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The Unspoken Rule: Being First Means Going Forth and Blazing a Trail for Others

Anthony L. Webster, Eastern Michigan University / The Center / November 30, 2022

Student leaning against brick wall on campus

As I think about being the first to do something, I ponder on the weight often carried by those who hold this as an aspect of their identity, either by choice or force.

By fate, my life has been filled with a series of firsts: being the first-born child, first male grandchild, and more. Being born and raised in the Mississippi Delta to teen parents, societally speaking, earning my high school diploma, let alone going away to college and earning a degree, was not in the cards for me. At the same time, there existed a palpable ‘unspoken rule’ to somehow blaze a trail for those who would come after me. Navigating these unspoken expectations often brought feelings of anxiety, doubt, and frustration – how was I supposed to blaze trails?

I carry a sense of honor and pride in the moniker of being “first”. Yet, that doesn’t mean that being “first” hasn’t come with its hurdles. The ACT, FAFSA, and college applications to name a few, revealed that being “first” was not all it was cracked up to be at times. However, through attending college at Jackson State University (MS) I realized the power of being first as a TRIO McNair Scholar. Through my experiences there, being “first” became a defining part of my identity and is an aspect of who I am that gives me great strength and unique perspectives in life. I built a foundational understanding of how to best leverage resources and knowledge to drive change in the institution, community, and within my family.

Navigating these unspoken expectations often brought feelings of anxiety, doubt, and frustration – how was I supposed to blaze trails?

Now, as the program director of TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) and as a first-generation higher education professional, I have found value in the art of storytelling, and authentically sharing my own narrative and experience as a “first” with my colleagues and the students I support. Having the chance to serve on the NASPA First-gen Forward committee at Eastern Michigan with colleagues who share this identity has created a space to engage in storytelling about our first-gen experiences. Through the art of storytelling, we affirm our experiences and inform how we navigate structures to serve as advocates for students, faculty, and staff across the university. In the spaces and communities we are a part of cultivating, it is critical to construct belong for students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, community members, and more that centers being “first” an opportunity that can be a beacon of hope for others, not a deficit.

Being “first” means going forth and blazing a trail for others. As a first-gen college student and now professional, I strive to be the role model I desired when I was younger. I no longer shy away from my ‘first-gen’ identity. Moreover, I found joy in connecting college students with resources and tools to aid their holistic development, dismantling oppressive educational systems, and engaging university leaders to create spaces where first-gen students can thrive.

For more information on Eastern Michigan University's approach, please visit their website here.