Stritch Magazine

The dream is still alive: first-generation students find a home at Stritch

Friday, January 24, 2014 4:35:00 PM

by Scott Rudie, '05


Freshman Tony Zemlicka recalls how his grandfather asked him some uncomfortably pointed questions while in high school, the kind that perhaps only a wise, stern but caring grandparent can.

“Tony, you are so smart. Why are you doing this to yourself?”

Behind the question was the concern of a grandfather who watched his grandson neglect his studies in high school, which resulted in his 1.5 G.P.A. freshman year.

Even more troubling than his performance was the amount of time that he dismissed school altogether by simply not attending. In his freshman year, Zemlicka recorded 130 absences out of 180 days of school. 

“I was doing bad things with bad people,” he said.

Zemlicka felt aimless and lacked guidance. His father was in prison for the first 15 years of his life and played no role in his upbringing. His mother worked up to three jobs at a time trying to support Zemlicka and his three siblings.

A change of scenery from Milwaukee to New Berlin proved to be a significant first step for him, and his grandfather’s heartfelt challenges forced Zemlicka to engage in some significant contemplation.

“Grandpa asked that a lot, and I really didn’t have an answer for him,” he said. “I just hated high school. Junior year, I don’t know what clicked, what happened, but I realized that I had to do something with my life."

Zemlicka’s college dream gradually emerged even amid nagging doubts that his upbringing would ever lead him to a college education.

“Growing up, I had no intention of college at all, because I didn’t know anybody that went to college,” he said.

Stories such as Zemlicka’s fill the 76-year history of Cardinal Stritch University. Over the years, Stritch has developed a unique reputation as a place where even the most outlandish of college dreams can indeed be realized. The proof comes in the numbers: more than 43 percent of Stritch students are just like Zemlicka – the first in their family to attend college.

“Stritch has made a profound difference in our communities throughout Milwaukee, the state of Wisconsin, the Midwest, and beyond” said Stritch President Dr. James Loftus. “To be able to reach out to those who may not otherwise ever have the college experience, to be able to extend a hand and be a partner as they pursue life and career goals that may not have been realized anywhere else – that is perhaps the most significant, relevant and meaningful legacy of Cardinal Stritch University. It speaks so well to the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, who wanted to create a place of opportunity."

While Stritch’s ability to attract and graduate first-generation college students is evident, the reasons for this success are numerous.

“There’s a sense of place about Stritch that I think eases the transition and any concern,” said Loftus. “The sense of community also helps with that. Our academic and extra-curricular opportunities fully challenge students to do their best so they can make a difference after graduation.”

"A campus I could belong to"

For alumni who were first-generation college graduates, the passage of time does not dilute the emotion they felt in fulfilling the long-deferred dreams of their parents.


Ron Phelps, ’93, who received his bachelor’s degree in accounting at Stritch, now serves as first vice president, wealth advisor, and senior portfolio manager at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management in Madison. But he never forgets his roots as a poor kid on the south side of Milwaukee with lofty, but highly uncertain, college aspirations.

As a boy, Phelps frequently watched his parents make sacrifices to provide for him and his two siblings. His stepfather worked long hours as a dockworker for a trucking company, and Phelps’ mother worked a variety of jobs as a data-entry worker and as a part-time employee at her parents’ bakery. Neither earned a college degree but their persistence, hard work, and support kept the family together. And in many ways, Phelps’ stepfather was particularly adept at predicting the future.

“My dad would always say, ‘The company’s going to close one of these days.’ After 35 years, he was finally proven right. The company closed, and he didn’t really get anything beyond a nominal pension."

Amidst the disappointment of his own employment experiences, Phelps’ stepfather made another prediction that Ron remembers even more clearly. His stepfather said, “No matter what, Ron, you are going to college."

Yet, despite the hopeful expectations of a father for a son, the family’s limited means made college uncertain.

“When I graduated high school, I wanted to go to college,” he said. “But my family couldn‘t help monetarily to send me. I was raised with a very strong work ethic and, for me, there was no other alternative to going to school, getting a degree, and succeeding at something."

Phelps enrolled at another Milwaukee-area university while working at UPS to pay his tuition. He later decided to supplement that income by joining the military as a reservist. Phelps expected little beyond an additional income source and a part-time commitment, but his expectations drastically changed when he was activated for service in the 1991 Gulf War.

Phelps (2)

“It waylaid my college experience, but it gave me a greater frame of mind of what I wanted to do with college when I was able to return,” he said.  “A lot of people have ideas of what the military is or isn’t, but I would never be where I am today if I didn’t serve. I learned a deeper sense of responsibility that comes from being a part of something larger.”

When his service concluded, Phelps sought a college environment with a deeper sense of community.

“When I came back from the military, I decided that Stritch was the place to go. Stritch didn’t have any barriers to entry. I felt that this is a campus I could belong to.”

