EP Celebrates First-Generation College Students

Increasing the number of diverse leaders in education, and especially first generation college-goers, has always been a key priority at Education Pioneers. Of the more than 2,000 Alumni in our network, nearly 20% are the first in their family with a bachelor’s degree.

To celebrate these leaders, and to help inspire the next generation, EP is excited to support a new campaign: Proof Point Day.

Culminating in a national display of solidarity on Friday, May 30, the Proof Point Day campaign aims to influence the way kids dream about the future by raising awareness of the millions of first-generation college graduates among us who go on to advance amazing careers and lives.

EP Proof Point Stories

In the spring of 2014, we invited members of the EP network to share their “Proof Point” stories. Alumni and staff came back with these powerful messages about what first-generation college success means to them.

Alma Rico

Chief Operating Officer, Alpha Public Schools
2013 Education Pioneers Fellow, Bay Area

It was assumed that my mom would become a housewife, but she broke the tradition, learned English, and moved us from Mexico to the U.S. when I was seven. She wasn’t allowed to go to college, and while she couldn’t afford to supplement our education with summer camps or college prep courses, she improvised so that we always knew college was in our future. I loved math and wanted to be a rocket scientist when I grew up so my mom suggested I apply to this university her boss had told her about “out in Massachusetts.”

My experience at this university, MIT, was grueling, and often times I felt like an impostor. But I did what my mom taught me and improvised – I found strength in the company of others who were facing a similar struggle.

Despite the challenges, college was life changing not only for me but also for my family, which is why I plan to dedicate my career to prepare underserved students for that tough but rewarding journey.

Anna Kawar

Associate for Improvement Science at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
2012 Education Pioneers Fellow, Boston

I had never really given much thought to the fact that I would become the first in my family to graduate college. I didn’t even mention it in my applications. My parents always talked about college like it was the natural next thing to do, and so I did it. I love learning and it made sense for me to embrace college as a way to discover who I am and what my passions are. I struggled in college, though, it wasn’t always easy and many times I thought I just wasn’t smart enough. I have recently come to the realization that being a first-generation college grad requires a unique strength of will, because when no one else in your family has been through a similar experience, it can be very isolating and lonely.I encourage other first-generation college-goers to embrace the sense of adventure and excitement at shaping their own path and remember that you are smart enough, and tough enough, and you’re not alone!

Chris Tessone

Chief Operating Officer, Maya Angelou Schools
2010 Education Pioneers Fellow, Washington DC

My parents expected me to go to college and be successful–that was a non-negotiable expectation. My mom had me when she was eighteen years old, and because of that she wasn’t able to finish community college, much less pursue a four-year degree. She and my dad worked hard to ensure I had good options for college (along with a lot of grants and modest student loans).

High expectations don’t guarantee good outcomes, however. When I got to college, I had no idea how to navigate the landscape of post-secondary education and a career. I got good grades in college and earned my degree, but didn’t build concrete skills or pursue internships while in school. After graduating, I lucked into an opportunity in the hospitality industry with a visionary, hard-charging mentor who eventually hired me at his consulting firm and taught me a wide range of skills I’ve used throughout my career.

I now serve as COO of the Maya Angelou Schools in DC, where our work is based on the belief that our students, some of DC’s most underserved (and most deserving), can’t rely on luck and goodwill from others to be successful after they leave us. Preparing students academically during high school is critically important, but so is supporting them during and after college, when they need help navigating financial aid, securing internships, and starting off in the world of work. I’m excited that post-secondary support THROUGH college is starting to replace the (laudable) focus on getting kids TO college that has prevailed in past years in K-12 education.

John Frame

Service Manager, City Year
2013 Education Pioneers Fellow, Los Angeles

I grew up with a single mom who didn’t finish high school. But there are two things that my mom taught me between working a job cleaning nursing homes and taking care of four kids: education was important and long division! That’s right, my mom was the person who taught me how to do long division. I’ll never forget her face lighting up when she felt that for the first time she could actually exude confidence when helping me with my homework. I didn’t know it then, but I was proud of her. And now, as the first kid in my family to graduate from college (University of Chicago with Honors no less!), she can be proud of me. But my journey is not over. I’ve spent the past 10 years working with underserved kids as a college tutor, a teacher through Teach For America, and as a nonprofit curricula developer and coach for other tutors. I want to keep making my mom proud by earning my MBA in 2017! When I walk across the stage, I envision my mom looking on, beaming with pride for her “baby boy”!

Elizabeth Dukovich

Education Pioneers Development Associate, Oakland

My great-grandmother was not permitted to learn to read because her family didn’t think it was necessary. She learned anyway by sneaking to her brothers’ school and spying through the window. A few generations later, neither of my parents thought college was necessary and neither finished. I grew up with a love of learning, a love of history, and a keen awareness that my great-grandmother’s life was not really so long ago. Through the challenges my parents faced, I learned that a college education is essential for self-sufficiency. Beyond that, I always knew education opens the world and enriches the soul. I became the first in my immediate family to graduate college through a combination scholarships, grants, loans, and work. I am also the first to earn a graduate degree. I work in education to help improve access for those without resources, and I think of my great-grandmother every time I read something beautiful.

Annie Davis

Education Pioneers Program Manager, Chicago

My grandfather entered the Korean War as a civil engineer without a college degree and attempted to go back to college after his service but had to drop out because he had a family to provide for. He started a very successful company without a college degree that my father now owns. There was never an option for my father to not go to college even though my grandfather had achieved success without a degree. When, as a teenager, I asked my father about this, he passed along a metaphor that my grandfather had told him, and that I now pass along to my students when they cite examples of the success of Steve Jobs, Kobe Bryant or other creative (and many times hardworking) anomalies of success. He said, “The real world is a lot like a baseball game. You can get into the game a lot of different ways, but the easiest way to get a seat, and usually a good seat, is with a ticket. A college degree is your ticket into the real world. You can get in without one, but it’s going to be a lot harder.”

When I was a teacher, I worked with many students who would go on to become first generation college students (and hopefully some day graduates), and while I never discouraged their dreams or gave them false hope that life would be magically a lot easier with a degree, I did encourage them to think about not only how they were going to get into the game but how they were going to get the best seat in the house.