From their storied and difficult upbringings, these students have found Concordia to be a supportive place perfectly suited to help them earn a college degree despite no one in their family having done so before them. They are determined.
Jon (’16) was born to young and unmarried parents, one of whom had a high school diploma, one of whom did not. His father bobbed in and out of his life and his relationship with his mother was fractured.
Jon ended up homeless in high school, and the money he had been counting on to help him get through college was used to help his extended family members save their homes during the housing crisis.
Jon was still determined to earn a college degree, even without parental presence or financial backing.
“I always knew I was going to college,” he said. “There was no doubt in my mind.”
The California native had a friend who was planning to attend Concordia so he began exploring the university online. The strength of the business program attracted the aspiring marketing manager, as did the make-up of the student body, which is far more diverse than his predominantly Hispanic high school.
After his extensive research, getting advice from his English teacher and mentor, and checking in a time or two with his high school guidance office, he applied to Concordia.
His solid academics made Jon a great prospect for Concordia. He was immediately connected with an admission counselor who Jon said became his go-to resource as he continued navigating the college search and financial aid processes.
Since Jon had not been under the care or support of his birth parents, he filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as an independent minor. While that status maximized the amount of aid he was able to receive, Jon knew he would need to repay loans after graduation and continue working to make up for what the grants and scholarships did not cover. Jon was up for the challenge.
He saved as much money as he could from his department store job to buy his plane ticket to get to Minnesota. Like it was yesterday, Jon remembers the nervousness of learning how to book a plane ticket and taking his first flight alone.
“I took a leap of faith and went to Concordia,” said the now sophomore, fondly looking back on his decision.
During his first year, Jon went on a Concordia service trip to Washington D.C. to explore more in-depth the issues facing homeless people. He was able to compare government and private shelters, serve meals, help raise money for the cause and talk with members of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
“The experience really opened my eyes,” said Jon. “I learned how lucky I was to have people who cared about me and who didn’t give up on me, especially when I wanted to give up on myself.”
The trip whet Jon’s appetite to explore more cultures. He worked two campus jobs and limited his spending to afford the airfare and extra $1,000 it would take to study abroad in Germany and Italy this semester.
In Germany, Jon has had the opportunity to retrace the steps of Martin Luther while studying global Christianity and the history of the reformation under the direction of Professor Emeritus Rev. Dr. Richard Carter. Jon is now in Italy, exploring literature with Associate Professor of English Eric Dregni and art history through Florence University of the Arts.
“I want to see the roots of other people and places,” said Jon. “I want to experience more, learn as much as I can and hopefully leave a legacy!”
Like Jon, Emily (’16) is appreciative of the opportunities she has had to develop an understanding of other people and cultures while at Concordia.
The Caucasian south-Minneapolis native said she loves being part of an incredibly diverse student body. Emily said people are open and welcoming enough that Concordia feels like a home, yet diverse enough to help her think outside the box.
“I love how diverse the school is,” she said. “Concordia just brings a lot of people together and provides a lot of opportunities.”
When searching for a college, Emily knew she would need to be part of a tight-knit community that could help her succeed since she did not have a strong support system at home.
Her parents divorced when she was young. Emily’s mother became the sole provider for her and her sister when Emily’s father fled the country, leaving her mother working long hours and strapped for cash. Family stress mounted during Emily’s teens, when developing self-confidence was critical. Emily’s eighth grade teacher introduced her to the idea that she could attend and succeed in college.
“One of my teachers kept telling me that I can be successful even though I come from difficult circumstances,” she said.
Another teacher her freshman year reinforced the message.
Emily knew it would be hard work and a significant financial investment that she would need to take on personally, so she set her goal and got to work.
Emily did many odd jobs for her neighbors, even ones that are traditionally done by males. Among the odd jobs, she mowed grass, always having her nails painted and wearing a skirt for fear passersby would mistake her for a boy.
Emily hesitantly registered for classes and was assigned a roommate at one of the Minnesota public universities, but Emily’s determination to explore a smaller, private school was greater than her mother’s ability to sway her toward a seemingly less expensive education.
One day after school while her mother was still at work, Emily convinced her neighbor to give her a ride to Concordia to take a tour.
From the moment she stepped foot on campus, she knew it was the perfect fit. She felt welcomed by her admission counselor who answered all her questions about academics and campus life, and reassured her with information regarding financial aid.
Since the distractions of Emily’s home life had not allowed her to reach her full academic potential, she was required to write a series of essays and gather letters of recommendation to be considered for admission.
