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First-Generation Student Stories

Brenda Adams – Student Involvement (Gainesville)

I returned to college as an adult learner and graduated—all of my siblings attended college but I was the only one to graduate. My parents did not have the opportunity to go to college. 

Dr. Katherine Adams – Teacher Education (Gainesville)

I was a first-generation students and teen mom ( I actually took my son to to undergraduate classes for a while because no one told I could not and I just did not know any better. My first semester I saved up as much money as I could so that I could buy an "UGA MOM" t-shirt, as I thought that meant there were a lot of student-moms like me on campus!)

Jessica Bohannon – Information Technology (Gainesville)

My husband is a First Generation College Student who is currently attending UNG. He has wanted to go to college for a long time and never thought he could when he was growing up. I told him he could do anything he set his mind to when we got married, so now he has been attending UNG for the past 3 and a half years and doing great!

Phyllis Brannon – Mathematics (Oconee)

I was a first-generation college student back in 1988 when I graduated from UGA with a bachelors in math education. I later received a masters degree, and this past fall was hired as a temporary lecturer in math on the Oconee Campus. There were several people who helped me along the way, especially two UGA professors, and I am forever grateful to them. 

Jodi Carlyle – IESA (Gainesville)

I was a first generation student. Although I am glad that my kids are not, I can relate to first-generation students and the challenges they often have in terms of having a successful college experience.

Alisha Cromwell – History (Oconee)

I went to an under-funded school district in a poor community in the California Bay Area. No one in my family talked about college because nobody had ever been to one. Right out of High School, I attempted to go to the local community college and I dropped out four times. I had no idea how to take notes, study, or even how to write an essay. I felt woefully unprepared and discouraged. My Abuelo had gotten me a job at the C&H Sugar factory where almost every single one of my family members worked. I started in the powder mill, using heavy machinery to bag powdered sugar. Every shift, I could feel myself becoming more and more alienated from my labor and my mind was beginning to atrophy for the monotony of it all. I realized that the only way out was to try going back to college, again.

This time, I decided to enroll at Napa Valley College. Due to programs focused on first-generation and non-traditional students, I graduated with two A.A. degrees and a new-found understanding of how to succeed in college classes. I then transferred to San Francisco State University, where I graduated with a B.A. in History and a B.A. in Anthropology. By this point, I had never left the Bay Area and decided it was time to learn about other parts of the United States. I received my M.A. in Public History and a certificate in Historical Archaeology from University of South Carolina. To complete my long-pursued goal of becoming an Historian, I graduated with my Ph.D. in American History from the University of Georgia in 2017.

Throughout my fifteen-year educational journey, I learned that Academia maintains a status quo where wealth and privilege influences which people are admitted into academic programs; therefore, people like me from low- income areas are not as represented in our colleges and universities. The realization that I am one of very few first-generation students to earn a Ph.D. has guided my teaching philosophy. I connect with UNG students because they remind me of myself. Many are first-generation or non-traditional students, and I relate to their struggles as well as their achievements. In my classroom, I focus on note-taking, study strategies, academic writing, and in-class reading time in order to prepare students for future classes. I never want someone to feel as discouraged and unprepared as I did when first starting out. I strive to create an educational environment in which people of various tonicities and backgrounds are represented to show all my students that they are valued members of the college community and that divergent experiences are worthy of respect.

Lisa Diehl – English (Dahlonega)

My father had a college degree, but my mother did not. I was the first female on my mother's side of the family to obtain a college degree and an advanced degree.

My grandparents were first generation Irish-Americans. My grandmother was a brilliant woman, but she never had the opportunity to pursue a degree. My mother was also an extremely bright person who raised 8 children and she always regretted that she never went to college.

To make my story more interesting, I was the only child of 8 who had disabilities. I wear hearing aids and for the first formative years of my life (through grade 7) my hearing deficiency went undiagnosed. My mother was told I was dumb and stupid and one educator suggested putting me in a school for mentally challenged children.

