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First-generation faculty, staff, and students are invited to share their story here

Randy Boyd First-Generation College Students: You are not alone!

I am the first person in my family to graduate from college, too. I’m grateful to see my alma mater,University of Tennessee, Knoxville, celebrating National First-Generation College Student Day today and everyday! Thanks to Tyvi Small & student Da’Veon Douglas for having me to lunch this week at the Frieson Black Cultural Center to focus on first-gen students’ needs and to Interim Chancellor Wayne Davis for sharing his story.

First-Gen to Psychology Professor

Bob Dubois

If you had told me when I was young that one day I would teach psychology at The University of Tennessee, I would not have believed you. I grew up in a small town in southern Michigan and was the first of two children raised by my then teenage single mother. I am indebted to a wonderful high school teacher, Cleomae Dungy, and a Big Brother of America, Tom Clemons, who both offered advice, support, and mentorship during adolescence.

No one in my family had ever graduated from college. It meant the world to me to receive support from others who encouraged me to consider college and a profession. A college degree changed the course of my life (and my family). I now pay it forward every day.

Kept on Working and Learning

Jeff Cochran

My sister was 1st in our family to go to a four year college – I followed her. In the beginning, I felt so out of place, thinking, ‘Surely they made a mistake in admitting me.’ But I just kept working – fearing failure all the time, learned to study, learned to ask questions and ask for what I need. Many times I was not sure I could do it. I made the Dean’s list the last semester of undergraduate – I was just getting the hang of it. 🙂
Now I have my BA in History & Education, my MS in Counseling, and my PhD in Counseling. I love higher education. I love learning. I have succeeded through all the trials & promotions of a faculty member and have even advanced to be head of my department.

Dean of College of Social Work

Lori Messinger

Graduation day with my undergrad
Graduation day with my undergrad

I grew up in a working class neighborhood in New Jersey, one of the original Levittowns (planned suburbs of the 1950s and 1960s). My parents had each taken some college classes, but my dad dropped out to take care of his mother and sister, and my mother focused mainly on secretarial courses and never pursued a degree.

All my friends and I all planned on going to college. As a Jew, education was a big part of the culture, and pursuing higher education was considered a worthwhile goal.

My family didn’t go on college tours, but I did read the brochures I received. I talked with friends and a college counselor in high school, but it all seemed pretty far removed. As I considered colleges, my only requirements were (a) that it was affordable for my parents, and (b) that it was close enough that I could get home for the holidays but far enough away that no one would “drop by” to check in on me. I had no idea about majors and only thought that I might want to be a lawyer.

My first college experience was a pretty big disaster. It wasn’t a great fit for me, culturally, and I found it hard to connect to my peers. It didn’t help that I was starting a process of coming out as a lesbian that wouldn’t resolve until graduate school. I also had 4 extended family members die within 18 months, and I found it hard to focus on my studies. I eventually dropped out and moved back home. My parents were upset, but they didn’t really know how to help or advise me.

A friend suggested that I take some summer classes at her campus, and that went well. The next fall, I took classes at a local branch campus of my state university for a semester, and eventually transferred to the main campus after that. My second foray into college was more successful, and I graduated after 5 years (total). After that, I went straight into grad school.

All through my academic career, I had to learn things about how college worked, how to negotiate the system, and how to talk to faculty. I realized that I had some experiences from growing up in my working class community that others didn’t have–especially around intercultural communication and African American history, but I had also missed some opportunities that people had gotten in richer neighborhoods. I love working with first gen students, because I feel like I understand how scary and exciting college can be. I like to be a guide, providing encouragement and understanding, and mentoring the next generation of graduate leaders.

Library – Cataloging


Kim in college
Kim in college

I was born into the stereotypical rural, low-income southern Appalachian family with its fair share of substance abuse, jail time, domestic violence, and extremely low life aspirations. I knew from an early age that I did not want that to be MY life for the rest of my life, and I knew that education was the only way to accomplish that. So I made sure that I studied, got good grades, stayed as far away from trouble as I could possibly get, and got into college.

