Celebrating the First-Generation College Student Experience

CAFNR faculty and staff share their experiences as first-generation college students

First-generation students have unique experiences and challenges that shape how they navigate college. The University of Missouri is celebrating the journeys of students, faculty and staff, and encouraging the next generation of students who are the first in their family to complete a bachelor’s degree throughout the National First-Generation College Celebration Week.

Mizzou defines a first-generation college student as one whose parents do not have a bachelor’s degree from a college or university. This also includes students (before age 18) who have not lived with or received support from a parent who has received a bachelor’s degree. One third of U.S. college students are considered first generation. At MU, nearly 25 percent of new (first-time college and transfer) students identify as first generation.

Mackenzie Ewing
Senior Academic Advisor, Division of Plant Science and Technology

Mackenzie EwingWhat memories do you have of being a first-generation college student? What challenged you and what surprised you?
I felt like I wasn’t as smart as the people around me and didn’t ask questions because I felt like I should know the answer already or didn’t know what questions to ask.

How did you navigate choosing a degree/field of study?
I went into education because I liked working with children when I was in 4-H. I loved animals and being outdoors but was not strong in the science area, so assumed I couldn’t major in those areas.

What advice do you have for first-generation students?
Be confident in yourself and ask questions! If you are struggling with something or not sure what questions to ask visit with your academic advisor. They can direct you to the appropriate resources on campus to help you navigate college. Truly look at your interests when choosing a field of study and don’t eliminate them so easily; fully explore your options to know what the best fit is for you.

Bryan Garton
Senior Associate Dean and Director of Academic Programs, Office of Academic Programs

What memories do you have of being a first-generation college student? What challenged you and what surprised you?

Bryan GartonI think one of the greatest challenges that first-generation college students have is that they don’t have immediate family members who can share those perspectives of what college life will be like. For me, when I arrived at the University of Missouri, I realized very quickly that I really didn’t know how to properly study. I had to learn on the fly on how to study and learn the content. There was definitely an adjustment period to the academic side of being at a major university.

I also had to adjust to the new freedom that I had. In high school, each day was very structured and scheduled. I didn’t have much downtime. In college, there was a lot more free time than I was accustomed to.

How did you navigate choosing a degree/field of study?
I actually planned on returning to the family farm upon graduation. I chose the agricultural education degree program because it gave me the opportunity to study a wide variety of disciplines. I thought that expertise would come in handy back on the farm. The farm crisis of the 1980s led me to look at other occupations, and after student teaching, I found a passion for educating students about agriculture.

What advice do you have for first-generation students?
It’s incredibly important to seek out assistance. There’s definitely no shame in asking questions when you don’t know the answer to something. It’s also OK to reevaluate if the path you have taken isn’t exactly what you thought it would be. The CAFNR Office of Academic Programs is here to assist students on their academic journey – it’s one of the most exciting parts of the job!

Linda Geist
Senior Strategic Communication Associate, Office of Extension

Linda Geist headshotWhat memories do you have of being a first-generation college student? What challenged you and what surprised you?
I had only been on campus once – for orientation – prior to attending. The size of the campus was overwhelming at first. Being exposed to people of other backgrounds (faith, race, country of origin, etc.) was an eye-opener. Coming from a poor, rural family, there were simple things that I had never been exposed to. For example, I did not know there were parts of St. Louis. Nor did I know what “bagel and cream cheese” was, which in the days of The Shack was a big thing. These are examples of simple things that were not part of my background. Students today have had many more opportunities to visit campus, etc. I had much to learn and MU gave me that opportunity.

How did you navigate choosing a degree/field of study?
I knew I wanted to be a community journalist, and that is why I chose the School of Journalism. I worked at my hometown newspaper, beginning at age 16, and my boss was a Photo-J grad. He encouraged me to attend MU.

What advice do you have for first-generation students?
Stick with it. You are laying the pathway for future generations of your family. My son is a college graduate, and his son is working on his doctorate. That began with me being the first of my family to attend college, and it makes my heart swell with pride.

Mary Ann Gowdy
Assistant Teaching Professor, Division of Plant Science and Technology

What memories do you have of being a first-generation college student? What challenged you and what surprised you?
My memories are an amalgamation of excitement, nerves and pressure. Leaving the farm and moving to a big city was exciting; getting to make new friends from far away places; gaining knowledge; and finding love, were all exciting things. It was also a very anxious time because my family couldn’t explain what college would be like or offer any advice. Over the years I’ve come to realize my family honestly didn’t understand why a young female would want to leave home and live on her own. I also remember feeling the constant pressure to earn good grades, just like I’d always done in school, or I would disappoint my family and high school teachers.

