On November 8, 2018, institutions of higher education across the country were invited to honor and celebrate students who are the first in their families to attend college. These are students for whom neither parent nor guardian has completed a bachelor’s degree. While the transition to college can be difficult enough for those who have family members who are familiar with university navigation techniques, first generation students often have little support or knowledge about resources that can help them get started.
UNM-Gallup joined in activities on November 8th by recognizing the experiences and presence of first generation students, faculty and staff members. Being the first in one’s family to attend college doesn’t necessarily create barriers to success, but having someone to “follow” can bridge some of the gaps many new college students face as they make decisions about whether college is the right choice for them and how they should get started.
Some first generation students do not have the confidence to believe they can be successful in college. Dr. Lewis Gambill, associate professor of early childhood and multicultural education, remembers how a fellow classmate crushed his dreams of going to college. “One day, while I was in the band room, a fellow bandmate made a comment that changed my life. She looked at me, smiled and said ‘I don’t know why you are doing that. All you’re going to do is go up there, flunk out, and waste your parents’ money.’” It wasn’t until many years later that Dr. Gambill was able to believe that he could be successful in college.
Many students lacking support for higher education find that they have to believe in themselves despite external forces that try to discourage them. First generation student Michelle Montoya knows why she is in college and she hopes to be able to share that spark with others who may have doubts. “As I am the first, I hope not to be the last…I am going to college because I DECIDED I wasn’t going to allow myself to give up. My worst enemy is myself and I will not let my other half win.”
In diverse communities such as those served by UNM-Gallup, first generation students may find it difficult to combine educational goals and cultural ideologies. Dr. Aretha Matt is an assistant professor of English and graduate of Northern Arizona University and University of Arizona. Throughout her college experiences Dr. Matt found instances of identity clashes and confusion that ultimately resulted in overall growth. “I learned that I was a ‘minority’ and that the successful students were often those who embraced or fit the Western standards. Many times in my educational experience, I could feel the pull and tug as I embraced and rejected ideas, cultures, and politics…I just went with my mind wide open and embraced the opportunities that came my way.”
Expectations that do not include college are often barriers that can make the possibility of attending college difficult if not impossible. Following in one’s family footsteps is often seen as the only option. Many first generation students consider a lack of family support as the main reason they do not initially pursue a higher education option. Daniel Diaz, UNM-Gallup student who realized his dream of going to college at age 55, found that family expectations did not include a college degree. “Both of my parents were very hard working and they did so continuously. Family was very important. Continued dedication to family was imperative to honor and self-esteem. However, this meant that securing a job and maintaining employment was really the only way to do this. So college was only a dream.”
Some students like Scott Gutierez have to depend more on internal encouragement when external expectations do not provide the necessary support needed to embark on a college degree. “I had a lot of self-motivation for having no parents and being a foster child since I was young. Since my real parents and grandparents had no high school diploma, my expectations with education for myself were higher than theirs.”
Dr. Tracy Lassiter, associate professor of English at UNM-Gallup, knows all too well how hard it can be to balance school work, employment and family obligations, especially when traditional support systems like family and friends do not fully understand the pressures and responsibilities. “It is hard to explain how difficult and time-consuming college, let alone grad school, can be to those who have never gone. Adding employment duties to your already-busy schedule makes it seem so daunting, maybe impossible.”
Many, however, find that lack of knowledge regarding processes does not deter their families from being their biggest cheerleaders. Kelly Franklin notes, “What inspired me to come back to school was my late grandfather and my family.” Student Bobbi Jo Padilla was also very supported by her parents and credits them with pushing her to succeed. “Having worked so many jobs and trying to get higher paying jobs to support my brother and I, my parents wanted us to have a chance for a better life when we grew up, and they believed that the key to this was education.”
Dr. Daniel Primozic, UNM-Gallup dean of instruction, also credits his family with inspiring his educational decisions. “Their examples of hard work, persistence, and a deep value for knowledge, education, citizenship, and service inspired me to walk the unfamiliar trails of college and to try to improve the lot of human beings in my own small way.” In his position as the chief academic officer, Dr. Primozic has the opportunity to encourage others who are following his path. “My advice to other ‘firsters’ is to work hard, learn much, persist, succeed, and see to it that you light the way for others on the oftentimes unfamiliar trail.”
Despite daily 40-mile round trips, registration nightmares, financial barriers and unfamiliarity with college culture, Cecilia Stafford, Zollinger Library director, persisted and completed undergraduate and graduate degrees by constantly challenging herself to keep chasing her dreams. She enjoys working with other first generation students and congratulating them on taking that all-important first step. “Please know that all of the campus faculty and staff look forward to celebrating your accomplishments with you and your loved ones. You are brave and you are very special.”
Dr. Carolyn Kuchera, assistant professor of English, faced her share of hardships on her path to achieving multiple degrees. While recognizing there are numerous paths to success, Dr. Kuchera has a special fondness and appreciation for her first generation students. “First generation students have to work harder, often without the financial advantages or support systems of our peers. As a professor, I know I’m not supposed to have favorites, but my heart is with you. I know your struggle. Never give up.”
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