As we celebrate UCI First-Gen Day on November 8, 2021, we would like to highlight some of the incredible ways that first-gen faculty are supporting UCI’s first-gen community. This article is dedicated to first-gen faculty member Long T. Bui and his plans as the new director of the First-Generation Faculty Initiative.
Professor Bui is an Associate Professor in the Department of Global and International Studies who has been working at UCI since 2018. As a UCI alum who identifies as the first in his family to attend college, Professor Bui is excited to serve as Director of the FGFI and continue to work as a representative of and advocate for the first-gen community.
To highlight his new role, we sat down with Professor Bui to discuss his experience as a first-gen student, what being the new Director of the FGFI means to him, and his hopes for what the FGFI will do for UCI’s first-gen student population.
Q: Congratulations on being named Director! For those who are not familiar with the FGFI, how would you describe its purpose and goals?
A: The First-Generation Faculty Initiative (FGFI) is a faculty network and group comprised of dedicated professors who identify as first-gen college students and who want to help others like them. They are big supporters of the first-gen community and are active in promoting first-gen issues. Their main goal is to connect with first-gen students to share their experiences and serve as professional role models.
The FGFI strives to make it easier for first-gen students to acclimate and ultimately succeed at UCI, and this is possible thanks to the heavy involvement of UCI faculty. When students learn how faculty were able to make it to where they are today, it opens a portal or pathway for students to envision their own future activities or projects. Additionally, when students get a sense of everything first-gen faculty are doing both within and outside the classroom, this can also motivate them to get involved in first-gen student life. Without our dedicated faculty, this program would not be as visible—so we need more faculty to get involved!
Q: As a first-gen student yourself, did you have difficulty adjusting to campus life when you started your college journey?
A: As a first-gen student, my challenges were plenty. First, I didn’t even know what graduate school was or how to get there. My single mother had only a third-grade education. Unfortunately, she abandoned me and my siblings by the time I got to college, so I felt literally alone. During times between rental leases, I was housing insecure. I already had so much trauma from attending sixteen schools from K-12 that even in college I felt like the ground was always shifting beneath my feet. Those were some of the hardest times, and I do not always look back on my undergrad years fondly. While I’m a proud Anteater, the identification comes with a lot of pain and—looking back again with fresh eyes—amazement at overcoming so much.
In terms of career, I never considered working in higher education because I thought good salaried jobs were technical vocations like medical doctors, lawyers, or engineers. Dealing with poverty and constant issues of insecurity—what we today call Imposter Syndrome—made me want to find something secure but rewarding. It was meeting professors, who identified my love of learning, that put me on the path of becoming an educator, a privileged position that I use as a platform for change.
Q: Speaking of the faculty who made such a huge difference in your life, did your experience with them influence your decision to get involved with the FGFI?
A: Yes; I was fortunate to have faculty who personally mentored and believed in me. UCI is my alma mater, and had I gone to a less-nurturing and less-caring institution, I don’t think I would have made it. I had many mentors, some first-gen and some not, but they all gave me a sense of my own destiny and agency.
The guidance I received specifically from first-gen faculty who were women and people of color shaped my worldview in terms of first-gen life and taught me that advocacy for first-gen students can also be anti-racist and feminist. I believe the FGFI aligns with recent developments and implementations at UCI around social justice issues, and I want to be a part of this important change.
Q: What are some of the specific things you would like the FGFI to do or address for current first-gen students?
A: I would like the FGFI to consider intersectionality more. The “first-gen experience” is not an abstract concept, but something embodied and felt. First-gen issues intersect with race/ethnicity, gender/sexuality, dis/ability, religion/spirituality, and so much more. For example, many of our international studies are first-gen despite the popular perception of them all being privileged. We might find better ways to serve both groups by identifying their convergences and/or differences. In my personal experience, I found that talking through all these issues together enhances the multiple dimensions of what we call the “first-gen experience.”
I also hope that the FGFI teaches students the importance of giving back not only to the UC community but to their own diverse home communities as well. Before they came to UCI and met its devoted staff and faculty, most first-gen students have already been encouraged and supported by others. So, it’s important that we remind them of that fact and link their past to the present.
Q: What do you hope students will take away from the FGFI?
A: I hope they will come to understand the power of role models. Many first-gen students perceive their professors only as classroom teachers or instructors. They might not pick up on the fact that many are world-class researchers, had other jobs before, or that they were once students too! FGFI is there for them, but this is not a passive caretaking role. Students and faculty who identify as first-gen or as allies must find a way to bring the mission of FGFI into their everyday or professional lives. The initiative will continue and thrive as long as people are involved and want to make a difference.
Q: If you could give current first-gen students any piece of advice, what would it be?
A: My classic advice to first-gen students is they must be their own biggest advocate. Many students hope that someday someone will see them for who they are and then help them find their purpose. But this is hard considering professors teach hundreds of students a year. It’s up to students to be brave, step out of the shadows, and voice their concerns. This can be as easy as going to office hours or starting a conversation with a faculty member. Pushing yourself to be seen and heard is the first step to becoming your own advocate and connecting with faculty. And who knows, these connections can last a lifetime! I am still in constant contact with my mentors from undergrad!
Q: Thank you so much for sharing your story and insights with us, Professor Bui! Before we wrap this up, are there any upcoming FGFI projects or events that we should look forward to?
A: We’re planning a couple of FGFI projects, including a workshop co-organized between the Humanities Center and University of California Press to teach first-gen faculty how to publish their first books. Another event is a planned brown bag lunch with the new Dean of Education, who is also first-gen. In Spring 2022, FGFI plans to hold a meet-and-greet between first-gen faculty, allies, and students. This annual social event was put on hold due to the pandemic, so it’s great to be back and to get to know each other again in person!