Freshman year was one surprise after another; none being bigger than seeing how many smart kids there were in college and realizing I had no clue how to study and learn on my own! The biggest challenge was trying to maintain confidence in my ability to succeed when I scored poorly on exams. There were many times I wondered if I deserve to be in college; maybe I should quit and go home? Ironically, as an MU instructor and an academic advisor, I see today’s first-generation college students struggle with the same thoughts and worries I had 47 years ago.

How did you navigate choosing a degree/field of study?
A summer welcome advisor told me if I wanted to go to med school, I had to be a biology major, and I said OK. After one semester, and a C in chemistry, I felt like a failure and started looking for a new major. Back then there were no places on campus like the MU Discovery Center or the CAFNR Career Services Office, so each student figured it out for themselves. I knew I liked to be outdoors and liked plants, so I wandered into the University of Kentucky College of Ag. They were easy to talk to, they reassured me that it wasn’t uncommon to be uncertain about school, and they encouraged me to keep trying. Because that horticulture professor spent 30 minutes one afternoon talking with a scared and lost freshman, I’ve had an amazing professional career at three different land-grant universities, always in the College of Agriculture.

What advice do you have for first-generation students?
Believe in yourself, trust your instincts and be truthful with yourself. Expect to encounter academic disappointments and failures but don’t give up; get mad, get over it and then refocus your efforts and start again. No one, not even the most successful person you can think of, got where they are alone. Find an advisor, a professor, a mentor, someone you click with and ask them for guidance, for advice or a friendly ear to listen.

Samniqueka Halsey
Assistant Professor, School of Natural Resources

Samniqueka HalseyWhat memories do you have of being a first-generation college student? What challenged you and what surprised you?
Being a first-generation college student was a very new experience where I had to learn everything on my own. My best memory was being a part of a first-year experience program which helped me gain new friends, those of which I still keep in contact with over a decade later. The greatest challenge was learning how to deal with the course workloads as college was different than high school and did not live up to what my high school teachers told me.

How did you navigate choosing a degree/field of study?
I started college with a specific major in mind and although I was set on that path and complained about having to take courses that was not relevant to what I wanted to, I actually changed my career goal in my junior year that set me on the path of where I am today. I basically found what I enjoyed and figured out how to make a career out of it. I talked to my professors and obtained a summer job in that field.

What advice do you have for first-generation students?
Be flexible, open-minded and adaptable. College is hard for many students and also different from the years previous. College is not the same as it was 10 years ago; with this pandemic, it’s not even the same as it was two years ago. Find your community, establish boundaries and a good sleep schedule and treat college like a full-time job where you work hard and then get to play even harder after your class work is done.

Catherine Peterson
Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Nutrition and Exercise Physiology

Catherine-PetersonWhat memories do you have of being a first-generation college student? What challenged you and what surprised you?
When I went to college, first-generation college students were not really recognized as they are today. I did not feel disadvantaged at the time. Although my parents did not attend college, they very much valued education and cultivated in my siblings and me many of the essentials for student success: strong work ethic, self-discipline, self-direction, commitment, importance of not giving up even when it gets tough and being comfortable with ambiguity. They also recognized that my decision to go to college had to be mine, and mine alone. So, when it came time to apply for colleges in my junior year of high school, they did not push back when I announced that I wanted to try working after I graduated. This may seem unusual to current day high school students, but it wasn’t unusual back then; in fact, ~50% of my high school classmates did not go right to college after high school. Thus, off I went to full-time employment after graduation, finding a job as bank teller. In this role, I learned a lot about myself, especially in what direction I knew I didn’t want my life to go. I honestly did not see a career in banking for me; I wanted more. It was a big kick-in-the-pants that I needed. After a year of banking, I began to apply to colleges and then two years after my high school graduation, I left to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

I had always enjoyed learning. Although I earned good grades in high school, many of the nonacademic aspects of high school turned me off. But college was so different! So much better. I absolutely loved my college experience; I fell in love with academia. I was challenged so many positive ways – intellectually and socially. And, my prior experience in the work world sustained my inner drive and motivation to always do my best. What surprised me? My answer may not be what you would expect. Because I had been working with adults for two years (many much older than I was), I found college students to be rather immature. It was a bit of a culture shock in the beginning, but after a few months of living in the residence hall, I assimilated.

