First-Gen alumni tell their stories

Cornell has a long history of educating first-generation college graduates, and they have experienced incredible personal and career success. Like the first-gen students of today, they are invested in their communities and in helping others to “Rise Up.” The following stories feature alumni of every decade since the ’40s and include teachers, coaches, volunteers, and missionaries who share a deep sense of appreciation for everything they’ve been able to do with their educations.


  • Donald Struchen ’45

    Donald Struchen ’45

    “I was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, and grew up during the Great Depression. My dad worked as a clerk in the Pennsylvania Railroad freight office when he wasn’t “laid off” for lack of work.”

  • William Purden ’51

    William Purden ’51

    “My father and mother were naturalized immigrants from Scotland. Dad came over in the mid-’20s. Two years later, mom followed and they married. Their first home was in Ohio, where dad worked for Goodyear tires. Shortly after my birth, they moved to Harvey, Illinois.”

  • Mardell Koop Schumacher ’54

    Mardell Koop Schumacher ’54

    “I am a first-generation collegian. My parents and grandparents didn’t have that opportunity. My dad was 3 when he came to this country from the Netherlands by ship. His father was a carpenter, and he built a house for their family of four when they came to Chicago. Two more children joined the family.”

  • Erwin Hoeft ’59

    Erwin Hoeft ’59

    “My parents emigrated from Germany in 1925, after that country’s disastrous inflation. My dad was a tool and die maker and my mother was a professional fashion seamstress. They had a tough time during the Depression, but they made sure my sister and I were not affected.”

  • Don Utroska ’60

    Don Utroska ’60

    “My mother and father, who raised me in Clinton, Iowa, gave me the feeling from early on that I could do anything I wanted to undertake. My maternal grandfather was very influential in my life. He was the first one who talked about college with me.”

  • David Harsh ’61

    David Harsh ’61

    I was born and raised in Milwaukee. My father was a foreman in a steel casting company for most of his life. My mother was a homemaker. During the World War II era, he was exempt from the military because of a specialized skill of manufacturing tank lugs at the foundry. My parents were the first in the family to be high school graduates.

  • John McGrane ’73

    John McGrane ’73

    “I was born in 1951 and raised in Waverly, Iowa, at the time a town of around 5,000 in northeast Iowa. I was tied for fifth of seven children (I have a twin sister). For those of you who have read “The Thunderbolt Kid,” a very humorous story by Bill Bryson roughly recounting his childhood in the 1950s in West Des Moines, Iowa, just imagine the same things happening in a much smaller town.”

  • Karen Krull Robart ’78

    Karen Krull Robart ’78

    “I’m the middle child in a family with seven children. My father was a maintenance man and my mother a stay-at-home mom. I graduated from Cornell with a degree in history and a secondary education teaching endorsement.”

  • Elaine Hayes ’88

    Elaine Hayes ’88

    “My parents were extremely positive that I would go to college. My mother would always say, “when you go to college.” Never “if.” So, because of them, I always knew that I would. I was very involved in music, namely violin and orchestra. All that involvement and practicing paid off because I was a Dungan Music Scholarship recipient. That, and a Presidential Scholarship, really ensured that I could attend Cornell.”

  • Sal DiFonzo Jr. ’89

    Sal DiFonzo Jr. ’89

    “My sister, Christina DiFonzo ’92, and I were born in Chicago and grew up mostly in the northwest suburb of Crystal Lake, Illinois. Our father was born near Rome, Italy, into a peasant farming family, and our mother was born to a cobbler and homemaker in Calabria, Italy. Our parents are retiring this year. They married, both at age 18, after meeting each other as co-workers at an auto parts factory in Chicago. My father became a Chevrolet auto mechanic for 48 years, and my mother spent her working career in retail jobs at K-Mart and Walgreens.”