My mother was so proud when I attained my undergraduate degree in English with a minor in writing form the University of Tampa. To top it off, I graduate with a 3.5 GPA (cum laude) even though I worked full-time and went to school full-time.

After 30 years, I went back to college and successfully obtained a Master of Arts in Teaching with a specialization in Secondary English from Piedmont College. My GPA was a 4.0.

Now, I am pursuing a Doctorate of Education in Interdisciplinary Leadership from Creighton University. I am working on my dissertation and I expect to have my doctorate in the next 6 months. I have completed my course work with a GPA of 4.0.

My mother was so proud of me pursuing what she never had the chance to accomplish in her life. She will not be able to see me graduate with a doctorate degree, but somehow I think she will know I have done it.

Aubrey Frazier – Greek Life (Dahlonega)

My education was always extremely important to my mother since she didn’t have the opportunity to go to college. While my mother’s constant support and drive pushed me to prioritize my education, I knew that I wouldn’t have any help actually getting into college because no one in my family had ever gone through the process before. Figuring out what schools to apply for, navigating the application process, and filling out financial aid paperwork was overwhelming as a first generation college student. 

My first year of college was very monotonous, but once I joined a sorority I really started to maximize my college experience. This provided me better access to involvement/leadership opportunities, mentorship relationships, internships, and eventually my desire to get a masters degree. I truly believe I would not have gotten where I am now without the guidance I received from staff due to my involvement.

My biggest piece of advice to other first generation college students is to find someone or something that provides you guidance with navigating your college experience. While it’s important for every college student to do this, it is much easier for us to get lost without this intentional advice. If I wouldn’t have had the assistance of my sorority sisters and mentors, I wouldn’t have discovered my true passions which lead to my current professional and financial success.

Jamie Lamanac – Cumming Campus

I started college as a single mother on public assistance, with a GED. I had recently gone through a divorce and was living in my parents’ house with my two children. I worked full time for a business that was new and booming with growth. However, the department I worked in was an experimental department. The time had come when the company I worked for had to make a decision on whether the department was beneficial to the business. They had to decide whether to keep the department and expand or dismantle it all together. This both terrified me and prompted me to look at my future in a whole new light. I knew my income was higher than it had ever been before and that I enjoyed my job, but the probability of continuing to make that income in a position that I enjoyed if I lost this job was slim. With that being said, I started to weigh my options and look at local programs that were available.

When I told my parents I had applied to college they were proud of me, but their first question was, “Can you afford it?” I told them I had researched it and I believed I could with financial aid. I had completed my FASFA and turned in my application. I was just waiting to hear something from Gainesville State College. I took my entrance exams, and I was ecstatic when I received my acceptance letter. My parents were ecstatic for me as well, but none of us knew what to expect or what to do.

I started in Math Support, but in my first semester, I had a professor that saw something in me. Jürgen Grandt referred me to the Honors Program. I took Honors classes the next semester while I took Math Support for the second time. That semester, both of my children had to have surgeries. I spoke with my professors, and they worked with me to get my coursework done. I spoke with everyone I had access to. If I hit a hurdle I was in someone’s office asking for advice. I was tenacious. I used all of my resources and thanked God that I was on a campus that had a large population of Non-Traditional Students who could empathize with me. I was surrounded by professors who cared and wanted to see me succeed. I participated in clubs and committees and soon found myself part of a larger family. This family grew even more as we went through consolidation with North Georgia State College and University to become the University of North Georgia.

Before I knew it, I was eligible to graduate with my Associate Degree in Psychology. I was the first in my immediate family to have a college degree. Not only did I graduate, but I was one of the first two students to graduate in the Honors Program from the University of North Georgia.

