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First Generation Graduates: Dr. Zachary Pilot, Assistant Professor of Psychology

November 7, 2023

Dr. Zachary Pilot may hail from Pennsylvania, but his hometown of Acme sits in one of the poorest counties per capita in the state. He knew growing up, he wanted to help others and find the answers to his questions about why we do the things we do. With the support of his family, Pilot became a first-generation student, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown in 2012, and completing his master’s and doctorate degrees in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences division of the Psychology Department at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale in 2017.

As a first-generation graduate, what made you want to pursue a college education? 

My family is made up of blue-collar workers. My grandmother worked in a sewing factory, my grandfather was a coal miner, my father was a plumber, and my mother is a nurse. They constantly advocated for me go to school, to take school seriously, so I could avoid the physical toll their jobs cost them and build a better life for myself. Beyond that, I’ve always enjoyed helping people and asking questions. As a researcher, I get to continuously ask new questions and find answers. As a teacher, I get to help students like me find their own way to a better future, just as I had to navigate a similar environment when I was in their shoes. 

What was your biggest challenge, if you had any?

The biggest professional challenge is learning how to succeed in an environment where you do not know the rules, you can’t see the bigger picture all the time, and you don’t know what resources exist to help you or how to access them. Personally, as a first-gen student, you enter college for the pursuit of a better future, but often your family would benefit from your help at home. Learning to manage the guilt of not being able to help at home as much as you’d like, while also succeeding in college was hard, and it continues to be hard. Remembering that your family supports you even though they may not know exactly what you’re going through is helpful. 

What was your fondest memory about college? 

In my final year I was very comfortable on campus, I was involved in a psychology lab and presenting at conferences, I had been a lead in several theater productions, I worked on campus as a tutor for various topics, and I lived with a group of friends I was very close with. My fondest memory is feeling supported by both faculty, family and friends as my world got bigger. That support enabled me to apply to and pursue graduate study, which made my life today possible. 

What is a piece of advice you have for anyone looking to pursue college as a first-generation student?

Be unafraid; own your educational experience. Do not be embarrassed to ask questions, to go to office hours to get clarity or more detailed explanations. Be bold enough to seek internships, positions in science labs, leadership opportunities, to pursue new hobbies and passions and to have fun. Have the perspective that education is yours, you deserve it, and get everything out of it you can with the knowledge that others will support you and help you along the way.


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