How did you navigate choosing a degree/field of study?
In high school I very much enjoyed science classes, especially the anatomy and physiology class I took in my senior year. There was a section on nutrition that I particularly liked and I remembered this when I started to explore the idea of going to college. This was before the internet, so I had to do some exploration of careers in nutrition at the local library and to write letters to professional organizations. It was through this research that I decided to pursue a career in nutrition and dietetics. After four years of college, I finished my degree in medical dietetics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Upon graduation, I worked first as a registered dietitian in public health nutrition and then later in clinical nutrition. After two years of working as a professional, I wanted more, I wanted to learn and discover more. I missed academia. Therefore, I decided to apply to and eventually attend graduate school at the University of Illinois where I studied nutritional sciences.

What advice do you have for first-generation students?
As I mentioned above, I did not feel disadvantaged at the time. However, looking back, I see that in some ways perhaps I was especially when I compare my experience with my daughter’s (now a junior here at Mizzou). For example, my parents did not have the college experience to encourage me/point me in the direction of important extracurricular activities such as getting involved in student organizations, pursuing undergraduate research opportunities, study abroad, other learning experiences or applying for scholarships. Furthermore, they couldn’t help me with filling out applications for such opportunities if I were to identify them on my own. Hence, my advice for first-gen students is to seek extracurricular experiences. Get involved in student organizations. Talk with faculty (after class or during office hours), talk with your advisor, find an upper-level student in your major of whom you can ask for some ideas on what and where to look for opportunities. And, if you run across something that look interesting to you, don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Kate Preston
Research News Strategist, Office of Marketing and Communications

What memories do you have of being a first-generation college student? What challenged you and what surprised you?
Being a first-generation student was very different in the beginning, because neither myself nor my parents had gone through the process and had no idea what we were doing. I was very fortunate however in that my parents were supportive and always encouraged me in my education process. I am also fortunate in that I had other peers (extended family, friends, teachers) that were always there if I needed help who had gone through the college process.

What surprised me the most was that I continued to get a master’s degree. I always liked school, but going into my undergraduate degree, I told myself that these four years are it and that I didn’t want to continue after that. Once I started with my studies, I realized I had a passion for agricultural education and communications, which led me to MU for my master’s. I ended up graduating in three years and moved right into a master’s. It’s funny how things can change in such a short amount of time.

How did you navigate choosing a degree/field of study?
I went back and forth with what degree I wanted to pursue. Being involved in 4-H I knew I wanted to do something in the agricultural field but wasn’t sure what. I started researching schools with agriculture programs and the degrees they offered. After looking at SUNY Cobleskill’s Agricultural Business Management program, I thought ‘why not try it.’ Luckily, I absolutely loved it, and made connections which led me to pursue a master’s degree at MU.

What advice do you have for first-generation students?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions and to lean on your support system. Make connections early in the process, and don’t be afraid to lean on your people for help.  Also, don’t feel bad if you feel like you have no idea what you’re doing. I like to feel in control, but often during my educational process I had no idea what I was doing and would question myself. Trust the process and know that there are people there to help you!

Judy Prevo
Office Support Assistant Sr., CAFNR International Programs

Judy PrevoWhat memories do you have of being a first-generation college student? What challenged you and what surprised you?
My memories are that my parents always expected their children to attend college, even though neither of them had. I always enjoyed learning and wanted to complete a college degree, however it surprised me how difficult it was to focus my interests to choose a course of study. By my junior year I wasn’t sure of my major and switched to a new major. I quickly discovered that I didn’t enjoy those classes at all, so I became discouraged and homesick and dropped out. What was most challenging was completing a degree later in life after three returns to college because life circumstances changed. On my third return, since I was a non-traditional student with a full-time job and a family, I was happy to find that I could complete my degree online. That way I would be able to continue even if I moved. I took one intensive eight-week course at a time until I completed my degree. Between courses there would be two weeks off, which gave me enough of a break so I could dive back in for another eight weeks. I always figured I could manage for eight weeks.

How did you navigate choosing a degree/field of study?
One of my jobs sparked an interest that I pursued in my next job and in college.

What advice do you have for first-generation students?
Explore your interests early in your college career and accept advice and help with planning your way forward. Don’t be discouraged if your life’s path takes you on detours. Every experience provides a learning opportunity and is valuable. Commit to being a life-long learner because there is always more that is interesting and exciting to learn.