March 2023

An Interview Series - First-Generation College Graduates teaser image

An Interview Series - First-Generation College Graduates

Abigail Graves


Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. – H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

There is great risk that comes with being the first. To separate from the crowd and traverse a new path requires immense courage to start and uncompromising resolve to finish. Whether someone is the first man to set foot on Mars, the first woman to become President of the United States, or the first person in their family to finish college, all unique journeys have their perils… and their rewards. With every possibility of humiliation, bankruptcy, or stagnation that comes with being the first to attend university, there is a greater opportunity for success, prosperity, and fulfillment. Nobody said it was going to be easy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it. For the pioneers who are struggling under the weight of being the first, we hope these three interviews can offer guidance, determination, and hope despite the uncertainties that lie ahead.

Name: Leslie Speir
Place of Birth: Harlingen, TX (1976)
Education: B. B. A. in Accounting, Texas State University (2005)
Occupation: Accountant

1. What were the occupations of your parents/grandparents?
Both my mom and grandma were bookkeepers, and my dad was in construction. I’m not sure about my grandfathers. My dad kept the same job for his whole career, and my mom was in the same field but didn’t stay at the same specific job. She actually went to college for a year or so, but I don’t know why she dropped out.

2. Why did you decide to go to college? How did your family feel about your decision?
I decided to go to college to make a better life for myself. It was one of those things where I felt like I needed an education as a way to support myself should I get married and have kids and then something happens to my husband. I needed a way to support myself and any children that I had. My decision to go to college also had to do with my self-esteem. It was something that I wanted to do for myself.

As far as my family went, my sister was all for it, and she encouraged me to get through. It took me a long time to get through school, but she always encouraged me to finish. I don’t really know how my parents felt about it. I’m sure my mom was happy that I was finishing because I don’t know that she ever thought that I would.

3. What was the hardest part of being a first-generation college graduate?
I think the hardest part was just the financial aspect of it because I worked full-time and went to school full-time. Nobody was paying for my college, so it wasn’t as if I was getting a free ride or anything like that. It was difficult working a low-paying job trying to support myself and taking a full courseload of college classes. It was also hard finding a job that would allow that. I got lucky and found a job that would work with my schedule every semester, and it was more than minimum wage, so I got really lucky that I wasn’t just working at McDonald’s. It was a job where I could at least support myself.

It was difficult, but I am proud of myself for finishing and doing it myself.

4. What advice do you have for other current or potential first-generation college students?
Just keep at it. It took me a total of eleven years to get through school. It took five years of actual classes to finish, but I took off five or six years just to work full-time. I took that time off because even though I could typically find a job really fast, there was one time where it took me over a month to find one. It scared me, and I realized I needed to do something about that before going back to school.

So, it doesn’t matter when you start or when you finish. It just matters that you finish. Set your goals and keep your eyes on them. Don’t let anybody stop you.

Name: John Thomas
Place of Birth: Victoria, TX (1968)
Education: B. A. Journalism, Texas Tech University (1990): M. A. English, University of Texas – Pan American at Brownsville (1995), M.D. UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas (2005)
Occupation: Family Practice Physician

1. What were the occupations of your parents/grandparents?
My father was a plumber, and my mother finished her career as an insurance salesman but was a bookkeeper throughout her life. My grandfather on my father’s side was a welder by trade but also an all-around jack-of-all-trades, handyman, fix-it guy. He was a smart mechanical guy who could figure out how to build and fix things, and he must have had literally a hundred different jobs throughout his life. My grandmother on my father’s side was a hairdresser. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a longshoreman off the port of Brownsville, and my grandmother was a housewife.

2. Why did you decide to go to college? How did your family feel about your decision?
My father decided his kids were all going to go to college. That was the only dream that was pushed on us without other options, so we just grew up with our dad telling us we were going to go to college, end of story. However, all of our grandparents thought it was a stupid impossibility, and they literally said so. I thought it was an ignorant opinion from people with a very narrow worldview.

