First-gen Stories

Dr. Carmen Veloria, Central Connecticut State University / The Center / January 18, 2023

Two staff members standing with the school mascot

In November, Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) hosted the first “First-generation celebration” on our campus. In doing so, we joined countless other colleges and universities who celebrated the presence of first-gen students on their campuses.

I shared that as a seventh grader I vividly recalled sitting on a bus during a school field trip, where we drove by a university. I remember someone commenting on how some of our nation’s presidents have gone to that university and studied political science. At that moment, I decided that I too would go to a university and study political science. I was not sure how I was going to get there, but I had made up my mind and never questioned my decision.

The road to college was at times challenging. I had to work throughout high school to help my family financially and had very little material support. My mother encouraged me but did not know how to help me. “Sigue adelante,” (keep getting ahead), she would say, which was great for the soul but provided no usable advice. I only took my SAT exam once because I did not know that I could retake the exam. On the morning of the exam, I walked an hour to get to the exam site on only a cup of coffee and a few saltines to shave off the nausea I was feeling due to test anxiety.

Despite this, I persisted even when having to deal with a counselor who had already decided and had communicated to me that I was not “college material". However, along the way, I encountered teachers who motivated me, community-members who supported me, and family and friends who cared for me. I crossed the bridge on their backs, carrying their aspirations, hopes, and dreams. At times this was a heavy load, but fellow travelers made the journey less lonely. I told students, “No one makes it alone and I am grateful to those who reached back to help students like me."

In being careful not to essentialize first-gen experiences, I shared mine with the hope that others would be motivated to share their stories. During the First-gen celebration, a booth was set up for students, faculty, and staff to share why they were “first-generation proud.” Later, I would listen to their recording and among their various renditions, I heard familiar themes: family, role-models, and the need to pay it forward.

Later, I would listen to their recording and among their various renditions, I heard familiar themes: family, role-models, and the need to pay it forward.

Although stories differ, the themes highlighted seem to be woven into the fabric of first-gen stories in some way. How wonderful it is to be able to amplify, celebrate, and share these stories? This is just one of the many ways that first-gen students contribute. After all, higher education is about preparing, educating, and creating lasting impact. These values matter to first-gen students in both personal and collective ways. When education is conceptualized as a common good, many benefit. I know that I did, as well as my family, which is why I also believe in paying it forward.

For more information on Central Connecticut State University's approach, please visit their website here.