Celebrating the Success of First-Generation College Students

One of the greatest accomplishments of my life was obtaining a college degree. While my parents did not attend college, they instilled in me the importance and value of education and learning. However, when it came time to navigate the college application process, I felt I was at a disadvantage. I was underprepared for standardized tests, uninformed about financial aid and scholarship opportunities, and wholly unaware about college’s academic and social culture.

With such limited understanding, I ended up applying only to one school, 20 minutes away from my hometown. I had never even visited the school prior to my acceptance. I attended summer orientation alone because I did not realize parents and family were invited. After a few months on campus, I quickly realized not only did I face challenges as the first in my family to attend college, but I was also a student of color on a predominantly white campus.

Learning how to navigate campus as a first-generation college student of color was both an enriching and challenging experience. During my time in college, I developed my own racial consciousness and began to deeply explore my social identities that contributed to both my power and marginalization in society. Through the support of incredible student affairs professionals, I developed leadership skills that allowed me to support other students, particularly students with marginalized identities. It was through these leadership and on-campus roles where I discovered my passion for higher education and in particular, addressing issues of access and equity.

My experiences as a first-generation college student of color motivates me to dedicate my professional career to advancing diversity initiatives, promoting equity and access, and supporting underrepresented students in higher education. It is important to me to help eliminate educational barriers for other students and support the success of underrepresented students on our campuses. I started my career in residence life, transitioned to multicultural affairs, and now work within the realm of institutional diversity. One of my goals is to shift the view of underrepresented students in higher education from a deficit model to a strengths-based model.

While I once thought the greatest accomplishment of my life was obtaining a college degree, I now consider my greatest accomplishment to be reflected in the moment when underrepresented students with whom I have worked with earn their degrees. This moment captures the strength, courage, resiliency, and determination of students who are successful in a system that was never built for them.

On November 8, many colleges and universities across the nation will be celebrating the success of first-generation college students. As a former first-generation college student, my experience played a large role in finding my career in higher education. I am proud to be first-gen. And, I am proud to work towards institutional change that supports the success of many future first-generation college students.  


Jessika Chi is the program manager for institutional diversity at Reed College. Chi works to help implement systems and institutional structures to create a diverse and inclusive learning, teaching, and working environment. She has experience developing programs and services designed to support the recruitment, transition, and retention of historically underrepresented students, staff, and faculty. She received her M.A. in Educational Administration and Leadership from University of the Pacific and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Education and Leadership from Pacific University. Chi serves on the Oregon Women in Higher Education Board of Directors and NASPA's Region 5 Advisory Board. Connect with her on twitter at @jessikachi! 

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