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First-gen students on putting their passions first

A photo of Allison He, a photo of Kyle Bylin and a photo of Tyler Musgrave appear side-by-side with the UMSI logo in the top left corner

Monday, 10/30/2023

For first-generation college students, an often overlooked burden is the pressure to be practical. When it comes to choosing majors, internships and extracurricular activities, some students feel torn between embracing the opportunities their parents didn’t have and ensuring their time in college will pave the way for a stable career. But the two concerns don’t have to be at odds. Here are the stories of three students at the University of Michigan School of Information who identify as first generation — and the unexpected places their passions have led them.

Allison He stands outside North Quad, posing with her hands on her hips.

The NYC subway guide to finding a major

Allison He (BSI ’25) is from Queens, New York City — “I specify Queens,” she says, because among the five boroughs she worries it’s neglected. Queens shaped her sense of self.

“I grew up in a very tight-knit community. Everyone helps each other,” she says. “Growing up there also taught me a lot about diversity and taught me to be vocal about my opinions.” 

A first-generation Chinese American and first-generation college student, Allison felt pressure to plan ahead. She went to a STEM-focused high school and assumed her journey through the computer science major at the University of Michigan would be like a straight shot on the subway: hop on, stay the course, hop off. 

She was surprised, sophomore year, to find herself considering a transfer.

“I think I was trying to fit myself into a mold that I didn’t really fit into,” she says of computer science. Allison began reaching out to students in the School of Information for their perspectives and advice. Something clicked when she took a product design course that a UMSI student had recommended. Working in Figma, she began to reclaim the artistic interests she had given up after middle school. 

“Being first-gen really played into that,” she says. “I thought, if I pursue art, I’m wasting my time because I won’t be able to make money.”

There are many obstacles first-generation students face during their college journeys, from lack of guidance to lack of financial resources. When Allison sees people who have made careers of their art, she is filled with admiration. But she also recognizes something: Many of them received external support to pursue those passions, or had a safety net to fall back on if their passions didn’t pay off. 

This fall, she began the Bachelor of Science in Information at UMSI. On the user experience design path, she has found a way to merge her STEM background with her artistic interests. “When you’re designing, you have to think about where everything goes and what the user sees,” she says. “It’s a combination of my creative brain and also the logical side.” 

She has found a community that, while smaller in size, carries the supportive qualities she loves in Queens. “I’ve made a lot of friends through UMSI, which I’m really grateful for,” she says. “I appreciate having female support, as well. The community is so welcoming.” 

As for her destination, Allison is sure of two things: She wants to work as a UX designer, and she wants to go back home to her favorite city. 

Kyle Bylin stands on the U-M campus with fall foliage in the background.

Charting a path to Billboard and beyond

The year is 2000. A North Dakota farm kid sits on his couch watching a music video show that airs after pro wrestling, “” A new band is featured this week: Linkin Park playing “One Step Closer.” The connection he feels is instant.

He has no idea that in the course of a decade he’ll become the editor of the popular music industry blog Hypebot, then move to L.A. to write for Billboard magazine.

For now, he’s just sitting on his couch, discovering a cool new band. 

“I always reflect back on that moment,” says Kyle Bylin (MSI ’24). “I think, isn't it so weird that the music business figured out how to find a 12-year-old on a couch in North Dakota, who liked professional wrestling and — boom — hook, line and sinker: Linkin Park is my favorite band.” 

This is such a user researcher thing to say. Now in his second year as a master’s student at UMSI, Kyle spends a lot of time thinking about the impact of digital technology and big data on the music business.

“My journey to UMSI is a little bit longer, because I didn't know what graduate school was when I started looking at colleges,” he remembers. 

A first-generation college student, Kyle grew up on an Angus cattle farm outside a town of 145 people. There were 16 students in his high school class. "We all got told to go to college,” he says, “but no one told us what to do when we got there.” He went to nearby Mayville State University in the fall of 2006 but dropped out after a single semester. 

In 2009, he earned his associate’s degree in music and entertainment business from a program in the Twin Cities, which he found through a Google search. He spent the next 10 years witnessing the streaming revolution firsthand — first as a music technology journalist, then as a user researcher for Live Nation Entertainment. 

Kyle had no idea what “user research” was before taking the job. It would be a while longer before he would learn, over a happenstance lunch with a UMSI alumnus, that the interest he had been circling for a decade — how people interact with technology — is something you can get a degree in. 

