The first, but not the last

First-generation students demonstrate the life-changing value of education

By Matthew Biddle

Buffalo statue with #UBFirstGen hashtag.

Larry Novofastovsky is an idealist who views college as a journey to become the best person he can. 

Novofastovsky

The Brooklynite has faced more than his share of obstacles. The son of Eastern European immigrants, Novofastovsky grew up helping his family navigate American systems. His father died of cancer when he was a teenager, and his mother—who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis shortly after he was born—died last year of COVID-19. While taking classes by Zoom, he was translating and helping his grandmother access government housing assistance. 

For Novofastovsky, being the first in his family to attend a four-year university represents a chance to build on the foundation they laid for him. 

“Initially, I didn’t really see myself going to university,” he says. “The tipping point was my grandma saying, ‘Your mom was trying to start a legacy in this country.’ She didn’t know one word of English and ended up becoming a physical therapist. I realized if she can do that under so much pressure, I can grab life by the horns and experience something bigger.”

Now in his senior year, Novofastovsky has developed an interest in investments through his classes and the UB Equity Research Group and hopes to become a wealth manager, particularly for immigrants and non-English speakers.

“My job is to show my grandma that I can maximize my potential,” he says. “I’m representing my family.”

Today, 33% of higher ed students are the first in their family to attend college, according to the U.S. Department of Education. At UB, 18% of undergrads are first generation, defined as students whose parent or guardian had not achieved a bachelor's degree when they applied for admission or financial aid. 

Being the first is a major accomplishment; here are a few more stories of success.

Aucapina

Showing up

For Ronald Aucapina, MBA ’21, graduating college meant achieving his family’s American dream. His grandparents didn’t finish grade school, and his parents emigrated from Ecuador, raising their family on Long Island while working full time and learning English. 

“My grandma always says, ‘The best gift you can give your kid is an education,’” Aucapina says. “I was lucky to see my parents involved with my education by showing up to parent-teacher meetings, even with their limited understanding of English and at times doing it without a translator.”

His father later earned an associate degree, inspiring the next generation. Today, all of Aucapina’s cousins are college grads, his sister is a junior, and he holds a bachelor’s in biology, along with a UB MBA. 

In the School of Management, Aucapina volunteered as a mentor in the First-Generation Student Mentorship Program, particularly keen to help connect other Latinx students. “I believe in leading by example, and the mentorship program provides an opportunity to give back and be a resource for other first-generation students,” he says.

Finding what matters

Brouillet

Alyssa Brouillet, BS ’20, MS ’21, says she didn’t truly understand the value of higher education until she was at UB. College just wasn’t a topic her family discussed growing up. 

“My parents had the goal of sending us to college,” she explains. “But since they both went to community college, they relied on our guidance counselors and teachers to help us through the process and couldn’t speak from personal experience as to why higher education was important. Personally, I think this hurdle is a lot higher for first-generation students than people realize.”

Brouillet pursued a business degree, hoping to gain useful skills and explore many fields. Her internship with BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York’s digital experience team pulled everything into focus. She saw how she could combine the creativity of marketing with data analytics and strategy to make business decisions.

The experience inspired Brouillet to earn her master’s in management information systems, and today, she serves as a customer research analyst for MarketCast, looking at how diversity impacts the entertainment industry and making recommendations to help companies be more inclusive.

“Every experience I had at UB has shaped me into who I am today,” says Brouillet, who was an Arthur A. Schomburg Fellow during her graduate year. “My internships, projects, extracurriculars and study abroad gave me the space to learn what mattered to me. This trial-and-error approach helped me make connections, develop my sense of confidence and figure out what I want my future to look like.”

Setting an example

Threat

College wasn’t always the plan for Jared Threat, PMBA ’17. After high school, he pursued a music management career, and though it didn’t pan out, the experience taught him adaptability and resilience.

Threat became the first in his family to earn a four-year degree—and then pushed himself to earn an MBA too.

“Education isn’t something that just stops,” he says. “You should learn something new every day. I got my MBA because I want to open doors for people who need help.”

The Professional MBA program gave Threat the skills and confidence to move from banking to marketing. He joined Mr. Smith Agency shortly after commencement, and pivoted again earlier this year, when he was named EHS global project lead at Moog Inc. 

Now, years after his parents instilled in him the importance of education, Threat hopes to do the same for his baby. 

“We had our first child in September 2020, and my wife and I have our degrees proudly displayed on the wall outside the nursery,” he says. “That means so much to me as an accomplishment, but more than that, it sets the example and expectations for our child to be great.”