By Leonard Combs
First generation college students and graduates answered questions and discuss their experiences on Nov. 29 at Allen Auditorium in Crabbe Library. The panel was the first in a series of community forums called “Speaking from the Margins”, which is aimed at highlighting diverse voices and issues across campus. The event was co-sponsored by EKU Libraries, the Noel Studio, and Student Success Center.
“EKU’s been looking at diversity on campus,” said Noel Studio associate director Trenia Napier, who moderated the event. She said that the forum was put together to give a voice to students who may be under-represented.
Panelists consisted of both EKU graduates and current students. These were assistant vice president for institutional effectiveness Tanlee Wasson, associate professor of English Jill Parrott, sophomore Edith del Moral, senior Diamond Richards, and Derrek Singleton, vice president for operations and sustainability at Berea College.
Del Moral recounted that her family emigrated to the United States from Mexico in 2003 to give her more academic opportunity and to get access to the medical resources necessary to treat her brother’s cerebral palsy.
“He was always sort of my motivation because I am doing something he didn’t have the chance to do,” del Moral said. Her brother passed away this year at the age of 22, a decade longer than his life expectancy as estimated by doctors.
“He succeeded all expectations,” she said, “and that’s what I’m here to do as well.”
The discussion opened with speakers reflecting on their upbringing and how it lead to their college careers.
As the conversation shifted to how friends and family served as motivators through college, del Moral continued that if she were to flunk a class, she wouldn’t be setting a good example for her younger cousin.
Singleton brought up how his father encouraged he and his sister to go to college.
“It was just a known fact: you would go to college, or you would face the wrath of dad,” Singleton joked. Singleton described his life growing up in Kentucky and working on his family’s farm.
However, the panelists also talked about how familial ties have, in some instances, caused complications during college.
“I started [attending] in grad school and ended up having a huge fight with my mother about it because she said ‘what are you going to do with a graduate degree?'” Dr. Parrott recalled. She explained that her mother wanted her to come back home after getting a degree instead of staying away and studying for her masters in English.
“She didn’t understand why a bachelor’s degree wasn’t enough,” Dr. Parrott said.
In some instances, families have discouraged loved ones from attending college. One person in the audience explained that her family tried to stop her from participating in higher education because they believed they were protecting her.
“Because I was hearing from my parents that it was not for me, that we weren’t the kind of people who went to college – that’s where I had a hard time,” she said. She said that the people in her family didn’t think they could be successful in college and that this stigma has prevented many of her relatives from going.
“I think just a general lack of understanding how higher education works was a barrier,” Wasson said.
Because her parents never attended college, they didn’t know how the application process worked, leaving her to have to figure it out herself. Dr. Parrott echoed the sentiment.
“My parents were super supportive of my going [to college], but absolutely did not understand what the process looked like, or what I needed to do to get there, or how to get financial aid.”
For some, ethnicity has also affected decisions made in regards to higher education.
“If you don’t like how something works, fix it,” said Richards. She said that as an African-American, she studies criminal justice so that she can take an active part and amend policies that may harm minorities.
Richards chose Eastern over at Kentucky State University, a college she described as having a high percentage of black attendance.
“I knew as a minority female I had to learn how to work with people who don’t look like me,” she said.
Del Moral’s situation was similar. She chose to study at EKU because she wanted to represent Hispanics in an environment where they might not have a lot of representation.
The forum came to a close with speakers advising how first-generation students can stay motivated through college. This advice included making friends, speaking to advisers when it’s necessary and thinking of loved ones.
“One thing I tell myself is: you educate yourself to educate others,” Richards said. One core motivator for her, she said, is to inform her family on subjects with information she has access to that those who never attend college might not.
Singleton also encouraged supporting others who are struggling in college.
“Make sure you validate other people,” he said, “Your words have meaning.”
The Speaking from the Margins committee hopes the series will continue so that it can reach underrepresented students.
“We do hope that Speaking From the Margins is an ongoing series where students without a voice can be given a platform,” Napier said.
She said that they aim to help students be successful and demonstrate what they have in common.
“I think it’s important that we recognize that we are a diverse community,” she said.
The committee is currently exploring possibilities for the next Speaking from the Margins panel. Napier said students are invited to send suggestions on future topics to Krista Rhodus via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.