The number of students who are the first in their families to attend college is growing. Some of Geneseo’s students, faculty, alumni and leadership share their first-generation experiences and the importance of education opportunities.

By Kris Dreessen / Photos by Keith Walters ’11

Starr Franklin ’22 was the first in her family to earn a college degree. When she received her diploma in May, her family and a close friend were with her in Kuhl Gymnasium, applauding her achievements.

It was not always easy, and at times, Franklin questioned whether she had what it took to graduate. Those feelings were the same for Zachary Ionnatta ’22 and Syndou Cisse ’22, who are also among the growing number of Geneseo students who identify as first-generation degree earners.

In 2020-2021, 37 percent of all Geneseo applicants said they were the first in their family to attend college. In 2013-2014, that number was 28 percent.

“First-gen students are a representation of our society and a growing segment of our society,” says Costas Solomou, vice president for enrollment management at Geneseo. “We want to encourage these students and support them in their pursuit because we know that students who invest in a college degree have greater opportunities.”

The benefits of a college education go beyond job prospects, he says: Education can lift people out of poverty, foster acceptance and combat ignorance.

Geneseo began prioritizing recruitment and support of first-generation students several years ago. The College is helping families and individuals navigate the financial aid process, emphasizing new scholarships and events, and essentially building a community that connects, mentors and embraces first-generation challenges and celebrations.

Members of Geneseo leadership know the importance of that support: Solomou and President Denise Battles were also the first college graduates in their families.

Last year, the College hosted a special study day, brunch and other activities for first-generation students. First-generation faculty and staff joined them for networking and general support.

“This is the Geneseo community coming together from all areas of the College, saying we should recognize and do more for our first-generation students,” says Solomou. “We are excited to create a sense of community and belonging.”

Meet a few of Geneseo’s first-generation leaders, alumni and students:

President Denise A. Battles

Costas Solomou, Vice President for Enrollment Management

Solomou came to the United States at age two, when his family fled Cyprus following an attempted government coup.

“We lost everything,” he says. “My parents wanted to start a better life elsewhere.”

Costas Solmou

Costas Solmou

The family settled in Rochester, where Solomou’s dad worked as an electrician. His mom learned to speak and write English, then raised Solomou and his brother alone after their father died. Solomou doesn’t remember much academic support or educational resources — until a school guidance counselor became a mentor.

“She is one of my heroes. She recognized I didn’t know what I was doing and rescued me,” Solomou says. “She helped guide me in the right direction and get into college. Those personal touches are so important.”

Solomou went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science and a doctorate in higher education from the University of Rochester. He’s excited to nurture a supportive first-generation community at Geneseo and proud that his brother and cousins also have college educations.

And he’s proud of his own degrees.

“Years ago, I was almost embarrassed by being first-generation,” he says. “People didn’t talk about being first-generation and they didn’t celebrate it. It just made you different. Now I take great pride in it, and so do others who reach that milestone.”

Jim Aimers, Professor of Anthropology

“Some students don’t recognize how much professors genuinely want them to succeed,” says Aimers.

Jim Aimers

Jim Aimers

He knows success comes hard to some students. He works with them on their challenges, which can be compounded if they are the first in their families to experience college. More often, he says, he’s found that inequality in the United States means that some students are disadvantaged from the day they begin primary school, regardless of their family history in higher ed.

“For me, challenges students face aren’t just a family or cultural challenge, but a structural problem,” Aimers says.

Aimers grew up in Canada. His own parents did not complete high school. His father did well in advertising; Aimers says they were middle class. When his father died when Aimers was 14, his mom re-entered the workforce.

“University was not something we really talked about much in our family,” he says. He was inspired to get a bachelor’s degree in English and anthropology at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. The family made it work, but it was difficult.

“It was a real burden for us,” he remembers. “Even with the low cost of tuition in Canada, I remember my mother crying in the financial aid office because tuition was due and we were waiting for loans.”

Aimers went on to earn a master’s in anthropology at Trent and a doctorate in anthropology at Tulane University in Louisiana. He has been teaching at Geneseo since 2008.

Last fall, he was one of several first-gen faculty and staff who met with current first-generation students during the planned study day. He hopes Geneseo plans more informal and formal programs to help first-generation students and faculty find each other.

