Maria Dykema Erb Was a First-Generation Student. Now She’s Here to Help BU’s First-Gens
Newbury Center inaugural director: “I want to be the person I needed back then”
Maria Dykema Erb gets it. The embarrassment of wearing a food service uniform in the dining hall, serving meals to your classmates—and wishing you could hide. Seeing the Study Abroad posters on campus and counting yourself out without even asking questions, because you just know you could never afford a semester in Paris, London, or Rome. Not knowing that faculty office hours are an invitation to meet with your professor, that it’s okay to ask for help, that internships can help jump-start a career. All in all, the feeling of not belonging.
Erb knows what it’s like to be a first-generation college student because she was one herself. Now, as the inaugural director of Boston University’s Newbury Center for first-generation students, she’s here to tell you that you do belong at BU.
Born in South Korea, Erb was adopted by a Dutch couple who’d immigrated to the United States, had three children of their own, and ran a small dairy farm in northern Vermont. She graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1992, and 17 years later, married and with three children, earned a master’s in education at the University of Vermont while working there as assistant director of the ALANA (Asian, Latinx, African, and Native American) Student Center. One of five siblings, she is the first person in her family to have gone to college and the only one to have completed a four-year degree.
“Having been a first-gen student myself, I want to be the person I needed back then,” says Erb, who has more than 28 years of experience in diversity and inclusion work, student access, academic advising, and student life.
A support hub aimed at strengthening academic, social, and postgraduation success for first-gen students, the Newbury Center, at 755 Commonwealth Ave., between Marsh Chapel and Mugar Memorial Library, is in the heart of the Charles River Campus. Erb came to BU in December from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill Graduate School, where she was codirector of diversity and student success and won national recognition for her work with first-gen students.
BU Today spoke with Erb about her vision for the Newbury Center, the strengths that first-gen students bring to campus, and how her own experience shapes her work.
With Maria Dykema Erb
BU Today: What are some of your goals for the Newbury Center?
Maria Dykema Erb: One of the bigger things is making Boston University a leader in first-generation student success so that it gains a reputation as a place where first-gen students know they will be well supported and celebrated. It’s important that we not lose sight of the gifts and talents these students bring to BU. I want to create a national model of how an institution with proper resources and support can make a difference in the retention and the completion rates of first-gen students—not just undergrads, but also graduate and professional and nontraditional students.
I want to build enthusiasm for the center among our alumni who are first-gen. What I’ve found with so many first-gen alums is they want to give back in some way. I’m also appreciative of the many faculty and staff who have reached out to let me know that they were first-generation students and want to know how they can support the center’s efforts. I’m developing a training program for faculty and staff, so we can put together a list of first-generation advocates and allies who will be available to first-gen students for mentoring and advice.
So much research has been done on first-gen undergraduates. A place where I think BU can really make its mark is if we also start looking at the graduate- and professional-level experience for first-gen students. What’s it like for them to go on? Many first-gen students say, “I got to grad school and I was kind of left there to fend for myself.” That’s the next frontier.
BU Today: What are some of the things you’ll do to make all this happen?
Maria Dykema Erb: This is going to be an effort that involves the entire campus. We’ll develop a support network for first-gen students by building authentic relationships across campus, so, for example, when I have someone who comes into my office say, “I need help figuring out whether I can even afford to study abroad,” I don’t just say, “Go to the Study Abroad office,” but I can say, “Go to this particular person.” It’s like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
I always say, “Let’s walk beside the student.” I will walk with you to give you the courage, and once you feel like you can do this, you’re launched. When students reflect on their experiences in college and graduate school, it’s often about the people who made them feel welcome and like they belong.
BU Today: You underline the importance of cultural competence. How does that come into play with first-gen students?
Maria Dykema Erb: It’s the building of social and cultural capital. When you’re talking with faculty and staff, it’s breaking down the assumptions that will be made about students. Sometimes there might be references to literary figures or musicians—like Mozart or Bach—and I’ve seen students’ faces just cloud over if they don’t have familiarity with that reference to that writer or that musical style. It’s just remembering that not everybody has that same experience.
I always say, ‘Let’s walk beside the student.’ I will walk with you to give you the courage, and once you feel like you can do this, you’re launched.
