First-Gen College Faculty: Maria Luskay
Maria Luskay ‘85, director of the Media and Communication Arts graduate program, grew up in Yonkers, NY in a close-knit Italian American family with three older siblings. The family lived in a row house in Getty Square, downstairs was a pizzeria, a beauty parlor and an ice cream shop. Mom Constance was a seamstress and waitress, and dad Gerardo was a foreman for the City of Yonkers Parks Department. Neither parent had graduated from high school, but they worked hard to support their family of six. From an early age, Luskay knew she would go to college. Something inside her said she wanted more from life than Yonkers offered, and one free from financial struggle. A college degree could get her there.
They wanted more for me
“My mother and father, especially my mother, wanted more for me.” Her sisters and brother attended public high school, and they got jobs right after graduation. “That was my upbringing, but times change,” said Luskay. Ten years separate Luskay from her next oldest sibling, and by the time Luskay reached the first grade, the household finances were stable enough such that her parents could afford to send her to private Catholic school. “I remember my mother going to the rectory to speak with the priest. She begged him to allow her to pay the tuition in installments, rather than in one big lump sum. My father worked overtime. My mother got a part time job. All so they could send me to a better school. They sacrificed a lot for me.” This early investment in their daughter’s education set the stage for Luskay’s dreams to come true.
As a junior in high school, she knew she would pursue a career in communications after taking a media class, learning to write for print, television, and public relations. She loved it. A guidance counselor at the Sacred Heart High School helped Luskay identify the colleges with communications programs and select those to which she would apply. She would be accepted to all of the area colleges, plus one further afield in Pennsylvania. She chose Pace.
Like many first-gen college students, Luskay’s parents could not offer guidance on the transition from high school to college, or were unfamiliar with certain rites of passage. When Luskay moved to Pace, she lived in the dorms. “My parents didn’t take me to college and they didn’t move me in. They didn’t know. My boyfriend at the time drove me to school. I packed stuff in my car and I left. I said goodbye to my parents in Yonkers. They never came to Pace. They never saw my dorm,” explained Luskay.
Fortunately, Luskay had adult guidance when it came to financial aid forms. Jimmy Matranga, her mom’s best friend’s brother, whom she called Uncle Jimmy out of respect, coached her through the financial paperwork. Like her parents, he hadn’t gone to college, but he did graduate from high school and was a math whiz. “It was really about getting money. Who was going to give me money? We couldn’t afford it. I got a scholarship, I took out student loans, and I worked. That’s how I was able to do it,” said Luskay. She worked her way through college selling used cars for Sego Motors in Yonkers. Starting out as the bookkeeper/receptionist, she was promoted to sales person. She went to school in the day, and worked after class and on the weekends. After four years, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Literature and Communications, and landed an internship, then a full-time job in communications at IBM.
Hard work never deterred Luskay. She earned her master’s degree in Communications while working full-time as a producer of instructional-industrial videos for Lederle Pharmaceuticals. She would prove herself again when she began teaching full-time at Pace. Bob Klaeger, the recently retired chair of the Media, Communications, and Visual Arts department, offered her the opportunity to teach full-time with the contingency that she earn a doctoral degree within five years. She leapt at the chance and while teaching a full load, earned her EdD in four years. At the time, she was also mom to her first-born child, then a toddler. Looking back, “it was a blur,” Luskay said.
Luskay’s parents taught her that if there was something she wanted in life, to just go for it. “I’m the only one in my family to have a doctoral degree. My mother was so proud of me. She boasted about me to all of her friends because it was a really big deal to them,” said Luskay.
To first generation college students, Luskay urges them to feel proud of themselves and that which they have accomplished without the benefit of parental experience. But above all, she counsels passion for the work one does. Not everyone is suited for college or for an office job. Even if one is a carpenter or plumber, everyone wins if they find a career they love to do. “I love teaching. I loved being a producer. My career has been a win-win.”