My Journey as a First-Generation Student, Then PhD, Then Professor: Embracing Resilience and Humility

As a business professor, I often reflect on my journey from being the first in my extended family to attend university to achieving a PhD. My family is proud of their accomplishments, but education was never a priority for us. Growing up, the expectation was to finish high school and get to work, not to pursue higher education.

College was considered for ‘those kind of people,’ not us. My family valued hard work and practical skills over academic achievements. I spent my teenage years working in gas stations, cleaning floors, chopping wood, and cutting grass. Studying for the SATs or preparing for college was not part of my daily life.

Despite these challenges, weirdly, I felt a strong pull toward education. My journey was filled with obstacles, including arguments with my Dad about the importance of schooling. However, I was determined to pursue education. For me, it was just fun. Challenging, painful, but fun. This led me to university, where I faced a steep learning curve but also discovered a passion for learning and research.

Now, as a Professor of Innovation, I strive to inspire my students to push beyond their perceived limitations and recognize the transformative power of education.

Innovation is about going to places that people tell you can’t, shouldn’t, or won’t. Education and innovation is about believing in the future.

You have to do things that just do not make sense to most people.

Take, for example, the R3ciprocity Project. Over the past five years, I have been developing a writing and editing platform as a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship. This platform was created to help people improve their writing skills and connect with others for feedback and support. It create a platform to make non-rejectable research papers and grants.

The idea seemed impractical to many. I get a lot of eye-rolls when I tell people. But, screw it. Most question why a professor would invest time in such a venture when traditional academic research work was more conventional.

However, I believed in the potential impact of R3ciprocity. The project exemplifies how stepping out of the traditional paths and embracing innovative ideas can lead to significant positive changes. It has not only helped numerous individuals enhance their writing but also fostered a community of learners and contributors who support each other’s growth.

Change the world, by changing the mindsets behind what we CAN do. Not simply just study it.

Discovering My Difference

It wasn’t until my third or fourth year as a professor that I realized how different my background was compared to my peers. In undergrad, everyone’s parents went to college. In academia, everyone’s parents were professors, much less just getting a college degree. I am always felt like an outsider.

Many students focus on getting into college, but in my family, the mantra was “you go to work.” After school, I worked in gas stations, cleaned floors, chopped wood, and cut grass. SAT prep-tests and extracurricular activities were considered luxuries we couldn’t afford or prioritize. To be honest, no one in my family even knew about these opportunities. They just were not available.

I had to fight for my education. I remember arguing with my Dad about the importance of going away to school. My siblings didn’t go to college because it was too expensive and too far. Even things like hair-dressing school was out of reach.

But this struggle turned out to be my advantage.

I am used to being an outsider. I often thrive on being that weird guy that people roll their eyes at. He is “too passionate,” or “he does not get it.”

Oh well. I guess I don’t.

I am okay with not fitting in. Maybe that is exactly what we need.

Strength in Adversity

I didn’t need to make anyone proud. Finishing high school was all that mattered. So many academics feel pressure from the outside world to perform. My parents taught me resilience and versatility, and they instilled in me the confidence to create boundaries with the outside world.

If academia didn’t work out, I knew I could find happiness chopping wood or mopping floors.

That is what Maslach’s do.

We do real work.

What was supposed to be my weakness – my unconventional path to academia – turned out to be my greatest strength. It provided me with a unique perspective and a level of resilience that many of my peers lacked.

Keep going! You got this!

The Journey of a PhD

If you know a PhD or a PhD student, share this with them.

PhDs teach us the value of resilience and self-forgiveness. You get things wrong. You feel like a loser, you feel behind, and you often question the point of it all. But PhDs prove that being wrong is a stepping stone to being right.

You have to learn to be alone in the journey, just like I felt like I was.

PhDs are not just researchers; they’re human beings who make mistakes, learn, and grow. They embody resilience by continually pushing forward, even when they feel like failures. In doing so, they teach us a valuable life lesson: that it’s okay to be wrong. Being wrong means you’re trying, which is more than can be said for many.

You may not be a first generation student, but you certainly have to learn to walk alone on the journey.

Watch me, and you, walk past those who don’t believe.

Embracing Humility

For me, the best way that I dealt with being an outsider is to realize “I am good enough.” PhDs and professors, your journey is more than your research; it’s about the values you embody and the example you set. YOU set the tone for everyone in education.

Doing research is just a small part of my life. It matters, but frankly, I don’t care. There are so many more important things.

Family, for instance, matters a lot to me.

Volunteer, work outside, get dirty, and give someone a high five for being awesome.


The qualities that truly matter for happiness and success in academia aren’t always reflected in a list on your CV. They’re in the contributions we make to broader society.

Get used to getting a lot of eye-rolls and you can’t do that. Spite will be your strength and your mentor.

The Reality of the PhD Experience

The story that is told in graduate school is that your research is all that matters. Pursuing a PhD is often seen as a prestigious path filled with academic achievements and published papers.

But, being a first generation student, I never felt that.

Behind the accolades lies a profound story of rejection and isolation. It is a story of loneliness and feeling lost. Every PhD candidate knows the sting of a paper being rejected, the loneliness, and the feeling of being misunderstood by society. This relentless cycle of pushing against the world’s resistance is what truly defines the PhD experience.

For me, it is always about just enjoying some aspects of the job, but realizing, its just a job, like mopping a floor. There are more important things.

Let’s change the conversation. Instead of just celebrating publications, let’s acknowledge the resilience, perseverance, and unwavering dedication that PhDs embody.


My journey from a first-generation student to a PhD and professor has been marked by resilience, humility, and a unique perspective on life. Despite the challenges, the values I learned from my family have been my greatest strength. They taught me to persevere, to be humble, and to always push forward, even when the odds were against me. This journey has not only defined my career but also shaped the way I contribute to society and inspire others.

If you know a PhD, remind them that their journey is a testament to resilience.

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