I continued my education on the Gainesville campus as a Human Services Delivery and Administration student. I was elected and served as the President of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and attended HSDA club meetings, and some SGA meetings. I attended the Student Conference on Leadership. I served on a search committee for the AVP of Student Affairs and completed my Service Learning hours, with a good portion of them being served under the new AVP for student affairs, Dr. Cara Ray. During that time I was able to involved in the planning of the Student Conference on Leadership. I was involved but involved at a pace that was comfortable for my family and I. I even took a dance class with one of my best friends as a PE credit and had the time of my life.

During this time I had hurdles in my personal life as well as my educational life. I went to my advisors overwhelmed and in tears on more than one occasion. They were absolutely wonderful. They always reminded me that I could do it and were there to help. Even when I got so wrapped in up in life that I earned my first and only F. I sat in that professor’s office and cried. She reassured me that I would be ok and that I would succeed regardless. She became a trusted advisor. Not only did I graduate, but I was one of the first two students to graduate in the Honors Program from the University of North Georgia.

I continued my education on the Gainesville campus as a Human Services Delivery and Administration student. I was elected and served as the President of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and attended HSDA club meetings, and some SGA meetings. I attended the Student Conference on Leadership. I served on a search committee for the AVP of Student Affairs and completed my Service Learning hours, with a good portion of them being served under the new AVP for student affairs, Dr. Cara Ray. During that time I was able to involved in the planning of the Student Conference on Leadership. I was involved but involved at a pace that was comfortable for my family and I. I even took a dance class with one of my best friends as a PE credit and had the time of my life.

During this time I had hurdles in my personal life as well as my educational life. I went to my advisors overwhelmed and in tears on more than one occasion. They were absolutely wonderful. They always reminded me that I could do it and were there to help. Even when I got so wrapped in up in life that I earned my first and only F. I sat in that professor’s office and cried. She reassured me that I would be ok and that I would succeed regardless. She became a trusted advisor. I graduated magna cum laude from the University of North Georgia with a Bachelor Degree in Human Services Delivery Administration. I used what I had learned through my service learning to serve the community in my new position at Hall County Treatment Services until I saw an opening at my alma mater, University of North Georgia. I started my journey here a little over a year ago and since then have experienced that same feeling of family, support, and growth as I did as a student.

Dr. Joshua Martin – Spanish (Dahlonega)

I was the first in my family to go to college, to study abroad, and to learn a language other than English. None of that would have been possible without the support of my family and the encouragement of my professors. Here at UNG, we are proud of our first generation college students and want to provide them with all of the necessary resources so that they can continue their success after graduation.

Laura Ramiro Moreno – Spanish (Dahlonega)

I am not only a first-generation student but the only one of my groups of friends to go to graduate school and one of the very few in my town to get a PhD so I do understand what it means to be surrounded by people who do not understand that you have to study/work and not having a supporting environment for this kind of academic challenge.

Celeste Morris – Theatre (Gainesville)

I graduated from Dacula High School in 91. My dad was a hard working blue collar (actually, it was brown) for Gwinnett County and my mother was on disability and stayed at home. There was absolutely no money for college, but I had a burning desire. I worked hard in high school and received several scholarships to Brenau University. This was just before the “Hope” scholarship came into existence and there was no state support at the public universities. I know my parents stressed about the financial burden and I made up as much as I could through part time jobs, scholarships and federal work study money. I honestly do not know all that my siblings had to sacrifice in order for me to go to school. I graduated in 95 from Brenau University with a BA in Theatre and took a year off from school to do an internship at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre making 150.00 a week. In the fall of 96, I began my graduate work at FSU and completed my MFA in Theatre in the spring of 99. It NEVER crossed my mind that I couldn’t do it.

My mother had polio in 1948 (during the epidemic) which left her paralyzed from the waist down. Her parents were told that she would never walk, never have a job and never have a family. Institutionalization of handicapped children was acceptable and even encouraged by physicians. My grandmother said “absolutely not” and began to fight for my mother and her future. This strong will was instilled in me as I watched my mother overcome barrier after barrier. One of her favorite sayings is “where there is a will, there is a way.” I continue to find truth in this every day.

