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School News Network feature: TRIO National First-Generation College Student Day celebration focuses on success stories

Nov. 15, 2022, GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Grand Rapids Community College psychology professor Ennis Young said he would likely be in prison if he didn’t go to college.

Pursuing education allowed for a different life path, he said as part of a panel of educators during a National First-Generation College Student Day celebration.

“A lot of people I grew up with are dead and gone or locked up and that’s my truth,” he said. “I grew up with people in my community and in my own home who didn’t believe in me. Those words kick you in the gut and you feel inadequate.”

Young and other faculty, staff and college students shared their stories about what it’s like to be first in their families to go to college at a Nov. 8 event organized by GRCC’s TRIO program. The annual recognition was started in 2017 by the Council for Opportunity in Education and the Center for First-Generation Student Success.

TRIO’s mission is to support and motivate first-generation, low-income students and students with disabilities throughout their college experience.

GRCC student and TRIO student employee Erika Hernandez said she received support from Dr. Kristi Haik, dean of GRCC’s School of STEM, who told her, “nothing goes as planned” and to “always have a plan B” in regard to your college journey.

“I graduated in 2020 and that switched my plans,” Hernandez said. “I took a gap year and then came to GRCC. Things didn’t go as planned, but I learned so much about the college journey coming to GRCC and TRIO.”

Through TRIO, she learned about financial literacy in regard to attending college and got connected with tutoring.

“They have supported me, given me tools and resources and helped me see the reality (of college),” Hernandez said. “I’ve learned to set goals and imagine my future.”

Learning to Navigate Education

After immigrating from Mexico to the United States, where Hernandez was born, her parents moved back for a few years and then returned to Michigan, where she had to relearn English while attending high school and preparing for the future.

“When it came time for college, my parents didn’t know how to help me get into college or the things I needed to know about financial aid,” she said.

She also faced additional roles and responsibilities as the oldest child in her family.

“Coming from an immigrant family, you’d think a diploma comes with authority and confidence. But being a first-generation college student doesn’t go away just because you graduate and get your degree.”

Looking forward, Hernandez hopes to receive her associate degree in business in spring 2023 and transfer in the fall.

No matter what her future holds, Hernandez will be happy if she can help people and “do what she wants to do.”

“For so long, I was doing what other people told me to do,” she said. “My dad says to me that so many people will try to tell you things and influence you. But in the end, you have the final choice.”

TRIO Program Director Victoria Powers said she hoped putting professional first-generation college students in front of current students was informative and inspiring.

“When you get a degree or a certification, it isn’t a magic piece of paper to make the anxieties and insecurities go away for first-generation college students,” Powers said.

This story was reported by Alexis Stark of the School News Network.