Nancy Pham’s parents are from Vietnam. Theo Zotos claims roots from Greece and Korea. She majored in communication and digital studies. He earned a degree in economics. She moved from her home in Falls Church, Virginia, into Westmoreland Hall freshman year. He drove his silver Nissan Sentra back and forth between campus and home in Spotsylvania.
But the two UMW students who claim the Class of 2019’s top elected spots – he’s president, she’s vice president – have something important in common. This morning, they became the first in their families to earn bachelor’s degrees.
“It’s a mother’s proudest moment,” Teresa Zotos said from the VIP tent in front of the University Center, minutes before watching her son walk across the Ball Circle stage to accept his diploma. Zotos’ father and three siblings, had made their way to the front of the tent to get photos.
“We are very proud of her dedication, enthusiasm and hard work in achieving one of her milestones,” Pham’s parents texted through their son, Vang.
Presumably, about a fourth of the parents who watched their children graduate at UMW’s 108th Commencement ceremony, had feelings similar to the Zotos and Phams. More than 26% of Mary Washington’s most recent graduating class consists of first-generation college students. And that can be scary.
“The whole process [of applying to college] was weird and new,” said Zotos, who met Pham at a five-week residential program on campus before their freshman year. The experience, part of UMW’s Student Transition Program (STP), is designed to prepare undergrads for experiences and opportunities likely to crop up in college. It gets them ready for ramped up workloads, helps them navigate campus, encourages them to make connections and urges them to get involved.
That part was key for Zotos and Pham.
In addition to four years as Class Council president, Zotos held posts as president of the Student Senate and the UMW chapter of Phi Eta Sigma, which he helped charter, and as vice president of the Student Government Association. He was a member of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia’s student advisory committee, the Phi Beta Kappa and Mortar Board national honor societies, and the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. He graduated Summa Cum Laude with Phi Beta Kappa Honors, and won the Adam Smith Award for Graduate Study in Economics.
During her time at Mary Washington, Pham was a Resident Assistant and an Orientation leader. She served as senior student coordinator for Student Activities and Engagement, and student ambassador for Orca TV’s Eagle Vision. She volunteered with Best Buddies and Big Brothers Big Sisters, was a member of the Lamda Pi Eta national communication honor society and graduated cum laude and with honors from the Department of English, Linguistics and Communications.
Both Pham and Zotos completed requirements for their degree last December and promptly landed great jobs. Zotos works for the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce, Pham for UMW.
But hindsight is 20/20, and for first-generation college students just starting their journeys, Zotos has some advice. “The best thing you can do is create a support network,” he said. “Don’t overthink it. Enjoy the journey as much as possible. Everything will work itself out.”