University Park, Pennsylvania – Pennsylvania is home to many first-generation students who make invaluable contributions to both the university and the campus community. One such talented and pioneering student is Rose Fischer, a PhD student in German Linguistics and Language Sciences at the College of Liberal Arts.
Fischer currently works as a part-time graduate student, part-time researcher and part-time teacher of German at the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures. While she is certainly making impressive strides in Pennsylvania, Fisher’s background and journey to pursue higher education is especially unique.
A native of Bird-In-Hand in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Fisher is a former member of the Amish community.
“I was born into an Amish family, which meant that hard physical labor was appreciated in my community while education beyond literacy and math skills was not necessary,” she said. “However, after I left my Amish family when I was 11, I knew I wanted to go to high school and college.”
In addition to her passion for learning and being a student, Fisher described how her father played a major role in encouraging her to obtain a formal education.
“My dad always wished he’d have the opportunity to attend high school and college, but that’s not allowed in the Amish community, so he wasn’t able to continue his education after eighth grade,” she said. “When we left the Amish, he encouraged my younger sister and I not only to go to high school, but also to go to college; this put the option on the table for me.”
After receiving her high school diploma from Commonwealth Connections Academy, a public online school, Fisher went on to attend Millersville University. However, her initial transfer to college as a first-generation student It came with many challenges.
“Up until that point in my life, I had experienced very little of the previous Amish and Amish culture I grew up in. Having attended e-school, I had very little exposure to the world outside of my tight-knit community,” she said. “No one I knew had gone to college before, so I had no one to guide me. Every new decision felt unknown and often made me feel lost and alone.”
The combined process of applying to colleges, scheduling classes, and navigating financial logistics has proven overwhelming. Fisher also encountered many new and unfamiliar culture shocks, particularly in academia.
“Going to a public college meant being suddenly exposed to the culture of mainstream society, which was exhilarating and charming,” she said. “I often felt misunderstood because I was struggling with standards and expectations that were alien to me.”
Fischer graduated from Millersville University in 2018 with a degree in Psychology and German. Despite facing a range of challenges and tribulations during her college years, she emerged with many valuable lessons from her experience as a first-generation undergraduate student.
“I learned to be proud of my humble background, even if it makes me different from others,” she said. “I’ve learned that I can embrace who I am and what makes me unique, while still being open to new ideas and places I haven’t tried before. No flaws or setbacks should stop me from pushing toward my goals and making them more fulfilling.”
One of the most important lessons she took from her transition to college, Fisher said, was the importance of asking for help.
“There is always someone to be found who is willing and able to help. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them,” she said.
While Fisher had a challenge navigating and adjusting to certain cultural differences in college, her Amish background continues to have a powerful influence on her life and values today.
“Even though I haven’t been away for more than half of my life now, I still notice the little ways I feel out of place in academia because of my cultural background,” she said. “On the other hand, I am fiercely independent, free-thinking, and individualistic, and I believe some of that is a response to the restrictive collectivist culture I grew up in. Societal expectations that would have limited my physical and intellectual explorations of the world only inspired me to search for it more.”
Even Fisher’s research and academic work at Penn State, which focuses on Pennsylvania Dutch, is heavily influenced by Amish roots.
“My research focuses on the linguistic characteristics of Pennsylvania Dutch, the language spoken by the Amish,” she said. “This language is neither written nor taught in schools, so there is a lot about it that is unknown. Being a native speaker of this language, and having always been fascinated by languages on a larger scale, I am interested in all aspects of Pennsylvania Dutch, but especially the social and cultural functions of the language as well to some grammatical structures”.
As a first-generation graduate student, researcher, and part-time instructor at the College of Liberal Arts, Fisher is grateful for the opportunities that have been presented to her thus far.
“Grad School is not for the faint of heart,” she said. “But teaching, as a student, being a member of my department, doing original research and presenting that research at conferences are all things that I find very satisfying, which makes all the hard work worth it.”
Looking back on her challenging and formative experiences throughout college, Fisher leaves her fellow first-generation students with the following advice: “Be proud of your unique identity. You bring something to the table that only you can provide. Wherever you are, whatever you try, whatever you are, own it.”