“My family didn’t really know my actual struggle of applying for college,” she said. “I’ve just always found other people to help me.”
Emily smiled big remembering the moment she opened her acceptance letter.
“I was home alone and I cried,” she said. “I was so happy and full of pride.”
Without even thinking, the first person she contacted was her Concordia admission counselor to thank him for all his help. She had cleared that hurdle and was ready for the next one—financial aid.
Emily, who has managed her own finances since she started babysitting at age 10, began navigating the financial aid process on her own. She said her mother was unable to provide financial support or advice since she had not been to college.
“My mom feels guilty that she can’t help,” said Emily, who was welcomed in the financial aid office and provided advice on a variety of financing options.
She was blessed with grants and loans, but Emily is always tending to her finances. She works two jobs on campus to start chipping away at her loans to limit the amount of interest she will have to pay, all while significantly raising her grades.
The relationships she has built with her professors have helped her remain focused on her academics.
“I build relationships with all my professors,” she said, noting she does not have to look far to find helpful people. “I’m never short on answers.”
Her freshman seminar instructor, Chinh Truong, and the career services staff have helped her explore majors and careers in which she can help others in the way she has been helped; psychology and social work are the front-runners.
Like Emily, Andrew (’14) wants to help others. The secondary education major has a strong desire to help inner-city children see the value of education, something the 27-year-old did not see until after high school.
Andrew, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and moved to St. Paul at age two, said the challenge of learning the English language caused him to stray from school. He did not have anyone at home to help him practice since his six siblings had not yet learned the language and his parents did not have any formal schooling or the ability to read. This was the beginning of a downward spiral.
Throughout his childhood, Andrew’s family bounced from one public housing unit to another. In middle school, he became involved in gang violence. Andrew got married after high school and worked two jobs to make ends meet while squeezing in a social life that was still far from exemplary.
A few years passed before Andrew’s long work hours and social life started to wear on him. He began to see his younger siblings straying from school too. Andrew had a nagging feeling that he needed to turn his life around to set an example for his family.
“I have to be the first one to step away,” Andrew remembers thinking.
So at age 23, he said he ditched his friends, quit one of his jobs, and enrolled at a local community college. He also moved back in with his parents to concentrate on his academics and help his younger brothers focus on theirs too.
After a lot of long nights working on his homework (and helping his brothers with theirs too), he earned his associate’s degree. While he felt accomplished, he wanted to pursue a four-year degree so he could teach.
Andrew remembers feeling a little lost though, unsure about how to navigate the college search and financial aid processes.
“My parents encouraged me, but they didn’t know what else to do to help,” he said.
He lived fairly close to Concordia so he stopped by one day. The personal and financial help he received attracted him to the university, as did the small class sizes and diverse student body.
“I have been able to connect with a lot of students and professors here,” Andrew said, happily reflecting on his decision to enroll at Concordia.
One faculty member who really sticks out for Andrew is Associate Professor of Math Dr. Sarah Jahn.
“She has been a big help to me,” he said. “Even if it doesn’t relate to math, she just helps me.”
Jahn connected Andrew with an intense summer teaching
internship with Breakthrough Twin Cities. The rigorous nine-week program allowed Andrew to help highly-motivated, low-income students defy the stereotype that their socioeconomic status defines their academic success. Andrew is determined to defy that stereotype himself, too.
While it is a struggle to balance his education with his family, work and personal life, he knows it will pay off in the long run.
“I cut back on work hours, so I can’t help my family as much financially,” he said with a bit of guilt, “but I will be in a better position to help them in the future.”
The future is near. Andrew will graduate this spring and already has job offers for teaching positions.
While Jon, Emily and Andrew’s stories speak to Concordia’s commitment to help students from a variety of backgrounds, numbers do too. Jon, Emily and Andrew are just three of the nearly 500 traditional
undergraduate students who are first in their families to attend college and/or come from low-income backgrounds.
“As a Christian institution, we believe it is our calling to provide opportunities to students who need an environment in which they can thrive and succeed,” said Executive Vice President and Dean of Diversity Dr. Cheryl Chatman. “These students are as determined as any to persist to graduation and we feel blessed to help them at such a pivotal time in their lives.”
Concordia is often the stepping stone so many determined students need to get from their difficult past to a thoughtful and informed life where they provide dedicated service to God and humanity.
“I want to be the branch of the family tree that goes out and does something very cool with their life,” said Jon. “I’m already blazing a trail.”