As the first members of their families to attend and graduate from college, so-called "first-generation" students must navigate challenging—yet ultimately satisfying—journeys while working toward their diplomas.
That was the key message at Knox College's inaugural reception recognizing members of the Class of 2016 who also are first-generation students. Many of the students at the event, which took place in Alumni Hall on the day before Commencement, were joined by their families.
"The support (from loved ones) has been enormous. I don't know if I could have done it otherwise," said Amber Simon '16, who attended the reception with several family members. "I don't know how to put it into words how much it means to me to have so many people to be proud of me and come visit me for graduation."
All first-generation graduates at the event received a Knox College pin especially designed for first-generation alumni.
President Teresa Amott described the pins as "tokens, not just of your accomplishment, but of our esteem for you and all you've accomplished."
"I hope you will remember, when you look at that pin, the honor that you have brought to this College, the honor you have brought to your friends and your families by your achievements," Amott added. "We are so proud of you."
Also delivering prepared remarks at the reception were two members of Knox's "first-gen" community: Tawni Sasaki '16, who recently received a Fulbright fellowship to teach English in Taiwan next year, and faculty member Gabrielle Raley, assistant professor of anthropology-sociology.
Sasaki noted that while Commencement "is absolutely a milestone to be celebrated, we must not forget the challenges leading up to it."
"Sometimes, that meant having two distinct personalities, one for school and one for home. Sometimes, it meant feeling guilty for doing poorly on an assignment because you feel like you let down not only yourself, but your entire family who sent you there," she said.
There were good times, too, like late-night conversations with peers about "how you can make the world a better place" and having family members and professors "tell you that they're proud of you and your achievements," Sasaki said.
Raley observed that graduation is "an enormous, significant moment."
"We first-generation students got here through routes as varied as we are," she added. For example, some students felt the weight of their families' expectations of success, "the outright need for us to make it at college because everything was riding on us."
(Photo at top of page: Group shot of Knox's first-generation graduates in the Class of 2016. Photos below: President Teresa Amott speaks at the reception. Pins are distributed to the graduates. Friends enjoy the reception.)
"When we called to tell them about a difficulty at school, an uncertainty as to what to do, what we heard back was their own uncertainty, also mixed with their love," Raley said. "‘I don't know what to tell you,' they would say. ‘But I know you're going to figure it out. You're so smart. I know you can do it.' We did do it."
Dean Laura Behling praised the comments from Raley and Sasaki, whom she called "remarkably inspirational people, as I think are all of you graduating seniors here."
Behling also thanked Knox staff members Laura Bush, Risa Lopez, and Stephanie Kennedy for organizing the reception. Lopez is director of the TRIO Achievement Program, and Kennedy is its assistant director. Bush is the Center for Teaching & Learning's student success coordinator, a new position funded by a Mellon Foundation grant.