Your social media timelines are most likely full of decorated mortar boards, tassels, gowns– heartfelt posts of what it means to be a graduate of their respective institution and more. Yes, folks, graduation season is among us. Speaking from experience, the feeling of submitting that final assignment that concludes one’s undergraduate/graduate career is indescribable. The stress, late-nights, computer failures were worth it as one celebrates such a milestone in their life. For Summer Wigley (Kent State University M.Ed 2018 Graduate) and I, however, graduating with postsecondary degrees (undergraduate for me, graduate for Summer), is a little deeper than just getting a diploma or walking across the stage. As first-generation students, it means that we’ve created new pathways for our family members to follow along– it means that our diploma is to show appreciation and gratitude for our family members who have dreamt of going to college but for whatever reasons were unable to, that their sacrifices for us to provide them something they were unable to attain were worth it.
I always had theidea that I would be the first in my immediate family to attain a college degree. Though accessibility to higher education seemed to be an obstacle when I was a high school student, my parents never failed to remind me of the importance of education and what it meant for a future career. With that being said, the “label” of “first-generation college student” was not a concept I used to identify myself until my sophomore year of college, when I learned about different social identities. Being a first-generation college student didn’t actually “hit” me until the 2016 Presidential election, where I became more empowered, but tired, than ever to fight against the oppressive systems instilled in the system of higher education. My senior year was spent trying to push through the aftermath of the election. One thing I never lost sight of, however, was me crossing the graduation stage. Not for the sake of crossing it, but because of the significance and depth it has for my family members who sacrificed all they knew so that I could pursue a college degree.
My identity as a first generation college student was not fully developed until I matriculated into my Master’s program. As I look back on my undergraduate experience, I can identify many times when my first-generation (developing) identity created challenging moments. I remember having many questions, yet lacked the confidence and competence to seek assistance. I recall feeling so grateful when I was selected to be an orientation leader because I was given helpful information about the university, which I would share with students, but also utilize myself. Since graduating from my Master’s program, I have a deeper appreciation for my collegiate experiences. I remember feeling, “this degree isn’t just for me.” My family and friends sacrificed so much for me to be where I am, which is why I feel it is unfair to solely accept my degrees. My spirit is on fire to continue my education (future Dr. Wigley!) and also empower others to pursue things in their life that make them feel successful (as they define it, of course). I can’t fully articulate, but I feel that this type of first generation pride is like nothing else out there.
Though Summer and I are on two different pathways, there is one thing we both have in common aside from our identities as first-generation college students: our diplomas are just as much our families’ as they are our own. Being a first-generation college student isn’t easy– having to learn the FAFSA process on your own (if you are able to apply for it); figuring out how to go about choosing a school; adjusting culturally, socially, professionally, personally, etc. to new environments; it’s hard. While the road is difficult, the finish line is beautiful. To see the excitement on the face of your loved ones as you walk across the stage, breaking a glass ceiling that has been present in one’s life for whatever reason-is truly amazing. Congratulations to all of those graduating this year, and special shout-out to those who are first in their family to do so.
Summer Wigley is a first-generation student who graduated from University of Mississippi (2016) and is a recent graduate from Kent State University’s Higher Education Administration and College Student Personnel Program.