Julie Tucker '09
Assistant Vice President for Student Development, Denison University
Media and research often focus on first-gens from a deficiency point of view—what is it that is lacking in first-gens and how do we make it better? I prefer a different approach—by celebrating the strengths of an incredible first-gen community. I’ll begin with three:
- First gens many times come from very strong families. Our families are a source of pride and of strength. We are who we are because of our parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins and our neighbors. Those of us who are the oldest child play a role as a leader within our families, helping our younger siblings learn the ropes. As we come to college and learn new things, it’s important for us to also remember where we came from—and to honor the people our parents raised us to be—people of strong character, sound values, and tremendous integrity.
- We’re clever and resilient. Because of our leadership role within our own families, we think creatively about how to solve problems. We aren’t derailed by minor setbacks. We keep going in the face of difficulty. For some of us, this may come from our religious or spiritual beliefs; for others, it might come from something else. Sometimes our resilience and sense of independence may prevent us from reaching out for help when we need it. Ask for help! It’s not a sign of weakness, but rather just another sign of our cleverness—of figuring out how to get the job done with the resources available to us.
- We come to college for the right reasons. We didn’t come to college for social reasons. We came for upward mobility. We came because we want to go on to do great things and lead great careers. College isn’t a country club. This is our path to a future of greatness. We take our coursework seriously; we keep our eye on the ball. For us college is the stepping stone to be able to do what we want to do—to make a difference in the lives of others, to impact the greater community, to lead a life of economic stability.
As first-gens, we need to celebrate each other—to lift each other up. We need to have pride in our community of first-gen scholars, leaders, and simply put, extraordinary human beings. I’m proud to be a first-gen! I hope you are too! If you’re on campus, and just want to talk—come to my office. My door is always open.
And I just want to share one valuable piece of advice, from one Denison first-gen to another. We’re incredibly smart. Sometimes the media paints first-gens as students who struggle academically. Many of us came from the top of our high school classes and are high achievers. I think we sometimes automatically assume that because we’re smart, we must become doctors, lawyers, or business people. I know that was my assumption coming to college. I had no clue what the range of possibilities was—beyond what I saw on TV. So I came to college pre-med. But I learned (or finally accepted) on the third day of my sophomore year that I really hated chemistry and I had a pit in my stomach just thinking about taking physics the following year. One day after a particularly challenging chemistry exam, a Denison professor gave me perhaps one of the most liberating pieces of advice: “Just because you change your mind doesn’t mean you’ve failed.” I share that advice with you, in hopes that you too can feel liberated to pursue the path of your desire. Just because you’re smart, doesn’t mean you need to become a doctor or a lawyer, particularly when there is a whole world of available options. Explore them all, be open to new majors and various career paths, including those that you weren’t aware of before college. Resist the pressure from parents or others to pursue something you really have no interest in; your college experience is going to give you additional information, as a basis for decisions. You’re the one who has to spend the next 30-40 years of your life in your career—so make sure you pursue what you find interesting and worthwhile.