Syndou Cisse ’22, Aspiring Medical Professional

Syndou Cisse '22

Syndou Cisse ’22

Cisse moved from Ivory Coast to the Bronx when he was 16, after his mother died. He lived with his father. Each of his parents, he says, hoped he would further his education.

He chose Geneseo after he stayed overnight with another student during an Access Opportunity Programs (AOP) event for prospective students who live in New York City. The program focuses on supporting the needs of academically talented students who reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of New York State. He was part of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), which focuses on removing barriers for students who may be traditionally bypassed for higher education due to economic and other factors.

Cisse wasn’t sure what to expect from college, and he worried he would not be good enough to succeed.

Last May, Cisse crossed the commencement stage as a member of the national biology honor society, a Ronald E. McNair scholar and a recipient of the highest SUNY award given to students. His father was in the audience, applauding.

Cisse was one of 45 SUNY students to receive SUNY’s 2022 Norman R. McConney Jr. Award for Student Excellence, which recognizes outstanding EOP students for their academic achievements and overcoming personal obstacles throughout their lives.

Cisse believes support he received from faculty, fellow students and especially AOP was a major reason for his college success.

“You don’t really know what college is like, until you are here,” he says. “We were supported in a way that was really important. It is a whole big system, built for people to succeed.”

Cisse served as a peer mentor for fellow AOP students to give back. He also tutored AOP students in calculus and chemistry, conducted research in the biology department and served as a resident assistant. He plans to attend medical school, using his career to help others.

It will be another challenge he’s nervous about, but deep down, he believes he can do it — just like Geneseo. His motto is, “If you don’t fight it, you can’t win it.”

“Sometimes it seems overwhelming,” says Cisse. “But you need to try. You gotta take that first step.”

Tom Henk ’92, Geneseo Foundation Board member

Henk is a partner at the world’s largest professional services firm, but if it weren’t for his high school guidance counselor, he may have never earned his accounting degree.

Tom Henk

Tom Henk ’92 /Photo provided

“I did well in school and on my college entrance exams,” says Henk, a Geneseo Foundation Board member. “Because of my aptitude, the counselor encouraged my family to have me apply to a four-year school and not a community college as we intended. I enjoyed my Geneseo experience tremendously, and I greatly value the education I received and the friends and connections I made. As a result, I am passionate about giving back.”

Henk has more than 28 years of experience serving asset and wealth management clients and has been an assurance partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC) in the New York City headquarters since 2010.

Henk uses his leadership role at PwC to actively recruit Geneseo students and alumni to the firm, and he returns to campus to conduct interviews several times a year. He volunteers with Geneseo’s NYC Business Advisory Council and, he says, works behind the scenes to encourage other alumni at PwC to contribute to their alma mater.

Henk recently created The Kenneth and Susan Henk Scholarship Endowment in his parents’ name. They were quite surprised, he says, when he told them last fall.

The scholarship will support incoming and currently enrolled Geneseo students with a preference to a first-generation student who is majoring in accounting.

“I really value the sacrifices my parents made in sending me to a four-year college,” says Henk. “It was a stretch for them. I want to give other students opportunities in their honor. I hope students who receive this scholarship realize there are a lot of possibilities out there. I did not have a white-collar or business background in my family, so I’m particularly grateful, and still a little surprised, to be in this industry. Geneseo was so instrumental in preparing me for my career and life, and I really want students to know there are alumni, like me, who want to help.”

Starr Franklin ’22, Homeschooled Educator

Franklin had never learned in a classroom setting before her first days at Geneseo, spending her first 12 years of education being homeschooled by her mother. Her siblings needed a bit more attention; Franklin would take her biology book and read it closely, snuggled up in a backyard tree.

“I was a self-starting student,” she says.

Starr Franklin '22

Starr Franklin ’22

Franklin didn’t really consider pursuing a college degree until she volunteered with an after-school program for at-risk youth in Minnesota, then spent two months volunteering with street kids in Haiti. She assisted in a before- and after-school program aimed at providing the kids and teens with encouragement, stability and opportunities. She also taught them guitar.

It inspired her to become a teacher.