During my college career I faced a slight bit of “oh, now you think you’re better than us, huh?” mentality from some family members, which was not true and kind of hurt. I just knew that I wanted a better future outlook for myself than they obviously wanted for themselves, and so I made it happen, against the odds and expectations.

It was most definitely a struggle (a 5-year struggle at that!), but I finally earned my bachelor’s degree in the spring of ‘98, and I’m SO glad that I didn’t let anything keep me from it.

My parting words? – “Just do it!”

Dean of Libraries


Steve in college
Steve in college

I should not be here. I am a double first-generation student—a first-generation college graduate and a first-generation high school graduate. Neither of my parents graduated from high school or college, though they were highly self-educated—my mother was a voracious reader, and my father traveled the world courtesy of the US Army and owned several successful small businesses.

Having so little formal education themselves, my parents had very little in the way of academic advice to offer me. But they gave me something much more important—they believed in me. I never remember a time when they did not expect that I would attend college. Because of their belief and support, and help from many others along the way, I was able to find my way into and succeed in higher education.

My journey to college and later to graduate school and a career in higher education has taught me the power of simple things—a kind word, an expression of encouragement, a little advice (if asked for), can make a world of difference to a struggling student. These things made a world of difference to me, and as a result my life and the lives of my family have been made immeasurably better by the power of education.

Library IT Technologist


Connie in college
Connie in college

I always knew that I wanted to go to college. I wanted to become a studio musician and play in an orchestra for movies, tv or video games. However, I knew that a degree in performance was less useful than a {music} education degree, should performing not pan out.

Finances were always hard without any support beyond what I could provide for myself, so I worked for the college library while going to school. I took 25 hours that first semester, but wound up dropping a class, so I finished out with 23 credit hours. I was worn out but determined. Given that music education required so many classes, I wound up taking 5.5 years to finish my degree. Thankfully, with the help of scholarships, I only had $15,000 in student loans.

After I finished my undergraduate degree, I realized how much I didn’t really want to teach music. I love music even now, but I was not at all ready to be a teacher. Later, I started a graduate degree in Music Education and worked as a student worker in the Music Library on campus. Once I completed my Music Education Masters, I went on to get a second Master’s degree in Information Science.

I have now been working at the university for over 14 wonderful years. Every experience I’ve had, both good and bad, has led me to where I am now and made me who I am today. For that, I am grateful.

Diversity Resident Librarian


Liz in college
Liz in college

My twin sister, Nadia, and I were the first in our family in the United States to go to College. She went straight to California State University, Long Beach and I went to Santa Ana College, and later I also transferred to California State University, Long Beach.

Being first-generation was hard; we had to figure out a lot of things alone. Both she and I got involved with La Raza Student Association. My personal opinion was that student organizations like La Raza were one of the reasons we stayed and felt like we belonged.

She graduated in 2010 and went on to get her Ph.D. in Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies, and I graduated in 2011 and took some time off to then get my Master’s in Library and Information Science.

Recently Retired Executive Associate Dean of Libraries


Rita in college
Rita in college

My parents were very supportive of my education from the time I was young. They could not financially support my college expenses, as I was the oldest in a family of 6 children with a stay at home mom and a modest family income. But, with both my undergraduate and graduate schooling, they never hesitated to let me know how proud they were or to encourage me to proceed with my education.

Frankly it was never a question in my mind that I would go to college, but some of that influence came from my peers as well. I also knew from the start, I would have to pay for my education on my own and that actually served to make me work harder and develop independence (and responsibility) in terms of taking care of and looking out for myself.

I lived in a small, rural Southern Illinois town, and higher education opened up the world to me and changed my life dramatically. (One additional twist I will throw out there: I graduated in 1968. High schools encouraged girls with good academic records to pursue a college track, but they also were quick to push us toward careers that were very female dominated such as teaching, nursing, and social work. They also never hesitated to remind female students that they needed to learn homemaking skills because the prevailing thought was that we would all be wives and mothers, eventually. Guys were directed more into higher salaried type professions, and girls were directed toward low paying service careers.)

That said, I loved my career as a librarian and educator, but I also worked my way up the ladder to a senior administrative position.