Going off to college is challenging for anyone, but first-generation college students often lack a support system fully up to their challenges, making the weight more difficult to bear.
Juan Aponte, a May 2023 graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and current graduate student, moved from Puerto Rico to Watertown, Tennessee, as a junior in high school. Watertown, population 1,500, is about 40 miles east of Nashville. As Aponte journeyed into college as a first-generation UTC student, he was unsure of exactly what he wanted to do or how he was going to do it.
“[Being first-gen], it’s not detrimental to your experience, but it does put some obstacles in the way,” Aponte said.
Coming into college as a first-gen student, on top of being from outside the U.S., Aponte described initially lacking a sense of belonging when he moved to Tennessee.
“It definitely does give you an interesting perspective or interesting feeling because you feel like an outsider and a double whammy because I’m a Hispanic man,” Aponte said. “Everything that’s happened has led me here, so I’m not gonna have any regrets or any hard feelings about what happened.”
After coming to UTC, Aponte took notice of his surroundings and the opportunities available to him. When he discovered UTC’s first-gen program, he didn’t hesitate to become involved.
“I’ve gotten, like, four jobs, countless opportunities, a beautiful community. I’ve met all my friends through there,” Aponte said. “I have a lot of support and a lot of appreciation for how it has shaped me…it became just like an integral part of my experience here.”
Dr. Crystal Edenfield, director of Student Success programs, is a first-generation college graduate. When she learned of a national First Generation College Celebration Day initiative, she knew UTC needed its own celebration.
“I think it deserves to be seen as an asset instead of a deficit. First-gen students are resilient, determined, and do not give up easily,” Edenfield said. “By earning a degree, they can change the entire trajectory of their family and generations to come. And if someone is not first-gen, they can be a supporter of or advocate for first gens.”
Beginning in 2019, the first-gen week celebration became an opportunity for UTC students who are the first in their families in college to connect and celebrate each other while allowing their unique challenges to be better understood.
“First-gen students have a unique lived experience that should be normalized and celebrated,” Edenfield said. “It is important for first-gen students to feel accepted, like they belong, and are connected to campus and the community.”
While the rest of the country recognizes first-gen students on Nov. 8, UTC recognizes its first-gen students for the entire second week of November.
“Sometimes people have a picture in their minds of what a first-gen student should look like,” Edenfield said. “I wanted to celebrate the identity and normalize it. We wanted to go bigger than a day—so we did First Gen Week.”
When putting things together for the program, Edenfield discovered that hundreds of faculty and staff at UTC were first-generation college graduates, including Chancellor Steven Angle and Provost Jerold Hale.
“First-gen week is a time to recognize and celebrate students, faculty, and staff who are first-generation or whose parents did not earn a four-year degree,” Edenfield said. “First-gen students feel like they are not alone, they are helped, they get to know others, and they have fun.”