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Celebrating National First-Generation Student Day with a Liaison First-Gen Success Story


David Poole, Liaison’s Managing Director, EngineeringCAS, was the first member of his family to graduate from college. On National First-Generation Student Day, he reflects on growing up with an uncertain academic future, making his college dream come true (with a little help from his mother), and the importance of having the resources to succeed.

Can you describe the feelings you experienced when you were applying to schools for your undergrad?

I think it’s important to understand what it was like to apply to universities when I was going off to college. It was not a time of robust recruitment outreach by universities, and high schools did not have a lot of structured “getting ready for college” events or counseling. It was pretty much colleges came into your school, you found them in the cafeteria, and talked to them.

I really didn’t have anyone to talk to about going to college. My family was supportive of my desire to earn a higher education degree, but since no one had been through the process, they didn’t know what to do or what questions to ask. Honestly, a lot of my parent’s friends were also in the same situation. They had a high school diploma, and they may have taken some college courses, but they never completed a degree. I felt a little bit left out, on my own. I relied on my fellow classmates in high school (which probably was not the best place to start my college selection process) as well as one math teacher, who I felt comfortable asking questions. So it wasn’t a very polished process. It worked because at the end of the day, I’m here to talk about it. But it’s an anxiety-ridden process for students, especially those who don’t have anybody to rely on.

Did your family present you with any barriers in the process?

In my particular case, the one thing that was laid out by my parents was this: we believe that education is important, but that’s something you’re going to have to pay for yourself. So the funding piece was obviously a big concern for me. I had jobs growing up as a kid and I started working at a very early age. But it’s not like I had this big bank account somewhere to pay for college. But my parents were right when they said, “you’re going to find a way to do it”.

What were your top three schools at that time?

I wanted to go into communication or law so my top three were Syracuse University, Columbia University (which was my absolute reach school), and St. John’s University.

Did you receive any support when applying to schools?

I was thinking of going to St. John’s University. I could actually see it from my high school since it was only about a quarter mile away, so it was always at the forefront of my mind. St. John’s is a private school but I had applications to state schools as well as community schools. Turns out I got admitted to Syracuse, I got admitted to St. John’s, and I got admitted to the local schools. (I did not get into Columbia.) But when the financial aid packages came in, that’s when the reality set in. They were big numbers. I had to turn down Syracuse. I realized I could save on costs by living at home and becoming a commuter student. I decided that I would come out with too much debt if I went to St. John’s so I set my sights on Queens College, which is part of the CUNY system in New York.

And I was heartbroken. I was absolutely heartbroken.

Part of the support backstory here involves my mother. A few years before this, in order to get into my top choices for high school, I had to test in, and I ended up not getting into the high school that I wanted. So when she saw this trend occurring again years later during my college search, I think she thought I was going to be permanently scarred from the whole experience. My mother came to the rescue. Unbeknownst to me, she wrote a note to St. John’s University to ask, and beg, for additional money for me. I participated in public speaking activities during high school and it turned out that I was fairly good. So the university directed me to the speech and debate team. I had an interview with that person, and my dream became a reality. But it wasn’t because I did anything, my mother was the one.

Tell us about college graduation week.

I think it was a week-long celebration, depending on what aunt or uncle had us over for dinner on any given night. My parents took us out for dinner on graduation night and I’m certainly glad social media didn’t exist then! But I think it was also a turning point for my family and neighbors to see me graduate from college. I think it proved to them that it was possible to dream big and go after the things you believe in.

Yes, so I walked out of college with no debt. That is a feat. And obviously, the support was there. Being the first in the family, especially on my father’s side, to ever get a degree was a huge achievement.

Why did you choose to pursue a career in higher education?

I worked in multiple places to make ends meet throughout college and one of my part-time jobs was as a student worker in a department, which is something many first-generation students do. I enjoyed being around people and soaking up the environment of higher education; it was very fulfilling.

But I didn’t study to become an admissions officer or go into enrollment management. I actually stumbled into higher education as a career path. Initially after leaving university, the TV station I did marketing research for in Miami was sold and I was eventually out of a job. I had a friend from St. John’s who worked at the University of Miami in residential life. She said I should consider working at a university. It’s a laid-back atmosphere with good benefits — again, you can see the financial thread is continuing through my story. I went for an interview, and I became an admissions officer shortly after.

Why did you remain in higher education?
After all these years in the industry, what’s one thing you wish you knew when you started out?

Before my undergrad experience, I wish I knew where the toolbox was. The college prep process today has changed. But very honestly,  many first-generation students are attending public education institutions with counselors who are burdened with upwards of 600 student caseloads. That is not quality advising by any shape or imagination. The career days of yesteryear aren’t nearly as prominent anymore either. I hope first-generation students are able to find a platform or voice that advises them that the college process begins long before they get to junior year. I wish someone had told me that my freshmen grades were going to impact getting into the college of my choice.

How will you be celebrating National First-Generation Student Day this year?

I always want to make sure that people know about First-Generation Day in my social networks, whether that be on LinkedIn, or in messaging on social media, like Facebook and things like that. I enjoy talking about my journey and telling people to dream the dream. The second thing I tend to do is provide timely general reminders to first-time college applicants and their families that I know are going through the process now about application deadlines, FAFSA requirements, etc.

Pay it forward. To those of us in the industry, we have to continue to pay it forward. Although I’m no longer on campus and I’m in the ed tech space, I got a text from a woman I used to work with this morning. She was asking if I could talk to her daughter, who is getting ready to apply to schools, and if I could give her some advice. We need to continue to help people along the way and provide them with resources to succeed. That’s especially important for first-generation students!

“I think the people that really have the ability for persistence are the ones that are more successful and are also the ones that know the path isn’t easy, and they try to help people along the way.

One final question David. What did you want to be when you grew up?

A lawyer. I wanted to make a difference in reforming the criminal justice system.


David has now worked in Higher Ed for +35 years. He’s shifted away from his on-campus role in the past few years to join Liaison as the Managing Director of EngineeringCAS. In this role, he is able to continue helping colleges and universities recruit a diverse applicant pool to their respective engineering programs.

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