Today I am an associate professor at UNG. My brother and sister have both completed their Associate’s degrees and are certified professionals in their fields. My brother is a BMW tech and teaches at Gwinnet Tech and my sister works for Northeast GA Medical and teaches for UNG’s CE department in Medical Administration.

I share my little story with all of the first generation students in my classes. I encourage them. I push them. Because I believe in them and their dreams.

Dr. Alyson Paul – Associate VP Student Affairs, Dean of Students (Gainesville & Cumming)

I am a First Generation Student.

Although my parents may have planned for me to go to college, this intention was not as strongly assumed or planned-for as many of my friends. In fact, during the time most people are applying and making decisions about where they were going to college, I wasn’t. Fortunately, I had a teacher who encouraged me to pursue an athletic scholarship at a small private college and my mom pushed me to apply and completed the FAFSA for me. It all came together rather last minute, but away I went to move-in day.

Although I wasn’t a stellar student in high school and felt like an imposter in the college environment, I enjoyed the opportunities to meet new people and to exercise my independence. In my first semester, I was scared that soon my classmates would outshine me and we all would realize that I didn’t belong. Something in me began to change and the fear of being exposed shifted to a desire to prove that I could not only belong, but excel, and I did – 3.7 GPA in my first semester.

With each course passed, my confidence grew and I continued to get more involved in student organizations and events all while being a student-athlete. As my 3rd year came to a close, I realized that being successful in the college environment was more a result of my drive and tenacity to prove myself worthy than it was about intellectual ability. Being resilient and determined really helped.

Contrary to many of my high school and college peers, I completed my Bachelor’s degree in 4 years and graduated with honors, even though I brought in no credits from high school and transferred colleges.

Charles Rozier – Philosophy (Gainesville)

My mother is a South Korean immigrant who married my North Carolinian father, and neither of them attended college but made me. My brother and I are both graduates of higher education and post-secondary education, and I am proud to be a #UNGfirstgen!

Sheila Schulte – Associate VP for International Programs

I grew up on a farm outside of a small town in Iowa that boasts a population of 600 people and most of those are my relatives. My great-grandfather’s family were homesteaders and managed, through a lot of hard work, to become prosperous farmers. I grew up in the house that my grandfather built with his brothers in 1919, and my father was born in that home in 1932. My father left school around the 8th grade because he needed to work the farm. As with many of his generation, this meant that he was not in school in spring and fall, but could attend during the winter months, which does little for retention of information. Farming is an occupation that ties one to the land and to one place, and my parents understood from their own experiences that education would be the key to their children gaining freedom of career choice and movement in socio-economic status.

I loved school, and through the encouragement of key teachers and my family, gained admission to the University of Iowa. I paid for university through Pell Grants, local scholarships, loans, and part-time employment. At one point, when I wasn’t certain how I was going to continue to pay for my undergraduate career, I set up an internship experience in Taiwan in order to stay enrolled and earn money while working abroad. My experiences in Taiwan were transformational in understanding cultural identities, language learning, and intercultural communication. My time in Taiwan also led me to study cultural anthropology as both an undergraduate and graduate student. While overseas, I also realized that I really did not know any of the international students at the University of Iowa, so upon returning, I volunteered at the university’s international student and scholar office.

This volunteer experience led to my first position after graduate school as an International Student Advisor. And, as they say, the rest is history. My career has been devoted to working in international education in the higher education sector, and I feel very fortunate to be at the University of North Georgia leading our international initiatives. I know from my own experiences the amount of creativity and perseverance needed to complete a degree as a first generation college student, and I really appreciate working at a university that understands and honors these students.

Sarah Young – Political Science (Gainesville)

I am not a first gen student, but my parents were. They grew up overseas and came to the US for college. I have many first gen students, especially in my Gainesville classes. They definitely face unique challenges and impress me everyday in overcoming these challenges. 

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