“I loved seeing their faces light up when they were able to play a chord and it sounded nice. It was so fun to have that relationship with them and get to know them,” says Franklin. “We wanted them to know they are valid members of society and that they are loved and worthy of being cared for. We wanted to show them that they are capable of learning new things and doing well in school. I want to foster that in my career.”

Adapting to a different way of life and culture in Haiti helped Franklin be flexible in the campus community and adapt to living with students. It was strange, she says, to be graded by others on her work, even though she was sometimes a harder judge of herself. She was proud to earn the Patricia K. Lyon Memorial Scholarship Endowment her senior year.

Franklin balanced her well-being and time to relax with academics so she wouldn’t burn out. She kept a “no work on Sunday” rule.

This spring, she graduated with a major in childhood and early childhood education and a minor in math. This summer, she heads to George Washington University in Washington, DC, to start the next chapter in her journey — earning a master of arts in international education.

“I bought myself a little globe freshman year that I kept on my desk at Geneseo,” she says. “It’s a reminder, when I felt like I didn’t want to study, of my time in Haiti and that the goal is to go overseas and pursue my passion of teaching others.”

Mark Howlett, Men’s Head Soccer Coach

As a student-athlete in England, Howlett struggled to maintain a schedule and make it to 8 a.m. classes on Fridays. It took a lot of effort to move past his 2.0 first semester average.

As head coach of Geneseo’s men’s soccer team, Howlett embraces a holistic approach to supporting his student-athletes.

Mark Howlett

Mark Howlett

“My low grade-point average brought out the support at the school,” says Howlett. “The biggest lesson from that experience for me is to make sure that I am a sounding board and a support system for my players right from the beginning. Soccer is such a small part of what we do in athletics.”

That wider focus includes leadership development, community service, relationship building and academic success. Howlett creates a first-semester success plan for each team member.

He strives to be a mentor, especially when the athletic experience can motivate struggling students to stay on track.

“I’m somebody who made it through,” says Howlett. “Soccer was definitely my avenue to motivate me to pass classes. My coaches, professors and teammates were a massive support system.”

Howlett grew up in Portsmouth, England, and wanted to play professional soccer. School was something he had to complete along the way. He signed a contract with AFC Bournemouth when he was 16, then played for two years before coming to New York on a soccer scholarship to obtain a four-year degree.

“I took a leap of faith to try something new,” he says.

Howlett ultimately made those 8 a.m. courses and earned a degree in business marketing at Judson University in Chicago. He is currently working on a master’s degree in educational leadership from St. Lawrence University’s online program. Before coming to Geneseo in 2018, he served as head soccer coach for SUNY Canton and Buffalo State.

Last season, five players told Howlett they, too, are first-generation students. “I try to meet with them — and all my team members — every month before they even get to Geneseo,” says Howlett, “to start their transition to college and give them support from the beginning.”

Zachary Iannotta ’22, Auditor and Dancer

Iannotta won’t have to look for a job after graduation. International auditing, tax and advisory company KPMG hired the accounting major before he even started his senior year at Geneseo. He’s now an audit associate in their New York City office.

Zachary Iannotta '22

Zachary Iannotta ’22

“It feels like the end of a long marathon, knowing all the hard work I did to achieve my goals and that I came out on top,” says Iannotta. “I know this is a stepping stone to help me start my next journey. So while my work here at Geneseo is done, my work, in general, has just started.”

His journey will undoubtedly include dance.

Iannotta is one of many Geneseo students who pursue diverse passions. A dancer since he was 3, he joined the Geneseo Dance Ensemble on his first day of classes. He choreographed several pieces through the years, including “Claquettes,” a solo he created to reopen people’s eyes to the world of tap dance.

“Dance tells a story that words and numbers can’t,” he says. “It is an extension of ourselves that only movement can justify.”

Iannotta received the Scott J. Ray Memorial Endowed Scholarship in the Arts and the School of Business BAC Annual Scholarship at Geneseo. He was an assistant residence director and member of the Student Managed Investment Fund (SMIF), which regularly outperforms professional investors’ returns. KPMG hired him at the conclusion of a virtual internship last summer.

Being a residence director, he says, helped him become a better leader, and SMIF showed him his interest in finance. He will use it all in the future as the first member of his family to graduate college.

“Hearing my mom be super proud of me and seeing her hard work pay off so her child can have a better life,” he says, “feels sublime.”