More than once in the late 1960s, I wrote a tuition check to the bursar’s office at Pfeiffer College knowing that I would have just $10 left in my account.
I would lie in my dorm room concerned about making it through the next semester.
Could I keep up financially? Academically? Was it worth it?
Self-doubt can overwhelm even the most prepared student. It doesn’t seem to matter where you grew up, how you performed on your ACTs or how much money your family makes.
But when you’re the first in your family to go to college, as I was, you don’t know that it’s hard for everyone. No one has told you. And that can be very lonely.
That’s why the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is celebrating National First-Generation College Student Day. Events across campus today will help show students they are not alone.
One quarter of our undergraduate students, including freshmen, have parents who do not have a four-year degree.
First-generation college students are as smart and talented as their classmates, though they may not be as prepared. They may not understand the lingo of higher education or know how to navigate complex systems like a large university. And, as in my case, their financial burdens are often greater.
Today, first-generation faculty and staff on our campus will wear “First Gen” T-shirts and lapel pins to celebrate our students. We want students to see themselves reflected in the people who are here to serve them. It’s a lengthy list that includes, in addition to me, our vice chancellor for student life, the deans of the law school and the libraries, our athletics director, and numerous faculty, staff and administrators.
But celebrating our first-generation students isn’t enough. We are working harder and investing more than ever to help them succeed.
We have long-running efforts like TRiO Student Support Services to help students in need, and we’re expanding others like UT LEAD, which serves as a resource for first-generation Volunteers throughout their college career.
As a Carnegie tier one research university, we are developing more programs that involve our undergraduate students in research experiences. These opportunities not only engage students academically but also provide financial support in many cases.
We are Tennessee’s premier public university and its flagship higher education institution. This is a place of aspiration and opportunity, and it belongs to all Tennesseans.
The students who arrive on our campus have earned their way here, and from the moment they step onto Rocky Top it is our duty to make sure they succeed.
I see thousands of talented young people on our campus every day. Among them are the next great researchers, nurses, business leaders, writers and teachers—perhaps even the next chancellor of a flagship university.
No matter what our students choose to do, they will leave this university with a degree that has improved their lives, the lives of their families and the lives of fellow Tennesseans.
Wayne T. Davis