A First-Generation American Earned Her Place as USJ’s Commencement Speaker 

By HARRIET JONES | Hartford Courant

Rebecca Lipkin knew from a young age that she wanted a job that mattered. “I was interested in being a first responder,” said the 22-year-old new graduate from University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford. “I remember I scared my parents when I was 14. I’m like, ‘I’m going to be a cop.’”

Her parents, who both immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine, put their foot down on that career choice, but the industrious Lipkin has gone on to earn her certification as an emergency medical technician, and now a bachelor’s degree in nursing, with honors, from USJ.

Before beginning her first full-time nursing job at Hartford Hospital’s surgical trauma ICU this summer, she’ll be the school’s undergraduate speaker at Saturday’s commencement ceremony. Her themes in that speech will be sacrifice, struggle and success.

For Lipkin those themes begin even before her birth, with her parents, Tatiana and Michael Lipkin, both of whom grew up in Lutsk in northwestern Ukraine. They fled with their two older children when the Soviet Union fell, moving first to Israel, and then ending up in the U.S. some 25 years ago. Rebecca, the youngest of their four girls, was born here.

“My parents being immigrants, they sacrificed a lot,” she said. “They sacrificed everything for their kids to be successful in America.”

One long-held ambition that won’t be possible for Lipkin — she had planned to celebrate her graduation this summer with her first-ever trip to Ukraine to visit her mother’s family. That has had to be postponed because of the continued fighting there.

But she hopes her grandmother may still be able to watch her walk the stage. “She might be able to stream it hopefully, if she has power that day,” Lipkin said.

Though there have been frequent power outages in Lutsk, the family manages to check in a couple of times a week via an app. But Lipkin said her grandmother has been adamant about staying put in Ukraine throughout the trouble.

“I wanted to go and get my grandma,” she said, “bring her over here as a refugee. But she doesn’t want to go. She’s stubborn. She says, ‘It’s my country, I’m not leaving.’”

Rebecca was homeschooled by her mother in West Hartford, which she says allowed her at age 16 to begin working as a waitress at a local restaurant. It was a way to save money for a dual-enrollment program, taking high school and college courses concurrently.

She began her college education proper in 2018 at Tunxis Community College and was awarded the Academic Discipline Award in Science after completing her associate degree.

“Tunxis opened my eyes to science,” she said, and she credits her biology professor, Lynn Laskowski, for suggesting that perhaps she had a future in health care, the first in her family to consider such a career.
“She was a wonderful, wonderful professor, and she taught me how to be a student and how to thrive in science courses,” said Lipkin. “She kind of pushed me a little bit.”

Lipkin transferred to Saint Joe’s in 2019 to begin her nursing degree.

At the same time she was training as an EMT, and continued to work for ambulance company American Medical Response in Hartford throughout college, an experience she says cemented her interest in patient care.

“Honestly, that really clicked for me,” she said. “There’s a lot of vulnerable populations in Hartford and just being that person to come when they need help has definitely been humbling and it’s been a unique experience. I’ve really enjoyed the population that I’ve been able to serve.”

Her experience as an EMT also informed an honors-level independent study she took this spring semester to fulfill her graduation requirements, researching how EMT services might be able to reduce non-acute visits to the emergency department.

“She is great at balancing,” said Sheila Garilli, an assistant professor of nursing at USJ who was her supervisor for that project. “She just always does it with a smile on her face. She’s one of those infectious people to be around who spread that positivity.”

Garilli said as an honors adviser she’s well aware that there are some first generation students like Lipkin who may need a little extra attention to make it through college successfully.

“I like to check in with them if they are having any outside-of-school issues,” she said. “A lot of our students have to support themselves or support their families. And so sometimes it’s about time management — trying to figure out what are the other barriers that they might be coming up against.”

“My parents did what they could financially,” said Lipkin, “But I paid for school entirely on my own.”

Initially she didn’t believe she’d be able to even think about attending a private university like USJ, but gained enough in scholarships to make it work. But it still meant there wasn’t a whole lot left over.

“It was a little different where like some of my peers would go out and have fun for the weekend and I would have to study or go to work,” she said. “And you know, it taught me a lot about life and responsibility, so I really wouldn’t have it any other way.”

And when she gets up to speak at the commencement in front of the crowd of students, faculty and family members — hopefully including her Ukrainian grandmother more than 4,000 miles away — she’ll be remembering what it took to get her here.

“Just looking back at all the support I’ve received over the years and the guidance and the words of encouragement,” she said, “honestly, I would say I’m humbled and grateful.”