Being the first person in your family to attend college has its challenges. That’s why the university is recognizing more than 9,000 of its first-generation students—representing more than 20% of all UT undergraduates—during National First-Generation College Student Day. This year’s celebration will take place on Thursday, Nov. 7 from 12 to 3 p.m. in Main 212 and all first-generation college students, faculty, and staff on the Forty Acres are encouraged to attend.
With more than 34% of its student body considered first-generation, the School of Undergraduate Studies (UGS) has several programs aimed at supporting these students as they transition from high school to college. The Discovery Scholars Program provides students with a coach to help connect them with campus resources and give advice and encouragement. A First-Year Interest Group (FIG) is a group of 18-25 first-year students who take two to four classes together during their first fall semester at UT. FIGs connect students with one another to create community and structure where they can grow and learn together.
Two students in the School of Undergraduate Studies shared their experiences with us about what it means to be the first in their families to attend college.
Sophomore Maria Rodriguez possesses an undeniable passion and drive for education, motivated in part by her parents’ hardships. Maria’s father dropped out of high school in his sophomore year after experiencing racism and bullying, and later went on to earn his GED. Her mother completed sixth grade in Durango, Mexico, but her education ended there. Moving to another city to continue her education and paying tuition weren’t options for her. When asked what a college degree will mean to her family, Maria explained, “For my parents, it’s my gift to them. My mom misses me a lot when I’m not home, but she knows that I’m accomplishing my dreams, and for her, that’s part of her dream.”
Leaving her close-knit family and small town to come to a big city was tough, and Maria credits her FIG with helping her feel at home at UT. “I met one of my best friends in my FIG,” Maria gushed. “We’re actually taking another class together this semester. My FIG did presentations on procrastination, studying better, and even more abstract things like perspective. It really helped me find my direction.”
Maria is also grateful for the academic and career counselors who helped her explore her interests and discover her major. “I told them I wanted to do something where I’m talking to people, and that I really liked writing and making an impact,” Maria explained. Her counselor suggested she investigate public relations, and Maria enrolled in a Fundamentals of PR class. “That class changed my life,” she said. “Professor Junker is my mentor now and a resource for me to ask questions about anything.”
Maria successfully transferred to the Moody College of Communication in spring 2019 and is now majoring in public relations. “My parents always taught me to do my best, and that they’d be proud of me no matter what,” Maria explained. “So, I will continue to give everything I can to make my people back home very proud. Especially my parents.”
Sophomore Terrian Spurs started college overwhelmed by her diverse interests and by pressure from her parents to pursue a career in business. By taking advantage of UGS resources such as advising, career counseling, and Wayfinder, she was able to discover her own career path. With her counselor’s encouragement, Terrian enrolled in Intro to Communication and Leadership and is now applying to the Moody College of Communication’s program in that same area of study.
In addition to the valuable help from her academic advisors, she emphasized the importance of her FIG mentor when Terrian was struggling with feelings that she didn’t belong at UT. “Last semester, I would just fall apart sometimes and be really hard on myself,” she explained. “I’d tell my dad, but he wouldn’t understand what I was going through because he’d never been through this before. It was really nice having somebody on campus I could go and talk to.”
Being the first in her family to attend college has meant having to figure out a lot of things for herself. She hopes some of what she has learned will make it easier for her sister to follow in her footsteps. Terrian says she would offer any first-generation student this advice: “It’s ok to go out and ask for help—it doesn’t mean that you don’t know anything. People are scared that if they don’t understand, they don’t deserve to be here. Reach out and talk to people you trust.”