Aerospace engineering student Elena Djodarik grew up watching her father sacrifice for the betterment of their family.
He moved to the United States from the former Yugoslavia and carried almost nothing from his homeland, eventually meeting Djodaric’s mother who emigrated from the Philippines. He has worked a lot on multiple jobs. And he always had the end in mind, reinforcing her once she started thinking in college that “it’s better to cry for four years than to cry for 40.” This adage will continue to guide her as she strove to become the first in her family to earn a college education.
“Remembering this quote helps me propel me through some of my academic challenges,” said the Orlando, Florida native. “My family’s continued support is the biggest inspiration for me to get to where I am today.”
Djodarik, a recent recipient of a James W and Essie W Barfield scholarship, as well as a second scholarship from the Miami Foundation, remembers calling her father as soon as he heard the news of their victory, and he encouraged her. Today, she aims to encourage her first-generation colleagues to likewise throughout Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach campus.
“I am becoming more involved with student organizations,” she said, citing leadership positions in the Society of Women Engineers (chair) and First Generation Students’ Association (treasury), as well as being a percussionist on the Embry-Riddle Babe Band. “I am passionate about helping first-generation college students Because I am one of them.”
The biggest challenge she faced in starting her college career was simply figuring out where and how to get help. This is where the Discover Embry-Riddle program, an initiative that turned out to be the most influential for her early in her tenure on campus, came into play.
“The Discover program is designed to provide a bridge for first-generation students entering the Embry-Riddle community,” said Rich Nichols, Assistant Dean for Parent/Student Programs. “Starting three days prior to orientation, the program runs throughout students’ first year and offers peer mentors, grants, a live learning community, tutoring, social engagements, and a first-generation student club.”
“The program has given me a sense of community with other first-generation peers, and a place to seek help and connect with university faculty,” Djodarik said. “Now, two years later, I’m a mentor and team leader for this program.”
As such, she shares her experience of transitioning from high school to college with freshmen, giving advice and checking in with them routinely to see how they’re doing.
“The advice I would give to incoming first-generation students is to take chances, apply for this scholarship or job, make new friends, take care of yourself and, most importantly, never be afraid to ask for help,” Djodarik said. “There are others who have felt or may feel the same way I did, and eventually went through it. Absolutely. Gives. Up.”
Nichols echoed that sentiment.
“Without a doubt, the connections that students forge with other first-generation students are fundamental,” he said. “The experiences they share strengthen bonds not only with their peers, but with student leaders and staff who provide support during their first year and beyond.”
Since the start of the Discover Embry-Riddle program in 2017, it has supported nearly 200 students. In addition, the retention rate of first-generation students who participate in the program consistently exceeds the retention rate of non-member first-generation students annually.
After graduation, Djodarik dreams of pursuing a career in the aviation sector, “working to make space easier.”
*Did you know that 51 new scholarships, totaling $1.18 million, were created last year at Embry-Riddle, bringing the total number of scholarship funds available to the Eagles to 285? These programs help 96% of Eagles either find a job or enroll in graduate school within one year of graduating. Are you interested in helping future generations of students achieve their dreams? visit Charitable work and alumni participation
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