3. What was the hardest part of being a first-generation college graduate?
The hardest part were the financial struggles through school. When your parents are broke and divorced and you have to pay for school and for living expenses and you have no marketable skills, it’s just hard. You learn to live impoverished knowing that it’s going to be worth it at the end.

For me, I always had a part-time job during school, but having grown up on the coast and having lots of boating experience, I was able to get a captain’s license which paid very well during seasonal summers. That was what enabled me to get through.

4. What advice do you have for other current or potential first-generation college students?
Number one is just work hard. Don’t make excuses. Don’t give lame explanations. Work hard. Do the best that you can do. Every paper, every assignment… you have to be able to look at it and honestly tell yourself, “That is the best work I can possibly do.” If that is your mindset, you will be successful. Number two is you have to have a broader worldview than your parents and grandparents.

I went off to college really thinking that it could be a total crash and burn either academically or financially, and I was more worried about the financial aspect. I was closer to a crash and burn financially the entire time I was in college than I was academically. But, you just have to be willing to swing for the fences. You just go, and you keep working. Like my father once said, “If you just keep working, one day you wake up, and all the work is done.”

Name: Beth G.
Place of Birth: Aurora, Illinois (1965)
Education: B. S. Math, University of Tennessee (1987); M. S. Math Education, University of Tennessee (1988)
Occupation: Homemaker/Teacher

1. What were the occupations of your parents/grandparents?
Before my mother had me, she was a keypunch operator. My dad was an army veteran and was a salesman towards the end of his career. On my dad’s side, his dad was a farmer, and his mom was a homemaker. On my mother’s side, her mother was a secretary, housekeeper, receptionist, and clerk throughout different periods of her life. My mom’s dad was trained and worked as a printer in Chicago. He then became a motorman on the Chicago streetcars before working in a manufacturing shop.

2. Why did you decide to go to college? How did your family feel about your decision?
I wanted to go to college to be a teacher and to study mathematics, and my family was very supportive of me doing so. They were happy for me to do that. We didn’t live too far from Knoxville which is where my dad worked, so my first quarter I lived at home and my dad drove me to school each day. That way, I could get used to classes and the school before worrying about actually living on campus. I got to get used to school before having to adjust to everything new, so my dad was really good about that.

I don’t know that my dad ever thought about going to college, but my mom did very well in school and was pretty good at math and a variety of subjects. I know that her family could not afford school, and at that time, I don’t know that there were ways for her to get the aid she needed to go. She basically just had to go to work, so she was glad that I was able to attend school.

3. What was the hardest part of being a first-generation college graduate?
Probably the hardest thing was that my family didn’t know what all was involved, so I had to figure it all out on my own as far as applying to school and applying for financial aid. My family definitely helped, but they didn’t know what needed to be done. Not that it was bad, but I had to figure things out as far as what I needed to do and what forms to fill out and how to go about getting financial aid.

4. What advice do you have for other current or potential first-generation college students?
If you do want to pursue college, even if your family hasn’t been to college, just do what you have to do (ask questions, find out the information you need) to make it happen, if at all possible.

At this point, if you have access to the internet, there’s a lot of information available to check out the schools you’re interested in and find out what you need to do. So, if you’re willing to do some research, the schools are pretty good about having that information online. However, if you get to a spot where you’re unsure, be willing to ask some questions because the schools are going to want to help you navigate the process. Also, if getting an advisor is an option, definitely do that, but if you feel like your advisor is not giving you good advice, don’t be afraid to look into getting a different one.

About the Author

image of author Abigail Graves

Abigail Graves

Originally from small beer-town Shiner, TX, Abigail is currently a master’s student in Chemical Engineering with an emphasis in water resources. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Texas A&M, yet chemistry is still her least favorite science. She works fulltime at an engineering consulting firm specializing in wastewater treatment plant design. She is married, has five dogs and loves anything nerdy, but will break some ankles on the basketball court if needed.

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