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First-generation students in the spotlight for national campaign

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UNG highlighted students, faculty and staff who identify themselves as first-generation students during the inaugural First-Generation Luncheon on Nov. 8 on UNG's Gainesville Campus as part of the nationwide First-Generation College Celebration.

University of North Georgia (UNG) junior Stacey Willingham is set to receive her associate degree Dec. 14, two days before she turns 47. UNG senior Khian Skidmore, 21, will earn his bachelor's degree in physics in August 2020 and plans to enroll in graduate school.

While the students are on opposite ends of the spectrum, they have one thing in common. They are among the 21.5% of all UNG students who identify themselves as first-generation students.

UNG highlighted those students, faculty and staff during the inaugural First-Generation Luncheon on Nov. 8 on UNG's Gainesville Campus as part of the nationwide First-Generation College Celebration.

"We had stickers and buttons for students, faculty and staff to wear to proudly identify themselves as first-generation students," said Caleb Rogers, associate director of Enrollment Management.

Rogers said it is important for UNG to recognize these students.

"They all have unique challenges, successes and stories to share," he said. "We want to take the opportunity to acknowledge them."

Jennifer Herring, special assistant to the vice president of the Gainesville Campus, said the purpose of the lunch was to create a casual environment for students to meet faculty and staff who were first-generation students, too.

"We wanted the faculty to sit down, eat and talk with students to help foster conversations about what it means to be a first-generation student," she said.

Herring hopes the luncheon's success will spread to similar events on UNG's other four campuses, as well as create more awareness about programs available to first-generation students, like the First Generation Scholarship. Ten were awarded last year. Rogers said one student from each campus, for a total of five, received a scholarship this year.

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Tyler Holman, a senior pursuing a history degree, received one of the First Generation Scholarships this year. One student from each UNG campus was awarded a scholarship. Holman was from the Gainesville Campus.

Tyler Holman, a senior pursuing a history degree, won the scholarship for the Gainesville Campus this year.

"I was surprised to get it," said the 24-year-old from Hoschton, Georgia. "It will help me pay for college."

Along with the scholarship, UNG has resources and program designed for first-generation students such as the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. It focuses on helping for first-generation students with diverse or under-represented backgrounds attend graduate school.

"They can pursue a graduate education opportunity with financial assistance from this program," Rogers said.

Skidmore, who became a McNair Scholar in spring 2018, said the program has significantly helped him.

"The staff helped me by walking me through what I can expect in my next steps as a graduate student," he said, adding the camaraderie among the McNair Scholars was beneficial. "I had people I could relate to because they are in a similar process as me."

Willingham, who is pursuing a degree in middle grades education, said UNG's commitment to first-generation students with events such as the luncheon helped her realize she is not alone. The mother of a teenage daughter met other first-generation students Friday.

"There are people just like me who never thought they'd be in college," she said.

Akim Lester, a sophomore set to receive his associate degree in business management at UNG in spring 2020, was in awe of the first-generation faculty and staff from UNG. The 22-year-old from Athens, Georgia, who attends classes on the Oconee Campus, called them trailblazers.

"I believe first-generation students, faculty and staff are very courageous, because they've venture into college only having a minimal amount of knowledge about what they'll expect to endure in college. First-generation students are over achievers. Ultimately, their goal is to inspire other first gens, hopefully to start a tradition where more family members attend college," Lester said, adding he hopes to do the same. "It's a lot of pressure to be the first. At first, it was really difficult, but my phenomenal grandmother told me to stick it out and stay with it."

He did and now plans to transfer to the Gainesville Campus to continue his plan of study.

To learn about first-generation students, visit the First-Generation Student Stories webpage.

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