TRIO celebrates national ‘First Generation College Student Day’



Support Services Counselor Danette Battle and Academic Coach Diana Murdock celebrate First Generation College Student Day.

Brionna McCall, Staff Reporter/Writer

Alabama State University proudly supports the experiences of its first-generation college students. National First-Generation College Student Day, held on Nov. 8, marks the 56th anniversary of the 1965 Higher Education Act (HEA), which helps provide financial assistance to first-generation, post-secondary, low-income students. 

ASU’s Federal TRIO Program joined the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) in Higher Education and other colleges and universities across the nation in celebrating first-generation students, faculty and staff. Other famous individuals that have overcome the challenges of being the first in their families to attend college were highlighted as well. 

The day celebrates the success and presence of first-generation college students, faculty, and staff on campuses across the country. TRIO hopes to advance the narrative on the first-generation student experience and outcomes. 

Many first-generation students go through hardships and challenges without even realizing it. They often experience guilt over leaving their families, feel shame, confusion, and anxiety. Also, these students may have a lack of support from their family and friends at home as compared to other students on campus. This can make first-generation students feel abandoned and they would not have the encouragement they may need to stay on course. According to Tanjula Petty, Ph.D., assistant provost for Student Success and Special Initiatives, they can commonly feel embarrassed as they feel as if they are imposters on campus.  She faced the same challenges as a first-generation college student from the lack of support to feeling like she did not fit in. 

“I started college because I wanted a different life from what I had come from,” Petty said. “I knew that getting an education had much more to offer. I even dealt with the imposter syndrome without even knowing it, which led me to self-doubt and hardly praising myself for the little accomplishments… Many first-generation students who completed their college education moved on to be architects, athletes, business owners, coaches, community advocates, doctors, faculty members, lawyers, politicians, and even higher education administrators.” 

Petty encourages the first-generation students to allow their experiences at ASU to affirm their identity as a first-generation without shame and doubt. “We are a family at ASU and we are here to build a strong community amongst our first-generation students and provide them with the community platform that they will need to be able to express their voice and advocate for other first-generation college students.” 

former first lady Michelle Obama is a first-generation college student who was a bit overwhelmed as a college freshman. In 2014, in a special video message as part of the “I’m First” project backed by the non-profit group called the Center for Student Opportunity, Obama admitted that she did not even know how to furnish her dorm room.  

 “I learned pretty quickly that I had what it took to succeed in college,” Obama said. “Sure, there were moments when I had doubts… First, I even worried that maybe I just wasn’t as smart as some of my classmates. Soon enough, I realized that it was all in my head. I was just as smart as everyone else and I had just as much to contribute, I just had to have the confidence to believe in myself and the determination to work hard and ask for help when I needed it,” She continues.

No matter where you come from or how much money your family has, I want you to know that you can succeed in college and get your degree and then go on to build an incredible life for yourself. That has been my life’s story and my husband’s as well. If you’re willing to put in the time and the effort, I want you to know that it can be your story too. So, I want to wish you the best of luck in the years ahead, I know you can do it.”

Beloved Viola Davis, an award-winning actress, was also a first-generation student. She gave an inspiring commencement speech at Barnard College in 2019 that was helpful for first generation students everywhere in many ways. 

“We are all a product of our environment. Own every heroic deed, great idea, and mission statement of this school,” Davis said.  “Own all of your memories and experiences. Even if they were traumatic… Own it! The world is broken because we’re broken. There are too many of us who want to forget.  Who said that all of who you are has to be good? All of who you are is who you are. You are graduating from a school whose mission is to not just hand you a diploma, but a sword. You either start wielding it, or you put it away as a conversation piece. Perhaps your elixir is simply this, that you can either leave something for people or you can leave something in people.”

Danette Battle, a TRIO student support services counselor, is a first-generation and nontraditional student. 

“I began my college career when I was 25. I was married and already had my children, so it was not easy,” Battle said. “There were some obstacles that I had to overcome. I know one time I had to take a final and I didn’t have a babysitter, so I had to take my girls with me. My instructor allowed me to take my final and I did well on it. I am glad that I had this journey and I wouldn’t change it. I am looking forward to the future.” 

Rhonda Westry, Ph.D., assistant vice president of Retention and First-Year Experience, mentioned that many well-known celebrities are first-generation college graduates, such as Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor, actor and film producer Samuel L. Jackson, and Oprah Winfrey, which means absolutely nothing can stop you from realizing your highest potential as a first-gen student. 

“I am a proud first-generation college student who overcame so many odds of reaching my career in educational goals,” Westry said. In the pursuit of students’ goals, Westry wants them to remember their P’s and Q’s. “Plan your course; you cannot get anywhere unless you have a destination. Prepare for challenges and obstacles because stuff does happen. Posture yourself to receive the support that is available to you because all of us are a combination of the village that provided us assistance along the way. Lastly, quitting is never an option, always have a plan B that will reinforce your plan A.” 

Rakesha Hines, Ph.D., director of housing and residential life, recalls her first time at college as a first-generation student. 

“I remember walking on the college campus not knowing my way around and not having the guidance from my parents because one of my parents didn’t even finish high school, and my father got his GED before going to the military, and so starting the journey of becoming a college student and now just finishing my Ph.D., really speaks to our parents’ dreams, to our ancestors’ dreams, to everyone’s dreams that you can achieve and do anything that you possibly want to,” Hines said. “I’m just excited that you’re here on the campus of Alabama State University, and I know that you are going to reticulate and you’re going to do well and go on to do great things. It may not be a Ph.D., but whatever your dreams and goals are, just know that you can reach them. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what’s your background or anything… You’re able to make your path your way, and that’s a great thing about being here at Alabama State University because you have the resources to go further and to reach for your dreams and your goals.” 

Linwood Whitten, assistant vice president of Student Affairs, said growing up as a military kid his parents always strive to inculcate the importance of attaining a college degree, which would open doors for opportunities they never received. 

“While attending college during my freshman year, I was made aware of my identity as a first-generation college student. This divine intervention occurred while attending a meet and greet with my college roommate, hosted by the office of TRIO Students Support Services. Being a part of this program changed my life and set me on a trajectory for academic personal and professional success. TRIO Students Support Services provided the foundation, guidance, and resources that so many students like me needed and efforts to navigate the aspects of attending college,” Whitten said. “This program offered to supplement tutoring, academic advising, professional development, networking opportunities, access to information technology, and most importantly, a passionate staff who recognize my motivation and full potential. I urge all low-income first-generation college students to be proud of the experiences that shaped you into who you are and who you will become in your post-graduate years… Believe in yourself, set goals, have a vision for your life, write them down so that you can see them, develop a growth mindset, always be willing to work hard and sacrifice for what you want; this may include missing events, parties, and concerts. Importantly, identify a mentor, be well rounded, read articles and current events, be culturally diverse with foods, arts, sports, history, and politics. Master the art of networking and building meaningful relationships. Dress how you want to be addressed. Volunteer and give back, and most importantly, never settle and always strive for the next level.”

As a first-gen, Winfrey once said, “You must have some kind of vision for your life, even though you don’t know the plan, you have to have a direction in which you choose to go. I never was the kind of woman who like to get in a car and just go for a ride… I want to know where are we going… Do we have a destination?… Is there a plan or are we just riding? What I learned is that is a great metaphor for life… You want to be in the driver’s seat of your own life because if you’re not, life will drive you.”