Enduring benefits

The country’s slow recovery from the Great Recession now raises doubts regarding the validity of the college dream. Many media sources challenge the benefits of a college degree in the face of rising student debt and a stubbornly uncertain job market.

Phelps, in his present position at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, is in a unique position to rebuke that argument.

“It’s more important than ever before,” he said. “We are not talking to one person that doesn’t have a college degree. It’s a necessity. Not one of my current professional titles would have been possible if I didn’t have a college degree.”

The value of a college education is affirmed by much more than dollars and cents, but by the impact of the cumulative student experience, Loftus said. 

“Without question, the economics of a college degree pay dividends in the long run,” he said. “But even more importantly, the college experience is an essential element in the development of a whole person, someone who develops a sense of values and, in turn, the need to make the world a better place. It’s not just about giving to yourself; it’s about giving to society.”

"LDRS" of the future

Recognizing this enduring reality, Stritch recently renewed its efforts to make the college dream accessible to the next generation of first-in-the-family college students. This fall, the University unveiled its new Leadership Development, Reflection, and Service (LDRS) initiative, a living-learning community designed to provide residential students with the opportunity to build community, develop relationships, and become engaged in programs that will enhance their experience at Stritch.

LDRS (2)

The program, funded in part by a grant from the Great Lakes Higher Education Corp., admitted 28 students for the fall semester and 54 percent of them are first-generation college students while 89 percent come from low-income situations. Students in the LDRS program live together in reserved areas of Assisi Hall and enroll in two classes together each term. Students also benefit from additional access to faculty and staff through advising, tutoring and mentoring opportunities; retreats; and speakers.

As a LDRS participant, Zemlicka and his peers said early in the semester the additional support helped make the college transition easier.

“It’s a lot more tight-knit than I thought,” he said. “I watched movies about all of these huge colleges; movie perception is what I thought college would be.”

One of the many benefits of the program is an early residence hall move-in opportunity, giving students a chance to meet and connect with their community and participate in team-building retreats. Jo Martinez, a freshman and LDRS participant, said the additional support made a significant difference.

“I thought it was going to be, ‘You’re on your own. Good luck,’” she said. “We have established a little community among us. I like that people know me and that I know them. It’s nice to know that you can go and ask for help.”

Ironically, Martinez feels the impact of that community most when off campus.

“When I go back to see my mom, I miss being over here,” she said. “I like a community. It’s a home for me.”

Michael Wright, whose parents briefly attended college but did not graduate, is highly motivated to succeed, but appreciates the mutual support provided by the LDRS initiative and the broader Stritch community. The support exceeds anything he experienced in high school.

“I remember one day at Stritch when I just wasn’t doing so well and I didn’t go to class,” he said. “I told my teacher that I was not going to be there, and then later on I think all of them came up and asked, ‘Are you okay? Do you want to sit and talk?’ In high school, I had some teachers like that but the professors here care and are so invested; it’s a lot different than I expected.”

Last lap

As the new LDRS initiative students begin the pursuit of their college dreams, other Stritch students near their triumphant conclusion. Senior nursing major Lourdes “Mune” Gil has remained a highly motivated student throughout her college career, which took her quite far from where she began.

Lourdes Gil

Gil arrived in the United States with her parents when she was a year old. Her parents, born in a small village in Mexico, held few, if any, educational expectations. Her dad, Reuben, possessed a third-grade education and her mom, Dolores, made it to middle school.

“My main motivation was that my parents brought me here (to the U.S.) for a reason,” she said. “My parents had been saving money since I was a very young age.”

The inspiration provided by her parents motivated her to great academic success and she graduated as class valedictorian at Bay View High School.

“College was always my goal,” she said. “I knew that I wasn’t going to get scholarships unless I really earned them.”

After graduation, she intends to continue her nursing education in graduate school.

Whether these first-generation college students are new at Stritch or near graduation, an especially profound sense of discipline and dedication abounds.

“You just don’t take things for granted,” Gil said. “In order to succeed, you need an education. Your best friend is going to be your education.”

A sense of faith and family motivates Wright.

“This is a good opportunity for me, to get an education,” he said. “I look at college as my mission; I’m here for a reason and I need to do the absolute best that I can while I am here. I’m trying to bring the light of Christ to people. If I am not doing well, that doesn’t reflect well on the message that I’m trying to bring. College has always been a priority in my life. My parents always wanted me to do better than they did.”

For Zemlicka an image of the future that began with heartfelt admonishments of a beloved grandfather now serve as the bricks and mortar of his Cardinal Stritch University experience, and he no longer has any trouble dreaming up his future. He plans to become a high school math teacher.

“With college, I’m going for what I want to go for. I’m learning what I want to learn and it gives me something to strive for. I knew that other life was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to be able to get a good job and keep it.”