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Essay Contest for First-generation Students

Mark Frank M.A., Ivy Tech / The Center / June 03, 2019

Ivy Tech Essay Contest Winner 3

The idea to sponsor an essay contest for our first-generation students came about rather serendipitously. The retention committee on the Lafayette campus of Ivy Tech Community College had already made the decision to dedicate efforts toward first-generation students. However, literature related to how we might serve this population wasn’t obviously applicable to our student population, many of whom are non-traditional, first-generation students. One thing that became apparent as we brainstormed how we might better support our first-generation students was that we needed to take a step back and learn more about them.

Around that time, we received a request for proposals from Circle of Ivy, a philanthropic organization affiliated with Ivy Tech. To make a not so long story shorter, Circle of Ivy committed to support the essay contest with $1,200 to be used for prize money and an awards reception. We were off and running!

Our desired outcome for the essay contest was three-fold, we wanted to: 

  1. honor and reward the hard work of our first-generation students;
  2. raise awareness amongst faculty, staff, and students surrounding the first-gen identity and experience; and
  3. learn as much as we could about their background and experiences in order to devise more supportive programming with their needs in mind.

It was the third desired outcome that truly shaped the essay topics. We wanted to know about their journey: how and why did they select Ivy Tech, what did it mean to them to identify as a first-generation student, and what barriers or challenges have they overcome along the way? 

We also wanted to leave plenty of room to learn how we might nurture their strengths as well. We asked how being a first-generation student helped them, and how faculty, staff, and their fellow students could better support them. The two page limit seemed to provide just enough room to cover all of these topics.

With the allotted funds, there were three top prize winnings ($300, $150, and $100) and two honorable mentions (2-$25). To incentivize submissions, we awarded $25 to the first 20 eligible submissions. After budgeting for the incentives and prize winnings, we were left with $100 to plan the awards ceremony. To add to the award ceremony presentation one of our departments donated several matted frames, which contained the award certificates.

We were bowled over by the response to the contest. We had 27 submissions, and all of our judges were struck by how moving the essays were. Many of the entries were from non-traditional, first-generation students. Thus, in addition to common first-generation student experiences related to ‘self-doubt and anxiety,’ ‘not believing that I belong,’ ‘not knowing what to expect,’ ‘having to work harder,’ as well as ‘having to figure everything out on my own,’ there were insights into the lives of students who also held full- or part-time employment and parenting responsibilities.

Here are a few excerpts from the essays:

Ivy Tech Essay Contest Winner 2

First Honorable Mention Winner, Alanis Yaya, and family.

“The first year was difficult. With three children, a spouse working full time, and myself working part time as a waitress, I thought I never had enough time to study. My husband would often find me asleep on the living room sofa at 3 a.m. with my books open and pencil dropped to the floor.” − Justina

“I am one of the many parents looking to advance their education and skill set to achieve something that I feel will allow me to further my career, and give my kids a better life.” − Matthew

“I attended all my virtual classes that first semester while holding a newborn baby. I turned studying into a game where I would read flashcards to my son in silly voices.” − Autumn


“When my son started having trouble in school, I knew I needed to further my education and show him that you can do anything you put your mind to.” – Michelle

Ivy Tech Essay Contest Winner 1

First Place Winner, Irene Serrano, with Donna Jones, Director of Disability Support Services and master of ceremonies.

Students also shared points of pride about being first-gen:

“In just the first year, I gained both a plan and enough self-confidence to see it through, despite the challenges facing me and my family.” − Cameron

“I have no legacy to live up to but the one I have destined for myself. I think there is something freeing in the ability to live up to only my expectations of the college experience.” − Kaylee

“Being a first generation college student taught me to not give up, and to not give in, even when things got overwhelming, or I was pushed to tears, or even when I was wondering if it was even worth it. I thought about all the people I would be letting down.” – Alanis


We’ve not had time to glean all that can possibly be gleaned from this awesome gift of shared personal narratives, but we’re working on it! We now know our students much better than we did prior to this essay contest. Our next step is to make sure these powerful narratives inform our policies and practices for the benefit of all students, and those who will follow in their footsteps.