Tobias Headrick, Katie Crutchfield and Shyanne Machotka, from left, are the first members of their families to enroll in college.

 

Now in its third year, First Gen Week has daily events from Monday, Nov. 8, to Sunday, Nov. 14, including:

  • Kickoff, 3 p.m. Monday, at the top of Cardiac Hill.
  • Debut of 2021 Faces of First Gen display of photos of students, faculty and staff who identify as first-generation college students and graduates, 4 p.m. Monday, Guerry Center.
  • “I Belong” Breakfast, Tuesday, Pfeiffer Hall.
  • A Wellness First: Holistic Health Fair, Thursday, Chamberlain Pavilion.
  • Networking reception with community leaders, faculty and staff, Friday, Patten House.

The complete First Gen Week programming list can be found by clicking on the event’s web page.

Their stories of what it’s like to be navigating campus might be similar, but every first-generation college student’s journey is different.

First-generation students come from all walks of life. Some are from more vulnerable communities. They are of many racial, ethnic and religious origins. There are international students and those who don’t fit the traditional student mold.

“We encompass all of that,” said Katie Crutchfield, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior majoring in psychology. “If you’re a first-generation student, you’re a first-generation student, no matter where you came from or how you got here.”

National First-Generation College Celebration Day takes place Monday and honors the anniversary of the signing of the federal Higher Education Act of 1965, which strengthened the educational resources of colleges and universities to provide financial assistance for students in postsecondary and higher education. The Council for Opportunity in Education and the Center for First-Generation Student Success launched the inaugural First-Generation College Celebration in 2017, which has developed into an annual event across the country.

In 2019, UTC Director of Student Success Programs Crystal Edenfield took that celebration a step further, creating First Gen Week—a series of programming recognizing first-generation UTC students who are the first in their families to pursue college degrees.

More than 2,000 current UTC undergraduates self-identify as first-generation college students, including 550 fall 2021 freshmen, according to the University’s Office of Planning, Evaluation and Institutional Research (OPEIR). People of color account for 32% of first-generation students.

OPEIR research also showed that, in the last three years, UTC awarded more than 1,300 bachelor’s degrees to first-generation college students from 65 Tennessee counties and 13 other states.

Crutchfield is on a path to join that list next spring. A native of Greenbrier, Tennessee, a town north of Nashville with a population roughly half of the size of the UTC student body, she calls her first-generation story “a little bit complicated.”

“Neither of my parents actually got a high school education,” Crutchfield explained. “I was then adopted when I was 13, and neither of my adoptive parents went to college, either. So lots of no higher education anywhere, but lots of encouragement to do it.

“I was pushed to go to school, but nobody really knew what that looked like. They were like, ‘Go get a bachelor’s. Everybody needs a bachelor’s.’ I want to be a counselor and I knew I needed to go get a degree, but nobody knew what that looked like.”

Crutchfield didn’t know that first-generation programming “was a thing” when she arrived at UTC. “I didn’t realize I was a first-generation student when I got here. I just thought you went to college or you didn’t,” she said.

As she researched resources in navigating her first-year experience, she stumbled upon the first-generation page on the UTC website.

“I immediately reached out to Dr. Edenfield and asked, ‘How do I become a part of this? Can I be a mentee? Can I be a mentor? Can I live in the residential learning community? Can I do all that?’ I wanted to be a part of a group of people who kind of knew what it was not to know anything,” Crutchfield said.

“I went headfirst into it. I started and I haven’t stopped. I’m a first-gen mentor. I live in our first-generation residential learning community. I’m all in. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Two of her mentees this fall are freshmen Tobias Headrick and Shyanne Machotka.

Headrick was not planning on attending college until junior year in high school. “Then I got stuck in a statewide dual credit class; I was the only one who passed the exam. I got a college credit and I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I can do college.’”

Headrick said being mentored by Crutchfield has been “Really nice. It makes me feel less alone in a process that can make you feel like you’re drowning sometimes.”

Machotka said her father and brother went to trade schools, opting for hands-on work over bookwork. Her mother got sick and had to balance that with working and raising children; she didn’t go the college route, either.

“I was always more the academic type,” Machotka said, “and I enjoyed reading and learning. College was something I always knew I was going to do. I knew I was going to be the first one in my family to go to college.”

First-generation students face the same struggles as other students, sometimes exacerbated by a feeling that they’re blazing a new trail on their own.

Machotka immediately realized she had someone she could turn to in Crutchfield.

“Having her around has been pretty great,” Machotka said of her mentor. “Honestly, I talk to her about everything, even if it’s complaining my head off. If there’s an event and I don’t know who to sit by or talk to, she’s always there. She is someone who has your back no matter what and who’s going to talk you through everything that you’re confused about.”

Crutchfield said First Gen Week programming highlights a group of students who may not get recognition for all they bring to UTC.

“First Gen Week events, mixers, the kickoff, the breakfasts; everybody can come and hang out with other first-gen students, and it is so important,” she said.

“To me, this is something to be celebrated, and having the University recognize that is pretty much saying, ‘You’re welcome here. You worked hard to get here. You deserve to be here just like everybody else.’”


Media Relations Contacts: Email UTC Media Relations or call 423-425-5119.
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Chuck Wasserstrom is an executive staff writer in the UTC Office of Communications and Marketing.

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