  • Eddie Moore Jr. ’89

    Eddie Moore Jr. ’89

    “As a first generation college student and a student of color, the opportunity to attend Cornell College changed my life. Growing up in public housing (the projects), the idea of college was not often talked about and therefore was seen as a dream, not as a reality. But when I got the opportunity to attend Cornell and be a part of the athletic program, I jumped at the chance, even though Iowa, lilywhite Iowa, was far from anything and everyone I knew in Florida. The snow and cold in Iowa didn’t look anything like the sand and asphalt of my world. But I came to Cornell, to Iowa, which opened up doors—cold, icy, snowy doors but still doors—and changed my life.”

  • Wes Butterfield ’91

    Wes Butterfield ’91

    “I grew up in a middle-class family in the middle-class community of Port Charlotte, Florida. When I was in fifth grade my mother, two siblings and I moved to Port Charlotte while my father remained in Queens, New York, to continue working at Paine Webber. My mother worked as a physical therapist’s assistant at an area hospital for years and, in general, our parents did a terrific job of providing for our family. We were Boy Scouts, athletes, and active in our church. Neither of my parents attended college, yet they instilled in us the importance of continuing our education beyond high school.”

  • Jennifer Heller ’92

    Jennifer Heller ’92

    “Neither of my parents had college degrees. They both worked in sales/management positions, and money was often a struggle. I had little guidance about choosing a college; Cornell stuck out to me because of One Course At A Time. After visiting Cornell, I knew that I wanted to attend, and the aid package I got made it possible.”

  • Sarah Hauser ’97

    Sarah Hauser ’97

    “I was born and raised in North Platte, Nebraska. My mother was in training to be a secretary when she got pregnant with my sister and quit school. My father worked on the Union Pacific Railroad and is now retired after working for them his entire life.”

  • Johnnie Johnson ’97

    Johnnie Johnson ’97

    “I grew up in Chicago and attended Morgan Park Academy High School. My parents are both retired now, but my mom was a Financial Analyst for Shell Oil Company and my dad was a Systems Manager for Electronic Data Systems (EDS). My mom got her degree after I graduated from college and after she retired. My dad never went to college. He was in the army and spent some time in Korea with the military. Both got their jobs just by rising through the ranks at their respective companies.”

  • Christina Brady ’07

    Christina Brady ’07

    “I grew up in Sparks, Nevada, until I was 11. My dad was born there and knew it as the farmland it used to be, but after a shooting at our local grocery store, which made its way across the street to his aunt’s front yard, he moved us to a small town in Idaho.”

  • Sasha Burnett ’08

    Sasha Burnett ’08

    “After graduating from Cornell, I received my master’s degree in industrial/organizational psychology from the University of Northern Iowa in 2010. I currently live in Scottsdale, Arizona, and work at the Arizona Humane Society as a human resources generalist.”

  • Allison Paster-Torres ’10

    Allison Paster-Torres ’10

    “I grew up between Philly and South Jersey. Both my parents were musicians, but I lived with just my mom. My mom was a jazz vocalist. She now works in a library in addition to picking up singing jobs as often as she can.”

  • Jose Martinez ’13

    Jose Martinez ’13

    “I was born in Hood River, Oregon, and lived there until about the age of 4 when my family moved to Vancouver, Washington. At that time, my father worked as a construction worker and my mother took care of the kids (five of us, me being the middle child). My family lived there until I was about 11 and we moved to Houston, Texas, due to my father’s job.”

  • Laura Sanchez Lopez ’13

    Laura Sanchez Lopez ’13

    “My mother raised my two siblings and I in Los Angeles, California, but due to financial hardships we moved to Tucson, Arizona, when I was 13. In California my mom worked at a McDonalds. Once we moved to Tucson she started working for a grocery store, in the deli department.”

  • C'niphia Jones ’14

    C’niphia Jones ’14

    “As a single mother, my mother worked several jobs to make sure I had everything that I wanted and needed. In fact, it was her job that relocated us to Washington, D.C., from Nashville when I was 5 years old. In Washington, D.C., I attended a Catholic private school with the children of local senators. When I was 9 years old we moved to Tampa, Florida, where I attended public school for the first time. Less than a year later my mother and I were relocated a final time to Dallas, where we have lived ever since.”