“I knew that I was meant to be working with my brain, not just on the floor of a factory,” says Caryl Forristall, a biology professor at the University of Redlands, of deciding to attend college.
Motivated by an interest in chemistry sparked by a teacher at her high school in Boston, Mass., Forristall was left to apply to college on her own because her parents didn’t understand her desire to continue her education and she didn’t receive guidance from high school administrators. “My counselor was useless, and I received very poor advice about college when I was a teenager,” she says.
Still, she ended up at a small liberal arts college, which was fortuitous. “The one-on-one attention I received from faculty was instrumental in my academic success,” she says.
However, her triumphs did not come without challenges. “Being a first-generation student was like walking around in a fog,” Forristall admits. “It felt like everyone knew that there was a set of rules to abide by at college, and I didn’t know what they were. I couldn’t understand why my friends were getting science jobs during the summer and I was working in a factory. I stuck out like a sore thumb.”
After receiving a scholarship to live on campus, Forristall found her home in more ways than one. “I fell in love with working with mice in the genetics lab when I was a freshman,” she says. “That was the year I realized I was meant to work in science.”
But a propensity for genetics didn’t immediately translate into professorship for Forristall. “I was terrified of speaking in public, and it wasn’t until I was a teaching assistant that I realized I liked working with students,” she says. “I thought I was going to spend my life doing research, but every time I was given the choice between research and teaching, I chose teaching.”
When asked if she had any advice for current first-generation college students, Forristall urged students to make connections on campus. “I would have loved the Summer Bridge program when I was in college,” she says. “There are a number of first-generation faculty at the U of R, and we are more than happy to share our experiences with students. Those connections can make a huge difference to someone dealing with the experiences that come along with being a first-generation student.”