The experience of a first generation college student

Katie Zee, Lifestyle Editor

First generation college students may have similar struggles, but each experience is unique. Here at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, first-gen makes up about one third of the student population.

Guillermo Pavon-Prieto is a freshman studying marketing at UW-W. He describes his experience as a first-generation student as being liberating because it means that he is doing something that the rest of his family didn’t get to do. Pavon-Prieto explained that his parents never got the opportunity to go to college because of financial reasons, but they help him out with expenses now that they are in a better situation.

 The general attitude towards college was a factor for his family as well because “as soon as you graduate high school, it wasn’t assumed that you would go to college after in Hispanic culture,” said Pavon-Prieto. Because of this, he didn’t think about college very often when he was growing up. He made his decision to attend college because he wants to be able to support his family and repay them for always being there for him. Since his parents have worked hard for most of their lives, he wants to be able to give them the gift of retirement. “My parents are my main reason for going to college. They are my motivation,” said Pavon-Prieto. 

Donna Kirker-Gorham is an urgent care physician assistant who grew up in rural southern Ohio. Her parents did not stress the idea of going to college. In fact, they didn’t see going to college at all because her father wanted her to work, and her mother pictured her getting married. Even her Guidance Counselor and teachers believed that college would not be for her. 

“They thought that because of where we lived, the way our house looked, and because my mother did not graduate from high school and my father was in one of the lowest paid “blue-collar” jobs we were likely to not be able to handle, intellectually and financially going to college,” she said. 

Kirker-Gorham viewed going to college as a necessity because “the only way to break the cycle of being poor was to have a career, not just a job in a small town.” She persevered and was able to accomplish her goal—but not without difficulty. Many students try to fit work around their class schedule, but Kirker-Gorham found herself trying to fit classes around her work schedule. Because of this, she ended up pausing college to work. Eventually, she got back to college, but not until after becoming a county sheriff’s office peace officer, working for the state and enlisting in the Air Force. She met her now-husband in the Air Force, and they each supported each other in returning to college. She stresses the idea that college should not be as expensive as it is so that kids don’t have to struggle the way that she did. 

Sophomore criminology major Grace Gorham is the daughter of Donna. She is active in gymnastics on campus and following in her mother’s footsteps by joining the Air Force. She explained that the costs associated with gymnastics would not have been able to be paid for if her parents had not been able to work their way through college so that they could find a decent career. Grace is grateful to have that kind of support, but she does not take it for granted. She works by coaching gymnastics so that she can support herself as well.

“I work for what I have to buy now, but it was nice to be able to go through gymnastics as a kid because of the hard work my parents put in,” she said.

There will be a First Generation Student Day celebration Nov. 8 at the University Center. First-gen students are welcomed to enjoy various activities hosted throughout the day, and can go to UC 245 from 7:45 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. to pick up a free t-shirt showcasing their first-gen pride.