By her own admission, Theresa Fennell was an unlikely candidate for college.
Fennell dropped out of her Dayton-area high school in her senior year. “My high school experience was not good,” she said. “I skipped just about every day. I didn’t do any drugs. I wasn’t a partier. I wasn’t a troublemaker. I just hated being there.”
After quitting school in 2006, “I was just kind of lost,” Fennell said. “I was 18. I didn’t have a diploma. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, so I started working. Once you start doing that, you get sucked into it. It’s hard to break away.”
But break away she did. Now a Wright State University junior in the honors biology program, Fennell is on the dean’s list in the College of Science and Mathematics. She is doing laboratory research, preparing for a four-month, expenses-paid visit to Brazil under a funded research program and has her sights set on medical school.
Fennell got a General Educational Development (GED) diploma soon after quitting high school. Even so, job opportunities were scarce. She spent two years in a variety of service jobs. Finally, she said, “I realized I don’t want to be a waitress for the rest of my life. I just knew that I could do better than that, and I wanted to do better than that.”
In 2008, Fennell started taking classes part time at Sinclair Community College.
Not sure what she wanted to do that could pay her a living wage, Fennell said she sampled a variety of courses. But she had always been fascinated by medical science. After doing well in biology courses at Sinclair, she decided to try for a bachelor’s degree.
It was a giant step for Fennell. Neither of her parents had attended college, she said, and she found the prospect of enrolling in a university “overwhelming.”
Fennell considered Ohio’s big state universities, but housing would have added to her costs, and the sheer size of the big schools daunted her. She decided to enroll in Wright State, a smaller campus just a short drive from her Dayton apartment.
“Wright State has been a perfect fit for me,” she said. “It’s big enough that you have things like—well, they’ve got a great research department. They’ve got a school of medicine. They’ve got these fabulous programs, these opportunities.” She said faculty members have been “extremely accommodating” and have helped her set goals and understand requirements.
Now 25, Fennell worried about sticking out in classes filled with younger students. “I was embarrassed about my age,” she admitted.
But Fennell soon saw she wasn’t alone. Wright State has more than the usual percentage of older and first-generation students. Among undergraduates, some 43 percent are first-generation students and 23 percent are over age 24, compared with statewide averages of 39 percent and 18 percent, according to an Ohio Board of Regents report.
Loaded up on student loans and looking for a job on campus, Fennell applied to be a research assistant in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. It was a lucky move: she’s since learned that lab research helps demystify her classroom lessons, and it’s invaluable in her preparations for medical school.
More luck: as a first-generation college student, Fennell qualified for a study-abroad program called Biomedical Training for Underrepresented Minorities—also known as BIOST.
Funded by the U.S. and Brazilian governments to grow diversity in life sciences, BIOST pays for small groups of U.S. and Brazilian students to spend semesters doing lab research in each other’s countries. She leaves in August.
Fennell admitted feeling nervous about spending several months in a different country and culture. But she welcomes it as one more door that has opened for her since coming to Wright State.
“I feel grounded,” Fennell said. “I feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I feel like I know what I want now, and I feel like I have the ability to attain it.”
Learn more about BIOST