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First-Generation Week at IUPUI: 10 students share their experiences being first

Oct 30, 2019

Many Jags can say “I’m the first in my family” when it comes to attending college.

And IUPUI is here to celebrate and teach others what it means to be first with First-Generation Week. With more than 15 events planned Nov. 4 to 7, students can show their first-gen pride by making buttons, decorating diplomas, networking and more.

Ten students shared their stories of motivation and overcoming challenges, and offered advice to other first-gen students.

IUPUI student Alexa Soto smiles and poses for a photo in front of a city skyline.
Photo provided by Alexa Soto

Alexa Soto

Psychology, Purdue School of Science

Starting college was scary because it was so different from the experiences of my family. I wanted to break the family pattern of working a minimally paying job, and I wanted to make them proud. So, I applied.

Going to college is a privilege that not a lot of people have – it might cost too much, they might be too scared to try, or there are a variety of other reasons keeping them from going. Not finishing isn’t an option for me at this point.

I hope all first-generation college students take pride in being the first. It takes a lot of courage to take on the collegiate environment, and there is an entire network of other first-generation students to help. That’s another thing: Ask questions, explore your resources and expand your connections. Don’t be afraid to join clubs and extracurricular activities. Those are so important in having a great college experience.

I also want to say thank you to Tonya Shelton, program manager of the Center for Research and Learning. She has been a great motivation for me to succeed in classes. She is always there to support me, and if it weren’t for her, college would have swallowed me up by now. I am so grateful to have met her and to have worked with her.

Alan Tyson smiles while playing the piano.
Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

Alan Tyson

Music technology doctoral program, Purdue School of Engineering and Technology

College was my next step to achieve overall success, and I knew that attending would afford me opportunities I would not get anywhere else. I am currently a Ph.D. student in music technology. My research interests feel like a calling more than anything.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned as a student is some classes/situations require more work than others in order to be successful. However, remaining consistently disciplined through the difficult and easy situations keeps momentum constant.

My advice to other first-generation students is to be and stay humble. A continuous posture of humility positions you to learn more than you could ever imagine. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions, even about money. When I first started college, I was focused more on getting accepted than getting scholarships. Be willing to have some honest conversations about student debt and what that might mean for your future before you take out all those loans.

Finally, it’s important to remember that having a degree doesn’t entitle you to anything. College will present you with opportunities, and it is your responsibility to take ahold of them.

Olivia McQueen smiles for a photo in front of green trees.
Photo provided by Olivia McQueen

Olivia McQueen

Organizational leadership and supervision, Purdue School of Engineering and Technology

I’ve always wanted to be somewhere better than I am now. I want to have a job that makes me happy and not just somewhere I go for a paycheck, and this is why I stay in college. I want to continue to learn and become a better version of myself.

My first semester here I was afraid to ask for help, and I navigated my way to campus buildings using Google Maps. If I could go back, I would have spoken up about this and gotten connected to resources that make navigating campus easier.

My advice for other first-generation students at IUPUI is to connect with your First-Year Seminar mentor. My mentor was essential in helping me become integrated into campus, and if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have the job on campus that I have or have been as successful as I’ve been. He gave me great advice, and I listened.

I would also remind students that advisors are here to help you and ensure you graduate in four years. Trust the process. Doing so has made me much less stressed about my academics.

Thi Pham smiles and poses for a photo in front of a large water fountain on a sunny day.
Photo provided by Thi Pham

Thi Pham

Biology, Purdue School of Science

My parents taught me from a young age that getting a college education was a huge priority. As a first-generation student, I was motivated because they provided me an opportunity to learn and stressed the importance of a college degree. Being able to attend college has given me so many opportunities I wouldn’t have received had I not attended.

It has been so important to educate myself and ask for help, and that’s my biggest piece of advice for other first-generation students out there. We can’t always rely on family members; we have to seek out information and resources, and IUPUI has plenty of them. If I could go back, I wouldn’t be so afraid to speak with my advisors about my GPA, and I wish I would have known just how much work outside of the classroom I needed to put in to achieve a high GPA.

My most impactful moment at IUPUI was attending a student organization’s event for the third time and someone asked me to run for an executive board position. I never thought people saw me as a leader or that I could be a good one, but this experience set the tone for my growth in college. This one moment gave me so much confidence that I continued to strive for more.

