First-generation college students are pioneers for their families in the strange land of higher education. I was the first person in my family to attend and complete college. My parents both have 8th grade educations from a one-room country schoolhouse.
First-generation college students are pioneers in our time. These brave souls leave the familiar land of their homes and set off on an adventure to an unknown place. Much like the pioneers who traversed the Oregon Trail two hundred years ago, today’s “first gen” pioneers also battle enemies. Their enemies were illness, starvation, rivers, and rattlesnakes. Today’s first-gen pioneers face enemies of homesickness, stress, language barriers, systemic barriers, and financial peril. Like the Oregon Trail pioneers, the first-gen pioneers have families back home that are typically limited in their ability to help. My parents, pork producers, sold a hog every semester and sent me the check but didn’t know how to help in most ways.
The first college degree in a family not only transforms the destiny of one pioneer, it paves the way for future family members. The first-gen pioneer will barely find a navigable path, but the ones to follow them will find a trail, and the ones in the next generation will find a clear path. That “trail” reminds me of a portion of the Oregon Trail I visited in Wyoming. This section of the trail is known as the Guernsey Ruts. As you can see, the wagon wheels wore down the rock across this ridge, leaving a clear and solid path for future travelers. The first pioneers to pass this way did not have a path but those who followed them found the route more clearly. This feels like the journey of a first-generation college student who creates a path for future members of their family to follow.
Where once there was no trail, now there is a road. For me, I am the 3rd of four siblings, and the first to attend college. The trail I left includes a doctorate for myself; my sister followed with an associate’s degree, my older brother followed and earned two years of college credit, my younger brother earned a bachelor’s degree. Of our twelve children, we have 7 children with bachelor’s degrees, two of which also have master’s degrees, 1 with an associate’s degree, 1 with some college, 2 with no college, and 1 who is only 11 years old so we can’t count him yet. The legacy of my family changed with the departure and success of the first-generation college graduate.
I have also been pondering the legacy of the first college degree in a family and how it reminds me of another place in Wyoming known as Register Cliff. In an early form of texting, the pioneers would etch their names on a limestone cliff, typically with a date and sometimes with an origin. They did this as a way for future travelers to know that people they knew and loved had made it to this point in the journey west. That legacy, marked in time, is much like a college diploma for a first-generation college student. The diploma says much more than I graduated, it says, “I made it!”
If you are a first-generation college student: Be brave! If you are in a support role for a first-generation college student: Be encouraging! The path left for future family members and the accomplishment of a college degree marks a legacy in time for generations to come.Dr. Cindy MacGregor, Professor Counseling, Leadership and Special Education