, and that we showed it in 100 million ways."


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