By Katherine Crutchfield (as told to Chuck Wasserstrom)
Every first-generation college student has a story to tell. Mine happens to be a bit complicated.
I spent my pre-teen years as an only child living in Nashville. My dad made it to second grade in school before quitting to help his family. My mom made it to eighth grade, then she quit and ran away and got married. Yeah, it was a whole thing.
My mom ended up going back to get her GED. School was very important to her. I remember her asking me questions like, “Have you done your homework? Do you need help with your homework? I’ll help you with what I can.” She was always telling me, “College will be the best thing for you.”
My dad laid block foundation and did enough math to make sure his houses didn’t fall over. He worked with his hands and did what he could, but he didn’t read well. My dad couldn’t teach me to read, but he helped me with spelling words and things like that to kind of push me. “Hey, you can do this. Even though we didn’t, you can.”
But my dad passed away when I was 8 years old. My mom passed away when I was 13.
I moved to the little town of Greenbrier, Tennessee, just north of Nashville, to live with my aunt and uncle—my mom’s brother and his wife—and their two sons. They are my cousins, but we’re so close they’re more like siblings to me.
Just like my parents, my aunt and uncle pushed me to get an education, even though they didn’t graduate high school.
Growing up, it never occurred to me that no one in my family had a high school diploma.
I was an honor roll student in high school, the kid that went to school all the time, never missed a day, was upset when we didn’t have school. I was always academically focused.
So it was more than an assumption with my family that I would be the one to go to college.
People in my family would tell me, “Go get a bachelor’s degree. Everybody needs a bachelor’s degree.” It’s easy to say, but nobody really knew what college looked like.
When I first came to UTC, I didn’t realize I was a first-generation student. I didn’t know that was a thing. I thought you just went to college or you didn’t. I didn’t realize that having parents go to school made a difference in how prepared you were.
And I struggled after I got here.
College can be confusing and scary for anyone. Anything that says “The University of…” is a little intimidating when no one you lean on has any background there. I would call my aunt and uncle and tell them I’m struggling, and they tried to be reassuring. “You’re working so hard. You’re going to do fine. It will be all right.” But they didn’t understand what it was like.
Many in first-gen deal with generational curses such as the cycles of poverty, low education rates and low graduation rates. A lot of us come from families where that is the norm.
Once I started working with people in the First Gen program at UTC, it helped me find my spot on campus. I wanted to be part of a group of people who understood what it was not to know anything. I went headfirst into it, and I really blossomed.
Even now, where I’m worried about exit exams, GREs (Graduate Record Examination) and MATs (Miller Analogies Test), I continue to lean on that guidance and mentoring. They have provided me with a feeling that I belong.
When I started college, I wanted to make my family proud. Getting my bachelor’s degree is a big deal for me, but it’s also a big deal for them, a matter of pride to show this family is capable of something. Both of my brothers have teenage daughters, and one of the biggest motivations to finish my degree has been to show them they can do anything they want regardless of what their parents did.
I worked hard to get this bachelor’s degree, but it shouldn’t go without saying that I don’t know where I would be—the degree that I’ll be receiving, the job that I’m going to go into—had I not gone through what I have been through.
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In May 2022, Katherine Crutchfield received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Shortly after graduating, she began working at UTC as an academic advisor in the Center for Academic Support and Advisement.
Her future plans include pursuing a master’s degree in counseling and working with older adults.
This is an updated version of a story that first appeared in the spring 2022 issue of The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Magazine.