'First-generation Students Can Follow Their Dreams'
As director of work and financial opportunities at Alma College, Robert Benjamin draws from his background as both a first-generation college student and former director of financial aid.
Before coming to the United States, Benjamin spent 30 years in Malaysia, where he was born and raised. He and two of his siblings were just a year apart in age, so attending college was an economic challenge for his family, he says.
“My dad was a pastor who had a low income,” he says. “He used most of his retirement at the time to send us to college. Neither of my parents attended college, but they always wanted us to go and better ourselves. We were the first in our family to go to college.”
Because it was more affordable to study abroad than stay in Malaysia, Benjamin went to India, where he studied economics at Spicer Memorial College. While working in finance, he pursued a master's degree in divinity at Andrews University Theological Seminary. In 2010, he also obtained a Master of Business Administration.
“The limitations of coming from an economically challenged background and being a first-generation college student have really put this desire in my heart to help students who have similar limitations,” he says. “I want them to know that graduating from college is possible for anyone. I still would like to pursue a Ph.D. and be a model for other college students, so they realize that they can follow their dreams as well.”
Benjamin comes to Alma after spending six years as the director of financial aid at Holy Cross College. He says this experience has already proven to be beneficial to his work at Alma College, which strives to ensure that all students have equal opportunity for transformational experiences, such as internships, study abroad, research or community service.
“My role is really to be the facilitator that provides guidance and resources to students, so they have the knowledge to navigate through a world of complex financial information,” he says. “There are thousands of scholarships and other opportunities out there, but I want to point Alma students in the direction of ones that fit them best.”
Nearly 40 percent of Alma students are first-generation students. In order to better understand the challenges that they face, Benjamin has been busy meeting with on-campus constituencies such as resident assistants and faculty and peer mentors.
“It's important to reach out to the people who have direct connection with students,” he says. “We need to know what issues our students have and what we can do to help them.”
Benjamin's position is funded in part by a $700,000 State of Michigan King-Chavez-Parks Select Student Support Services Grant.
Posted: Fri, September 7th, 2012 at 11:12AM