Another academic year has begun, with the majority of students attending Illinois State once again categorized as “traditional.” The word, which refers to those students who complete their degree while between the ages of 18 and 22, can create a false impression of the 21,000 enrolled at Illinois State.

The campus welcomes each fall a diverse student body that includes all ages, races, and myriad nationalities. Some are transfer students, while others arrive as true freshmen. Some attending are already parents. Many are full-time employees well beyond their teen years.

Always there is a cohort of individuals who are the first in their families to pursue a college education. Their challenges and experiences are unique, as Gina Panozzo ’12 reveals in a reflection following the spring commencement—at which time she claimed the honor of becoming the first in her family to graduate in the U.S. with a college degree.

I am a minority, being half Mexican and half Italian. I was born and raised in the United States as part of a family that believes the American dream is still alive today. We also know that nothing is attained without hard work, dedication, and tenacity.

I learned this lesson all too well as a first-generation university student.

Since childhood, an educational ethic has been instilled in me. The importance of maintaining good grades alongside extracurricular activities was mandatory. Memories of my father preaching in his familiar Chicago accent bring a smile to my face as I clearly recall his words: “Peparation, peparation, peparation equals success.”

My father, Peter, taught me that education is important and that if I didn’t go to college, I wouldn’t go anywhere in life. He wanted to give me the college education he never had. But my dream went beyond getting the undergraduate degree. I had a goal of going overseas.

As a young girl, the culture of Japan fascinated me. The student teacher in my high school senior economics class, Daniel Virgo, heard about my fascination and asked if I had considered living there. He recommended the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, praising what an honor it is to be selected.

Requirements to be a proud JET include having a college degree and Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) specialization. As of that moment, Japan was my goal and nothing would stop me from achieving it.

I attended the College of DuPage after high school. During my freshman year I visited a friend at Illinois State for the 2008 Homecoming football game. I fell in love with the campus and decided I would transfer to ISU.

Applying was the easy part, with many questions still left unanswered. How would I finance my education? I had been turned down for four scholarships and as a transfer student, I had no idea how the University worked.

“I was born and raised in the United States as part of a family that believes the American dream is still alive today.”

My father’s intentions of sending me away to school were sincere, but when it came to helping me, he wasn’t there. While he had acquired some college experience, higher education has changed dramatically since the 1960s when he was briefly enrolled.

Gina Panozzo and her family

Illinois State graduate Gina Panozzo and her family.

My mother, Patricia, holds a tourism degree from Mexico. Unfortunately, it is worthless in the United States. She couldn’t be much help in guiding me because university affairs vary from country to country. While she was my biggest supporter emotionally and mentally, I alone had to make the arrangements. I was like a freshman starting from scratch. I didn’t know about internships, volunteer opportunities, or even how to apply to the English major.

Deciding that the financial and advising issues were small obstacles to overcome, I continued pushing through. At the end of this not-so-yellow-brick road and through the burning hula hoop would be a college degree.

The excitement of moving to campus swirled through me. I would attain freedoms I never experienced and finally be able to call my own shots. Roses and daisies didn’t last long, however, because living away from home was not all it was hyped up to be.

College life was a different culture, and I was an alien on a foreign campus. With junior status, I found most students had already established their group of friends. Unsuccessful attempts at making friends and homesickness caused me to seriously consider dropping out after my first semester to return to Plainfield’s familiarity.

Why didn’t I go home? I refused to give up my dream of living, experiencing, and immersing myself in Japan. How would I make it in an actual foreign land when I couldn’t make it at college 100 miles away? Who would set the example for my sisters? Deciding no one was going to hold my hand and guide me, I advocated for myself and began to seek out student organizations as a way to meet new people and learn from their life experiences.

Badminton was my passion in high school. When I learned an intramural club gathered on Wednesdays, I attended and connected with Illinois State alumni. I became a tutor at Sharing The Ability to Read and found joy helping non-native English speakers learn the language.

Tutoring lead to my employment as an instructor at the English Language Institute. Every class session with my international students was a plethora of knowledge and adventure. Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) became my minor. My writing talents helped me gain an ISU internship in University Marketing and Communications, where I was privileged to craft my editing and writing skills daily.

I found my home in the Christian community, enjoying a small group on Thursdays and Sunday worship. Once I felt a part of the Illinois State community, I was able to absorb everything the school had to offer. I delved into all my interests and affirmed the truth that I have a license to be curious.

While an undergraduate student, it was a blessing to study under talented faculty and staff in the English department. Many mentors prepared me for the next step, which was applying during my senior year for JET.

I hunted down JET blogs and vlogs from past participants, and memorized the official site for American applicants. The effort was rewarded, as I am proud to have been selected as a 2012 Assistant Language Teacher. I began this new life journey with the trek to Japan in July.

The sun is rising in the Panozzo household, as my family is thrilled with my accomplishments as the first American college graduate among my relatives. I am excited to have reached my goals, and along the way become an inspiration to two people I love the most—my sisters, Gabby and Ili.

This past spring, 15-year-old Gabby displayed brochures from nationwide universities trying to recruit and convince her to attend. When I asked what schools looked enticing, her answer was one I didn’t expect: “Colleges have been sending me stuff, but I want to go to Illinois State and be a Redbird just like you.”

Hearing her express that I am a role model makes me even prouder to wear my ISU colors. I know that I did the right thing to fight for my education.

I am Redbird pride!