Four years ago, Michael Booker rode a bus to Austin from the Mississippi Delta, arriving at the University of Texas at Austin with little more than a change of clothes. He expects to graduate in December with a degree in engineering and plans to get his doctorate.
Joseph Gallardo was a high school dropout who returned to school, graduating last in his class six years after he started high school. He went on to succeed at community college and moved on to UT-Austin. He graduated last spring, and he’s now looking forward to law school.
Vanilla McIntosh came to UT-Austin after graduating from a Houston high school in the top 10 percent of her class. She found work at the university level much more difficult than she expected, receiving a 22 on her first test in economics. But she ended up earning an A in that class and many others, and she expects to graduate in May. She currently has five job offers from several top corporations.
These are just a few of the stories of first-generation college students who’ve come to UT-Austin in recent years. They also illustrate why I wanted to work in the university’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.
My own story is similar to that of many of our first-generation students. I grew up in Houston in a high-risk neighborhood, in poverty, raised by my mother, grandmother and two older sisters. I deeply understand what students like these go through when they arrive at the university without the support at home to help them succeed.
Like Michael, Joseph and Vanilla, our first-generation students represent an enormous pool of talent that often remains untapped because we aren’t willing to give them the chance to prove themselves at our state universities. By providing mentoring, tutoring and community engagement activities, such as those available through the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement’s Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence, as well as financial support like scholarships offered through UT-Austin’s Texas Advance program, we can develop future leaders who represent the changing demographics of the state.
Though our first-generation college students may initially require more assistance, the payoff will be great as they move into the workforce and serve as role models for their communities.
Through my work at the division, I want to let these students know that they have the opportunity to succeed. They don’t have to be shy about seeking out support services or embarrassed to want to change their lives — a feeling all too common among first-generation students and students from low-income backgrounds who often face peer pressure from friends back home. I want to let them know that it’s up to them to take advantage of the many opportunities offered. They’ll have to work hard and be willing to focus on academics and their own image and brand, perhaps even motivating friends back home to do what they’re doing.
I know from personal experience that getting a college degree is the best feeling in the world.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.