KOKOMO, Ind. – When Andrea Zepeda graduated from Logansport High School, earning a college degree seemed like an impossible dream. As a first-generation college student, navigating the ins and outs of higher education with nobody to ask questions of or set an example was a challenge.
Still, she persisted — and 10 years later, she is pursuing a Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling at Indiana University Kokomo, after earning her bachelor’s degree in health sciences in 2017.
“I had to figure out a lot of things on my own,” she said. “I felt like most other students could go to their parents and get help submitting applications or ask questions about what the process looked like. I had a tremendous amount of support from my parents, but they really couldn’t help.”
Her difficulties are common among first-generation college students — those whose parents did not complete a four-year college or university degree. About 34 percent of IU Kokomo’s students fit in this category.
Approximately a third of the faculty, as well as Chancellor Mark Canada, were also first-generation college students, and can empathize with the challenges they face.
“A lot of first-generation students don’t think of college as a place they belong. I want our campus to feel like a place for them, where they will feel nurtured, empowered, and inspired,” said Canada. “Many of them didn’t have the opportunities others did and fall short of what they are capable of doing for themselves and their community.”
Canada grew up in Indianapolis, with parents and high school teachers who expected him to go to college. That gave him an edge in transitioning to IU Bloomington as a first-generation student because he felt prepared and expected to succeed.
“I felt reasonably comfortable navigating what we sometimes call the ‘hidden curriculum,’ the things you need to know outside the classroom, particularly about planning your major,” he said. “Higher education has a complicated system of requirements that can be intimidating for students, and maybe even impede their progress if they don’t have support from faculty and advisors.”
He commended IU Kokomo’s advisors as key players in guiding all students, but especially first-generation students, as they consider their goals, choose majors, and schedule classes.
Advisors guide major choice, help map class selections
Advisors played a crucial role for Paige Jones, who earned a degree in exercise science in 2019.
“I didn’t know what my major should be, and being a first-generation student, I wasn’t even sure how majors worked,” Jones said. “A lot of it was just trying to find my way through applying. IU Kokomo made it easy. There were a lot of support systems in place on campus that helped.”
Originally a biology major, she credits advisor Becky Lefler for helping identify health sciences as a major to put her on the path to a career in occupational therapy.
“Becky helped me so much, and was always behind me and encouraging me,” Jones said, adding that advisors and faculty members all helped her with graduate school and student loan applications.
Jones also recalled attending a session for incoming freshmen that included a campus tour, meetings with faculty, and programs for students and parents to ask questions.
“I remember that being really helpful,” she said. “The openness of the advisors and the professors on campus was appreciated. They’re the main support system for those of us new to campus who are striving to better ourselves.”
Jones graduates from the Doctor of Occupational Therapy program at IUPUI in May 2023 and looks forward to working in pediatric occupational therapy in Florida.
She appreciates the support she received while earning her degrees and is proud of her success.
“I’m proud to be a first-generation college student now going to graduate school,” Jones said. “It started with me. It started with my passion, and the wonderfulness of my family who gave me support in the background. Once I got to IU Kokomo, they took my hand and led me along. I owe it to both of those supports that I am where I am today.”
Building community supports success
Like Zepeda and Jones, Carson Pocock had to figure out how to navigate college on his own as a first-generation student. Building a community helped him succeed, and he graduated in May 2022 with a degree in mathematics.
He noticed the sense of community when he visited as a recruit for the cross country and track teams, and it was one of the factors in his decision to choose IU Kokomo.
“I remember meeting some of my future teammates, and seeing how close they all seemed,” he said. “I felt like I could instantly fit in. Coach (Josh) Colvin was a big part of why I chose IU Kokomo, and he established a lot of that community feeling.”
Part of the campus’s signature program, Kokomo Experience and You (KEY), includes summer boot camps and bridge programs, along with a first-year experience class designed to provide resources to help students make the transition from high school to college.
Pocock, from Fort Wayne, participated in the first-year experience, which places students in small cohorts with a faculty member who can act as a mentor. It also offers academic advising and success coaching to help students build community, a critical factor in college success.
“It was probably the most important class I took,” Pocock said. “It helped outline good study habits, let me know where all the helpful resources on campus were, and encouraged going to campus events, which helped contribute to the sense of community.”
As a student athlete, Pocock was required to participate in study tables during his freshman year, which not only connected him with teammates, but encouraged positive academic actions.
“Study tables got me in the habit of going to the library to study and get homework done,” he said. “I really enjoyed working in the library. After my freshman year when I wasn’t required to go to study tables, it was nice to already have that routine formed. I gained a sense of direction from my teammates, and there were always upperclassmen who were able to answer questions for me.”
That support was critical when it came to managing his challenging course load as a mathematics major with a business minor. He also joined a study group with classmates, meeting two to three times a week in one of the library study rooms, which helped him create friendships in class.
He also found faculty willing to help, noting that Amelia Tebbe, assistant professor of mathematics, had flexible office hours and was always willing to answer questions outside of class.
A campus job as a math tutor gave him experience that led him to his current job teaching math at Lewis Cass Jr.-Sr. High School. He plans to return to school to add a teaching license to his degree.
“I love it, absolutely love it,” Pocock said. “A lot of my experience working in the math commons was very applicable, and it helped a lot in this career. IU Kokomo set me up well for this job, and a lot of the people I have learned from have helped shape the person I try to be.”
As a high school teacher, Pocock hopes to set an example to his students, and show that a college degree is achievable with hard work.
Setting an example for the next generation
Zepeda said while her parents were proud and supportive of her going to college, their own educational limitations meant they often couldn’t answer questions or help her with challenges.
“For me, college was a dream I wasn’t sure I could ever achieve, because I didn’t have that example,” she said. “I remember when I was my daughter’s age, I lacked so much confidence, and couldn’t even imagine how I would get through high school. I didn’t think I would be able to do college, and now here I am in a master’s program. I don’t think I could have done it without all the help and support I received throughout college.”
She began her degree at another campus but returned home after giving birth to her daughter. After a semester away, she transferred to IU Kokomo.
“My first few years were challenging until I built some connections,” she said, with faculty members Angela Coppola, associate professor of health sciences, and Jessica Henderson, assistant professor of health sciences.
“They helped me through my undergraduate work, not just with the education side, but also as mentors,” Zepeda said. Henderson, who passed away in 2021, was her internship supervisor and talked through career options. Coppola helped with her graduate school applications and wrote a letter of recommendation to include with her application.
“Everything Dr. Henderson did for me as an undergraduate prepared me and helped me feel confident to apply for a master’s degree program,” Zepeda said.
Now, as a mother of a daughter, 8, and sons 3 and 18 months old, she’s setting an example for her own children, and is proud she will be able to help them when they graduate from high school.
“They will know I was able to do this hard thing with three kids. I hope I can be an inspiration to them.”