Celebrating first-generation college students

By James Curry

A Nebraska college honors and supports its first-generation students

Yovany Duran wants to set an example for his family. The Northeast Community College freshman is the first member of his family to attend college, making him among a third of all students in the country who are considered first-generation college students. “I didn’t have anyone to follow; I had to be the first to lead my family in pursing their education, so I can teach them how to do it,” Duran said.

The U.S. Department of Education reports 33% of higher education students are the first in their families to attend college. At Northeast Community College, the Institutional Research Office reports 45% of Fall 2021 degree-seeking students were classified as first-generation, while 35%, whether degree-seeking or not, were first-generation in the same time frame.

Duran said he did not want to be part of the cycle of other members of his family who have not pursued their education. He chose to attend Northeast because of the close proximity to his home in Madison, which has allowed him to stay near family. He said his mother; aunt and two younger sisters are proud of the path he is trailblazing by enrolling in college.

“I was also the first in my family to graduate high school. That’s a big thing for me; getting my diploma was also a big thing for them too. Going to college was like out of this world.”

Duran graduated from Madison High School in May 2021. While at Northeast, he is pursuing a criminal justice degree.

“I want to give back to the community and protect society, things like that,” he said. “My biggest goal for continuing my education is to set a foundation for my family – an education foundation so they can have better opportunities in their lives too.”

Sharing successes

On Nov. 8, Northeast Community College’s TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) program held a celebration to recognize first-generation college students at the institution. TRIO students and the campus community were invited to stop by the TRIO office to sign a “Proud to be F1RST” banner and share stories and successes with one another and others.

Josh Becker, director of TRIO at Northeast, said the first-generation event was an important day to celebrate, not only within TRIO, but throughout the entire college community.
“So many of us here at Northeast are or were once first-generation college students. The barriers that are placed in front of a student who is without a clear path on their academic journey can feel insurmountable,” Becker said. “It is the courage and determination in our students that leads them to become the ‘first in their family’ to succeed in higher education, and we are so pleased and proud to highlight their stories.”

Becker said he and the TRIO advisors created a display that demonstrates the success stories of first-generation students which can be displayed in the years to come to show others that they are not alone in their journey and that they too can create their own success.

“First-generation college students are a significant proportion of those supported by TRIO-SSS here at Northeast, and it is our privilege to support them achieve their goals and show them a roadmap of success.”

In addition to assisting first-generation students, TRIO works with income-eligible individuals and those with disabilities to progress through the academic pipeline to post-baccalaureate programs.

The Center for First-Generation Student Success reports that colleges and universities across the nation recognized Nov. 8 as the date to observe the annual National First-Generation College Celebration to honor the anniversary of the signing of the Higher Education Act of 1965. The Higher Education Act (“HEA”) emerged out of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Much like other hallmark legislation of that era, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, HEA was intended to help level a playing field that for too long had been weighed against Americans from minority and low-income backgrounds. In addition to creating federal grants and loan programs to help students finance their educations, the legislation made key investments in institutions of higher education. Additionally, HEA ushered in programs, particularly the Federal TRIO programs, necessary for postsecondary access, retention, and completion for income-eligible, potential first-generation college graduates.

Duran is proud of the journey he is taking at Northeast Community College. Recently, he brought his sisters to the institution’s Norfolk campus to show them where he is spending his time pursing his education. It’s something, he said, he never got to experience.

“I’m almost tearing up thinking about it, but it was something so new — and I felt like I did something for the family. It was great to see my little sisters walk with me through campus and be curious what college is and how nice it is. They still have quite a while before they attend, but it’s never too late to start talking about it. I tell them if you work hard for it, you could be here, too. It just means a lot to me.”

James Curry

James Curry is director of public relations at Northeast Community College in Nebraska.