Elevating Access: Chattanooga State's First-Generation Scholars Find Success

Amanda Bennett, Payton Potter, Chattanooga State Community College / The Center / April 05, 2024

Chattanooga State Community College Dinner for First-gen Scholars

Chattanooga State Community College (ChattState) recently hosted its annual Dinner of Firsts event, a longstanding tradition that spotlights the remarkable journeys of first-generation scholars and helps pave the way for their educational futures.

This year's dinner not only celebrated the achievements of these students but also raised $91,522 to support scholarships for future scholars. Since its inception in 2012, Dinner of Firsts has contributed $747,000 in scholarship funds, benefiting 259 scholars across thirty-four majors.

The inspirational stories of ChattState’s first-generation scholars embody resilience and determination. Spouses Catrina and Justin Cabe said the First in the Family scholarship was more than just an educational opportunity for them—it was a lifeline. Justin, who had worked in home construction before the 2007 financial crisis, found himself unemployed. Meanwhile, Catrina was looking for a fresh start after a difficult past affected by homelessness, trafficking, and addiction. Both received a First in the Family scholarship, kickstarting impactful futures.

“Catrina and I were two people seemingly destined to be burdens on society,” Justin said. ”Now we are able to give back to the economy, pay taxes, and pursue our own charitable causes. The transformative power of this fund is no less than profound.”

“I didn’t think college was a possibility for me,” Catrina said. “Because you believed in me without ever knowing me, I was able to not only graduate—I won awards. Because of your generosity, I had access to a top-notch education.”

Because you believed in me without ever knowing me, I was able to not only graduate—I won awards. Because of your generosity, I had access to a top-notch education.

Desiree Decker was a married mother by the age of 16. “A dream of college was not attainable,” she said. Yet, 30 years later with the help of the First in the Family scholarship, she was able to pursue an education and launch a new career as a counselor.

Chattanooga State Community College first-gen faculty
“It had long been a dream of mine to have a career helping people who had similar situations as mine,” she said. “The First in the Family scholarship enabled me to quit my part-time job and devote more time to my studies, taking care of my family, and retaining a future for us.”

Another first-generation college student who overcame the odds at ChattState is Justine Hernandez, who chose to go back to college after taking a break from school in her early 20s. A single mother, she found renewed inspiration to pursue a degree in social work. "My advice to anyone is if you've always wanted to go to school, do it," Hernandez said. "You're never too old or not smart enough to learn something new or pursue your passion."

“Learning about TN Reconnect and its support for my education was a dream come true,” Hernandez said. “As the first in my family to graduate college, I am delighted to serve as an example that age is not a barrier to achieving one's goals.”


Chattanooga State Community College first-gen faculty and speakers
ChattState is an excellent starting point for students looking to pursue a higher education journey, and that’s exactly what Alyson McGowan did. After completing her associate degree at ChattState and a bachelor’s degree at UTC, McGowan went on to complete a graduate program in Florence, Italy. “I am now living in Scotland, where I will work as an intern curatorial assistant at Dunollie Castle in Oban,” she said.

As Chattanooga State Community College continues to champion the educational pursuits of first-generation scholars, the legacy of the Dinner of Firsts endures as a symbol of hope, resilience, and the transformative power of education. Through scholarship support, mentorship, and unwavering advocacy, the college remains steadfast in its commitment to empowering students to realize their full potential and achieve their loftiest aspirations.

For more information on Chattanooga State Community College's approach, please visit their website here.