“That put this idea in my head,” Kyle says — he wanted to go back to college. During the pandemic, he earned his bachelor’s degree remotely from Berklee College of Music. Then he applied to UMSI for graduate school and was admitted with a full scholarship. 

“At UMSI, my interests have evolved in unique ways,” he says. While taking courses on UX research alongside a course at the School of Social Work on strategies for community change, he has begun thinking about “how research can be used to engage with communities, learn their wants and needs and develop programming based on that.” 

He and his classmates find themselves immersed in a field that is rapidly evolving — a feeling Kyle has had before. 

“Right now, we're going through a once-in-a-generation change where artificial intelligence is going to transform so many different industries, much like the digitization of music has fundamentally transformed how people experience music and interact with artists,” Kyle says. “And we stand positioned to help guide those experiences, both for the public and for the end consumer.”

This is where the core skills that UMSI teaches become important, he says. Even as “a first-generation college student at 35, getting a master’s degree in a field that’s being reinvented by technology,” he feels supported and prepared. His future career might not exist yet, but he gets to be part of creating the future of technology. 

Tyler Musgrave stands on the U-M campus with an academic building and a yellow tree behind them.

Crossing the globe with an inner compass

Tyler Musgrave (PhD ’25) started college during the height of the Occupy movement. She found herself more invested in the learning she was doing outside the classroom: organizing, protesting and talking to peers. 

As a firstborn, Tyler is used to leading the way, but navigating college felt more difficult than they had imagined. They broke the news to their parents that they wanted to drop out. 

Tyler describes her parents as blue collar – her dad is a truck driver and her mom is a nurse who earned a bachelor’s degree later in life. “My parents just wanted me to finish. They’re like, you get a trade and you work in it,” she says. “But I feel like a lot of my navigation was coming from a sense of self.”

At this juncture, a friend told Tyler about a bachelor’s degree in global studies offered by Long Island University Global. The program is designed to foster global citizens by giving students the opportunity to learn in a different country each year. 

“That’s exactly what I wanted to do,” Tyler remembers realizing. “It fit my values: I want to be in community and learn from people.”

These values served as a compass throughout Tyler’s studies in Costa Rica, China, South Africa and New York through LIU Global. After graduation, their values guided them to join the Peace Corps, to facilitate restorative justice circles for youth in San Francisco and — most surprising to Tyler — to get a PhD. 

“That wasn’t even on the horizon,” she laughs. But her interest in bringing restorative justice into the tech world prompted her to email associate professor of information Sarita Schoenebeck, whose research focuses on equity and justice in online environments. It was Schoenebeck who first encouraged Tyler to apply for a PhD.

Now in their fourth year as a doctoral student at UMSI, Tyler’s research centers on identity and safety in social media, including the online harassment of Black women and femmes. They use restorative justice as both theory and method. 

In the summer of 2022, they were awarded a fellowship from the U.S. Department of State to learn Swahili in Tanzania. Next semester, as a Foreign Language Area Studies fellow, they’ll return to Tanzania to do research for their dissertation, exploring global Blackness and how Black peoples’ perceptions of their own and others’ identities are shaped by social media. 

“All of this is a part of my identity now, and I feel like I have such a sense of duty to all of it that sometimes it can be hard,” Tyler says. “What if I mess up?”

Part of the duty she feels is to consider her audience “outside the ivory tower” of academia. Currently, she’s working on translating one of her research papers into an animation that will be accessible to non-academics, like her parents. 

Tyler feels most in their element when doing qualitative research: learning from people. The same impulse that has driven them to explore also roots them in community. 

“As a first-gen scholar at Michigan, I've been able to build out a community of folks who have my back — from students, to professors like Sarita, Kentaro Toyama, Frieda Ekotto and Yvette Granata, to staff like Devon Keen, Sandra Lopez and Dan Cameron,” Tyler says. “I'm saying all these people's names because that's part of restorative justice. You talk about the people who have upheld you and who have supported you.”

Abigail McFee, marketing and communications writer


Read about UMSI’s First-Gen Celebration Week

Kyle Bylin curated a playlist to pair with this story. Listen here

Tyler Musgrave’s animation project, “For Black Femmes,” is funded by U-M’s ArtsEngine, the Digital Studies Institute and the Institute of Women and Gender Research. Learn more.