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First-generation college students talk about challenges

Panels discuss experiences, barriers

GRCC  — Psychology Professor Ennis Young told a panel of educators that he would likely be in prison if he didn’t go to college.

Pursuing education allowed for a different life path. 

“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.”

‘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.’

– TRIO Program Director Victoria Powers

Young and other faculty, staff and college students shared their stories during panels on what it’s like to be first in their families to go to college during National First Generation College Student Day, which GRCC’s TRIO program celebrated Tuesday as part of the annual event started by the  Council for Opportunity in Education and the Center for First-Generation Student Success. Every Nov. 8 is now designated for the day. TRIO’s mission is to support and motivate first-generation, low-income students and students with disabilities throughout their college experience.

From left,faculty/staff panelists included School of STEM Dean Dr. Kristi Haik; TRIO Success Navigator and GRCC 2018 graduate Alejandra Zamora Hernandez; Psychology Professor Ennis Young and School of STEM Associate Dean Jonnathan Resendiz

GRCC student and TRIO student employee Erika Hernandez said she received support from STEM Dean Dr. Kristi Haik, 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.”

‘Coming from an immigrant family, you 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.’

–  GRCC student Erika Hernandez

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 U.S., 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 explained.

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

“Coming from an immigrant family, you 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. 

GRCC staff, students and alumni celebrate National First-Generation College Student Day

“(My TRIO co-workers) are encouraging me to apply to the University of Michigan,” she said. “I’m feeling imposter syndrome about that and not being qualified enough.” 

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.

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia, Kenowa Hills, Godfrey-Lee, Grand Rapids and is a roving reporter for GRCC, Wyoming, Kentwood and Byron Center. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN.  Read Alexis' full bio

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