The Story Behind Being a First-Generation Student Leader

Natalie DeMarco, Montana State University / The Center / November 15, 2023

First-gen students at Montana State University

For many first-gens, putting yourself on the map and creating change is one of the systemic challenges we face in education. I come from a small town just outside of Buffalo, New York. Everybody knows everybody in Buffalo and we all love watching the Bills game on Sundays. Thus, I used to never worry about being a part of some bigger picture change. If you would have told younger me that I currently attend Montana State University (MSU), where I have successfully co-founded a student association and am working towards my dream career of becoming a Geologist? Let's just say I would have never believed you at first.

My first semester at MSU, I did not really pay attention to the fact that I was a first-generation student. I mean, I always knew I qualified as first-gen, but I never really acknowledged or appreciated the meaning behind it. Let's rewind... my dad dropped out of highschool before I was born to pursue his now successful family trucking business. Meanwhile, my mom graduated high school and worked by raising her five crazy kids at home. She was also diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disorder that still affects her today. My parents' life story is where I learned most of my core values of determination, work ethic, and living to the fullest. However, when it came to my love for education and learning, they were clueless.

I’ve known I wanted to be a Geologist and go out of state for college since my first year of highschool. So, choosing a college that was 2,000 miles away from home wasn’t exactly news to my family. What did surprise them was when I started talking more about my identity as a first-generation college student, thanks to TRIO Student Support Services.

My first year on campus, TRIO was able to help me get involved in first-gen campus activities. Which is when I realized, there weren't a whole lot of other resources and events for first-gens like myself to engage in. By the time my second year came around, I wanted to do something I have never done before - put myself on the map. I started by getting involved with the first-generation student panel where 5 panelists including myself got to share our experience and give advice to faculty/staff and students. Soon after, a few others and I were invited that year by the First-Generation Committee to see what we could do to promote change for our peers. A few weeks later, the First-Generation Students Association (FGSA) was co-founded by graduate student Flor De Maria Vega Castillo and myself in November of 2022.

By the time my second year came around, I wanted to do something I have never done before - put myself on the map.

Since its creation, FGSA has now hosted several successful events to make students on campus feel more included and accepted. Some of these events include community building gatherings, first-gen workshops, and an independence fiesta for the countries of Argentina, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela. In the spring of 2023 we were even awarded as “Student Organization of The Year” by MSU. Currently, we now have regular member meetings and are working to host more events like those mentioned previously to further support students on campus.

Apart from being vice president of FGSA, I am also a First-Generation Celebration Committee member, First-Generation Committee member, and partake in a work-study as an AmeriCorp College Coach. The celebration committee focuses on hosting and planning a series of events in the first two weeks of November to celebrate National First-Generation College Celebration. The other committee focuses on what we can do throughout the academic year to continuously support first-gen students. My work-study allows me to operate closely with my peers to get an intake on what resources students need from MSU to thrive in education. In the spring of 2023, I was also awarded the Montana College Attainment Network Student Achievement Award for my efforts towards the first-gen movement at MSU.

I used to think that creating change wasn’t something I was capable of, clearly I was wrong. I always assumed that I was just like any other student, everyone has their struggles so what makes me any different? Except what people didn’t see was that I had to work twice as hard as my peers my whole life, to only receive the same outcome. I was even discouraged from the people who were supposed to be my mentors in highschool. My exuberant personality in adolescence equated to what people considered as unprofessional for higher education. When the bottom line was clear, I didn't have the resources and support that others had until I went to college and created my own. My advice for other first-generation students out there, don't let the authority of others stop you from being the change in your education.

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