Dimond Gary smiles and poses for a photo.
Photo provided by Dimond Gary

Dimond Gary

Nursing, School of Nursing

Knowing and witnessing many people live the paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle severely impacted me and motivated me to go to college. My mother was always hard on my brother and me about school because she dropped out her senior year of high school and wishes she could go back and make different decisions. College was my only way.

I’ve always dreamed of becoming a nurse, and being in nursing school is getting me closer to that goal. That keeps me motivated, along with my family. Not only am I a first-generation college student, I will also be the first cousin and sibling to graduate college.

My advice to other first-generation students is to not be afraid to tell others that you are first-gen. It’s something to be proud of, and you’re not alone. There are thousands of other students – and faculty and staff – who understand your experience and want to help. Whenever you are feeling down or ready to give up, remember why you are here.

Mercedes Kuhn poses and smiles for a photo outside near buildings on a sunny day.
Photo provided by Mercedes Kuhn

Mercedes Kuhn

Accounting, Kelley School of Business

I learned from watching my parents that a college degree would set me up for success. Going to college gives me a variety of opportunities I may not get otherwise.

As a first-generation student, I wish I would have known about more resources, not just available to me when I got to campus but when I was applying. So my advice to other students is don’t be afraid to ask the questions and get connected to the resources that can help you succeed. Be proud of yourself for getting here, because if you’re like me, you did most of it on your own.

While you may be feeling independent, you don’t have to work through every issue alone. I learned I don’t need to be the expert on everything. Asking for help isn’t a sign of helplessness but a sign of growth.

Something that played a key role on my success as a student at IUPUI is being involved with OTEAM. I have learned so much more about myself as a leader and a student because of it, and I can help make the process of becoming a college student a little bit easier for our future Jags.

Fernanda Alonso poses and smiles for a photo.
Photo provided by Fernanda Alonso

Fernanda Alonso

Visual communication design, Herron School of Art and Design

As a first-generation student, my motivation for attending and staying in college is being a role model for my younger sister, in hopes that she will pursue a college degree someday. My parents have sacrificed a lot to help me get here, and I know my future is bright.

As cliché as it sounds, my best piece of advice to other first-generation students is to not give up, even when things are hard. Overcoming challenges helps us grow stronger and wiser.

If I could do some things differently, I would. I spent my first year on campus feeling jaded. I went to class, did my homework and went home – every day. I didn’t make friends, step outside my comfort zone or ask for help. I struggled in silence. It’s important to remember that great things can happen if you push yourself, and always remember no one can take your education away from you.

Breea Vest smiles and poses for a photo with her right hand on her hip.
Photo provided by Breea Vest

Breea Vest

Occupational therapy doctoral program, School of Health and Human Sciences

It was intimidating knowing that I would be the first person in my family who would apply for and attend college, but I was very determined. I overcame a lot of obstacles, and now I have a bachelor’s degree in health sciences and am continuing on in a doctorate program for occupational therapy.

My advice for other students is to talk to your professors when things come up because nearly every time, they will understand and do what they can to help you succeed. Although you may have different experiences from other students, you are smart and deserve to be here. You are not less than anyone else. Learn as much as you can while you are here and soak up all the knowledge IUPUI has to offer.

If I could go back and do one thing differently, I would apply for alternative spring break and actually go on the trip. They offer scholarships for first-generation students.

Nick Diggins poses for a photo with a dog.
Photo provided by Nick Diggins

Nick Diggins

Orthopedic surgery, IU School of Medicine

My motivation for applying to and attending college was a desire to secure a stable career that I enjoyed and had an interest in. During school I became interested in orthopedic surgery, where I can help people directly with my own hands.

There are two things I wish I had learned earlier in my education. I wish I had learned how necessary it is to meet with your academic advisors early on to figure out your class schedule and other things you need to do to achieve your goals. I also wish I had known earlier how helpful it is to attend office hours; asking questions and working with teaching assistants really helped me to do well.

One of the biggest challenges I faced during school was working on my senior design project. I had to learn to trust others on my team and persevere despite setbacks. I think as long as you work hard and do your best, you’ll be able to find peace with any outcome.

Brianda Medina smiles for a photo.
Photo provided by Brianda Medina

Brianda Medina

Psychology, Purdue School of Science

My dream is to become the first dentist in my family. I have been a dental assistant for the past seven years, and it’s such a rewarding feeling of making a difference in someone’s life. That’s when I knew I had to continue my education and provide more for the community, specifically the Latino community. Seeing people in my community with poor dental health due to limited access to resources to treat their concerns is sad, and I know if I continue with school to become a dentist, I can make a difference.

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