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Celebrating first-generation students

Stories of their journeys to Northwestern and what it means to be a trailblazer in their family

Going to college can be a challenge for anyone. But it takes an extra dose of courage to be the first in your family to do it.

Today, Nov. 8, is the annual National First-Generation College Celebration, a day to highlight the experiences of students whose parents did not graduate from college. At Northwestern, first-generation students represent 15 percent of this fall’s entering undergraduate class — a near 100% increase over the class that entered in 2010.

Long before they first set foot on campus, first-generation students are put to the test.

Northwestern President Michael Schill, addressing incoming students during Wildcat Welcome in September, recalled his own experience.

“Like many of you, neither of my parents had graduated from college,” Schill said. “So I could not turn to them for advice on what college would be like.

“To say I felt out of place was an understatement. Who were these people who seemed to already have so many friends? I wondered, would I ever fit in? Who would I eat dinner with? And could I ever compete and do well in college?

“Ultimately, I found my own niche, my own friends and my own academic passion, in urban policy law. I never lacked for a dinner companion, and I survived the four years — indeed I thrived.”

Related: Northwestern launches a new campus resource that helps first-generation and low-income students succeed

In tribute to first-gen students everywhere, Northwestern Now asked three of them to share, in their own words, stories of their resilience, ambition and journey to Northwestern.

Krissy McGee is a member of the class of 2024. She came to Northwestern during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“To be a first-generation student means to study not only for myself, but for my family and my ancestors who came before me. It also means the chance to set a legacy for those who come after me. My family’s support has helped get me where I am today. Obviously, they have love for what I’m doing, and they’re proud of me. But it also could be a little tricky when they didn't understand the gravity of the task at hand or how difficult it truly could feel.”

Jasmine Tran is a senior. In her first year at Northwestern, she attended the Arch Scholars Bridge program during the summer.

“When I initially arrived at Northwestern, I had a bit of culture shock. So, whenever I had to navigate the academics or the social scene, it was not as familiar as where I grew up with my family. But, being first-gen and finding a community on this campus was a main factor in why I’m so proud and confident.”

Antonio Rocha is a senior studying computer science. After graduation, Antonio plans on working as a software engineer at Microsoft. 

“I never thought I’d leave home, but I really wanted something else because my parents, their entire lives, advocated for education. And I also feel a responsibility not only to find ways to be successful, but to help give others the opportunity to do the same.”