First-generation students share struggles, best advice in pursuing their education

National First-Generation Week celebrates these students’ perseverance and determination in overcoming unique obstacles to completing their college education. 

Celebrating First-generation students graphic

By the KUEC First-Generation Committee (Part of KUEC’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee)

One-quarter of KU Edwards Campus students report being first-generation. November brings National First-Generation Week and an opportunity to celebrate these students, staff and faculty members who are the first in their families to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Meet some of these students and a faculty member who share what led them to college in the first place, their biggest struggles, best advice received along the way and what they have to say to first-generation students who follow in their footsteps.

Aris Afghanzada, bachelor’s in public administration

How and when did you decide to go to college?
I initially went to JCCC in 2000 when I was 20 years old and received an associate degree. Years later, I decided that I wanted to continue my education and pursue a bachelor’s degree in a discipline I was interested in. It was a long road to get to this point, but I felt strongly that I wanted the experience and education for myself.

What is your biggest struggle as a first-generation college student?
As a first-generation college student, you’re lacking that institutional history and knowledge that families who have a history of higher education can impart on later generations: why go to college and take it seriously, how to prepare, what to expect where you’re attending college, and how to succeed. These are invaluable resources that I would have found beneficial to my experience.


Aris Afghanzada quote

Michael Balazs, bachelor’s in information technology

How and when did you decide to go to college?
During my time in the military, information technology always interested me so I attended online college. After I was medically separated from the Navy, I worked for the government as a contractor. I just woke up one day and said my life is going to dead-end here, and the same day I was reading a newspaper for the military that had KU listed as the No. 5 Veteran-Friendly school. I knew it was my sign and ended up making the decision to move from San Diego, California, to Olathe, Kansas. My cousin attends KU, and my dad's side of the family lives in Kansas City. It was just meant to be.

What is your biggest struggle as a first-generation college student?
The biggest struggle for me has to be the adjustment from leaving a career of 14 years to attending college. It was a pretty eye-opening adjustment, but I turned to my family for guidance and advice on how to juggle everything. Since I am a 36-year-old adult with a wife and two kids, I have had to kind of navigate those challenges on my own as I do not know anyone who has been through full-time college while having the commitments that I have.

Michael Balazs quote

Ashley Crist, bachelor’s in psychology

How and when did you decide to go to college?
As an adult, I decided to return to college after finally accepting my desire to earn a degree. I realized that I was not only capable of earning a degree, but I was absolutely worth a degree. My academic advisor at KU Edwards Campus, Ben Herron, is phenomenal. As a nontraditional student, it can be pretty overwhelming returning to school after being out of touch with it for so many years. But, he sold me on coming back and has continued to be an awesome source of encouragement and support.

What is your biggest struggle as a first-generation college student?
When I was fresh out of high school, my biggest struggle was not having the support to know what I needed to do, or how I was going to pay for things! Returning to school later in life as a nontraditional student, however, my biggest struggle has been juggling existing time-commitments with my new academic commitments. But, where there’s a will there’s a way, and I wouldn't trade returning to school now for anything!

Ashley Crist quote

Jasmine Leuthiphonh, bachelor’s in law and society

How and when did you decide to go to college?
I decided to go to college while I was in high school because I wanted to help people and try to make a difference in the world. I knew that I could learn more and make connections with people from all over the world by attaining a higher education.

What is your biggest struggle as a first-generation college student?
My biggest struggle being a first-generation college student is that I sometimes get so caught up in trying to make my family proud by doing good in school and building my future career, that I sometimes forget to take care of myself physically and mentally. My academic success coach, Nigyar Alves, who has helped me not only succeed but who guides me as well in my academics, recently told me that we individuals are our biggest critics. This has shaped my perspective for when I am stressed and overwhelmed because we are doing the best we can with the cards that we were dealt. Just being in college makes everyone proud enough. It shows that you are not satisfied with failure because of the resilience, persistence and hardworking nature instilled in us. It is okay to take a step back and breathe when things get tough because we all need some fun moments too.

Jasmine Leuthiphonh

Dr. Anna Pope, Assistant Teaching Professor in Psychology

How and when did you decide to go to college?
I was raised in small town near St. Louis by a single, unemployed mother on various government assistance programs. My high school was visited by recruiters, but I never considered continuing school because neither of my parents finished high school. Luckily for me, my school counselor picked out high-performing students and explained what college was and helped us find scholarships. Without his help, I would not have known that scholarships existed! My entire undergraduate degree was funded with scholarships and Pell grants since my mother could not afford to help out.

What was your biggest struggle as a first-generation college student?
Vocabulary was a barrier for me. Though my mother encouraged me to read growing up, all she really had to offer was magazines and pulp horror novels. I struggled with spelling and “big words” in high school and was always told my writing lacked diverse language in college. I always felt intimidated around other students, and especially faculty, just from my way of speaking and writing. This really came to a head with the graduate record examination (GRE) for graduate school. Though I had worked on my vocabulary in college, I still spent most of a year studying word lists and books on Greek and Latin roots to bring up my verbal scores. This is why whenever one of my students mentions being intimidated by my vocabulary, I always smile and reach out to them. 

Anna Pope quote

Meaghan Purdy, bachelor’s in molecular biosciences

How and when did you decide to go to college?
I have now attended four colleges in my lifetime! But most recently I decided to return to college to finish my bachelor’s [in molecular biosciences] in pursuit of medical school after returning from an overseas deployment in 2019 as a combat medic.

What is your biggest struggle as a first-generation college student?
My biggest struggle was finding what I was passionate about. My family supported my first go rounds with college, but when you aren’t passionate about what your studying it doesn’t stick with you. I really strive for direction from my professors, advisors and peers when looking for advice with my coursework and direction on where I’m headed next.


Meaghan Purdy

Kayla Swan, bachelor’s in information technology

How and when did you decide to go to college?
Higher education was written on the wall from when I was very young. My family always encouraged my academic pursuits with everything they had, even before I started Kindergarten. I always had lots of books to read, computers to tinker with, and my spirited curiosity was always met with encouragement and opportunities to learn. I have a good relationship with my professors and advisors, and they’ve always been very understanding and helpful when I start spinning my wheels.

What is your biggest struggle as a first-generation college student?
By the time I complete my bachelor’s, I will have been in college, on and off, for 11 years. In the times I’ve fallen behind or life has gotten in the way, I really have to rally my spirits to remember why I’m doing the things I do. Juggling full-time work and the trappings of being a senior in college at nearly 30 feels a lot like spinning plates, but I’ve always come through.

Kayla Swan

Alexandra Welch, bachelor’s in American Sign Language & Deaf Studies

How and when did you decide to go to college?
When coming up on graduating from high school, I was not sure about what I wanted to go to college for, but I loved playing soccer. My old coach had moved on to community college soccer, so I was able to go to his school which was MCC-Blue River and continue school and sports.

What is your biggest struggle as a first-generation college student?
My biggest struggle as a first-generation student figuring out my best pathways to be the most successful for my future.

Alexandra Welch

Can you relate to these stories?

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