By: Asher Close, Staff Writer
Elise Hanley is a junior studying biochemistry at USM. She is a Lead Resident Assistant (LRA) in Upton Hastings, and a TRIO Student Support Services peer mentor, a guidance figure helping students who struggle with getting acclimated to college. Upon arriving at USM, Elise, who likes to go by El, was a predetermined environmental studies major transferring from Paul Smith’s College in New York. She soon realized she was far more interested in the chemistry aspect of the world than anything else. Her original college motives were nothing more than focusing on her academics, but as her social community grew she began to get more involved in her educational community. Even though Hanley is a dedicated student focused on her academics, as well as a contributing member to the USM community through her various social activities, her college career did not start in such a stable way.
“Going all through public school, I never had any problems. I never noticed my situation was different from my peers, and suddenly, I realized that it is. I didn’t know how to apply to colleges, I didn’t know how to apply for financial aid,” she said. “I didn’t even know what a FAFSA was! Neither did my parents. I was lucky to have a good support system of friends that told me what I needed to do and what my next steps were going to be, but it was totally unfamiliar to me.”
Hanley shared that she felt intimidated by the hoops she had to jump through in order to understand the college application process. This lack of knowledge, she shares, was tied to the fact that she is a first generation college student. This feeling of fear and uncertainty, as well as overall unpreparedness, is common in many high schoolers who did not receive guidance or advice from teachers and parents about the college application process. Hanley felt academically prepared, but when it came to understanding college as a system, there was no one to guide her.
“I’m a fairly social person, but it was kind of this lack of knowing what college really was that made me feel like I was almost winging it at first,” Hanley admitted. It wasn’t until a friend of hers recommended the TRIO college program to her. The TRIO college program advocates and provides extra support for first generation students, students with disabilities, and students who are income eligible. Students in TRIO have access to individualized advising based on their needs, peer-to-peer academic and social support, educational and financial workshops, and more. The goal is to bridge the gap between students and a good secondary education by providing them with the services they need. Having been a member of TRIO herself, Hanley understands the importance of her role as a student ambassador and peer mentor for the program.
“I was able to get that extra mentorship… the student’s parent’s who had attended college, the life knowledge that would normally be conveyed to you at a dinner table, was able to be conveyed to me by an advisor who works with students in my situation. That was a big part of the ‘figuring it out’ process, for me,” she said. After she felt like she had gotten her bearings, someone
encouraged her to apply for the mentorship program so she could share her experience with other struggling first generation college students.
“Students who come from low income families aren’t any less deserving of a college experience regardless of their academic ability. Students are far too often priced out of the college experience,” she said. Once gaining a greater understanding around her educational experience and financial situation, Hanley became passionate about advocating for every student’s right to have a proper college experience. She feels that if she can make a change in a tangible way by providing adequate support and knowledge to students who need the extra help, she is one step closer to closing the gap. But it is not up to one individual to save the masses of students who need help adapting to the unfamiliar territory that is higher education. Hanley shared that the act of higher institutions “pricing students out” is a systemic act, meaning it is intentional and targeted towards students in underprivileged and underfunded positions.
Hanley shared that she was one of the College of Science, Technology, and Health’s 2021 Dean Scholarship winners. Her career focus is working towards becoming a research professor. “If college has kicked out the students who don’t fit the traditional mold, I want to be on the frontlines as a professor and help make a positive impact as far as making sure STEM is more diverse,” she said. “We know that diverse backgrounds make better science, so there is no reason for anyone to want a space to be less diverse if possible.”
When asked what advice she would give to the rest of the world, she responded: “There is a difference between being an imposter and an outsider. For me, being a first generation student, being a low income student, being a woman in STEM, I would be lying if I didn’t carry that imposter syndrome around with me, but it’s invalid. It’s a big part of these experiences, but there is a difference.”
Hanley’s experience highlights an important part of transitioning into college, and her attendance here will continue to make a positive impact on the USM community as she uses her knowledge to help other students.