So you may pose questions to students in different ways. For instance, when I work with students of color, I won’t necessarily say, “Where are you from?” because for some groups, like Asian Americans, how that gets translated is that you’re asking me what my ethnicity is. So what I say to students now is, “Where do you call home?” It’s still getting at the same thing, but it leads to more conversation. Everybody may call home a different place. It’s just thinking about the language, the questions, how you ask them, to not make assumptions.
BU Today: Where do you call home?
I will always hold Vermont dearly as my home.
BU Today: Can you talk a little more about growing up there and how you got to UNH?
My parents came to this country from the Netherlands as young people. They met in New Jersey, had my three older siblings—my younger sister and I are adopted—and went to Vermont to start a dairy farm in North Ferrisburgh.
I grew up in a very conservative, Christian Reformed denomination community, where the expectation was that you would get married and have kids. I always felt different. Also, being Korean and an Asian American adoptee, there was just something inside me that said, “The dairy farm isn’t for me.”
In high school I got involved with Future Business Leaders of America. I had a teacher who was a wonderful mentor. I graduated second in my senior class. I was always known as the smart kid, but when I started thinking about college, at first I looked at junior colleges. That seemed more practical. I thought I could be an accountant—something where I knew I could always earn a living.
I was able to land a scholarship to the University of New Hampshire to study hotel administration. I remember filling out all the financial aid forms, and not understanding what it all meant.
BU Today: When you were at UNH, did you have that feeling of not belonging that a lot of first-gen students talk about?
Absolutely, and on a lot of different levels. I wish I knew then what I know now. My friend and I—she was first-gen, too—on the weekends, we’d take walks at midnight across campus and we’d look at the travel posters for study abroad and we’d say, “I wish we could do that. But we can’t afford to do that.” So we’d already discounted ourselves, and now I’ve learned that because I had financial aid and was a high-need student, if I’d explored that, I could have gone abroad.
I worked in the dining hall my first year. I hated it, because these were peers in my classes, and here I am serving them. You had to wear a uniform. Fortunately, after my first year I had friends who connected me with institutional research, and I got a job processing faculty evaluations. A lot of students would come back from spring break and say, “I went to Miami,” or “I went to Barbados.” You feel left out. I worked during spring break because I needed money for food.
BU Today: What are some of your other ideas for the Newbury Center?
I’m going to be talking with the Study Abroad office. Historically, it’s been mostly white women who studied abroad. There is a movement now toward trying to diversify who goes on study abroad.
UNC used to have a drive to help students get passports. They would have a big recognition event for those students, where they would hear from other students who had studied abroad. It was an effort to encourage more students of color and more first-gen students to study abroad. I would love to explore what something like that might look like at BU.
There’s also a movement to get more companies to recognize the first-gen identity because we have first-generation professionals going to work for them. What types of things can be put in place for students, whether it’s a pipeline program or internships—and even a new professional development program—once they get to the company? That’s something that I want to explore.
We have students who may be sending money home and may need help navigating that. There’s a lot of what some folks call survivor’s guilt. I had first-gen students at UNC who were 45 minutes away from home, but they were one of the primary caregivers for the family while their parents were at work. And if they couldn’t be there to help, they were wracked with guilt.
I’m crossing my fingers that we’ll receive the First-gen Forward designation for BU. This is a program, through the Center for First-Generation Student Success [Erb is a member of the center’s advocacy group], that recognizes institutions that have demonstrated a commitment to helping first-gen students succeed. We would join 157 colleges and universities that have won this recognition, and we would have access to a network of regular professional development activities, best practices, and an annual conference.
Another goal is to establish the Tri-Alpha Honor Society at BU. That’s a national honor society for first-gen students. It recognizes students with a 3.2 GPA or higher. Not only can undergrads and graduate students be inducted, but also faculty and staff who were first-generation students. It connects students across the country.
BU Today: Can you talk a little more about what you believe first-generation students bring to a college campus?
It’s really the resilience and the grit that they bring to being successful. These students are so incredible. Some have had to overcome multiple barriers. Sometimes they just need additional information, or an explanation, because they haven’t encountered this experience before—just to reassure them they’re not alone.
Imposter syndrome is very real for these students. They feel like they’re “not supposed to be here.” We need to help combat those little voices. I’m a director and that imposter syndrome will still rear its head once in a while. I tell students, “That voice will never go away, but it lessens as you get older and have more experience.”
Now, with the Newbury Center, I just feel like the sky’s the limit.