UND Today

University of North Dakota's Official News Source

In fine company: UND celebrates first-generation students

First-Gen Day will be celebrated each year at UND

Alex Pokornowski, UND dean of students (at podium), moderates a panel discussion at the First-Gen Day Celebration. From left, panelists are: Ryan Zerr, math professor, UND students Gavin Nadeau, Kaleigh DeGeldere, Hannah Thorlakson and Dunseith High School student Jevlyn Medina. Photo by Adam Kurtz/UND Today

Editor’s note: A video introduction to the First-Gen Day Celebration is available at the end of this story.

What do Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan, former President Bill Clinton, Chairman and CEO of Starbucks Howard Schultz and television personality and entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey all have in common? They were all first-generation college students.

That puts the group of panelists for the inaugural UND First-Gen Day Celebration, as well as all first-gen students across the campus and nation, in fine company. Dozens of high school students from across North Dakota and Minnesota who attended the event may soon join that crowd.

The First-Gen Day Celebration was sponsored by the office of UND TRIO Programs, which oversees federally funded programs supporting income-eligible students and students whose parents did not complete a four-year college education. Held on Nov. 8 in the Small Ballroom of the Memorial Union, the event recognized those students and gave participants in the panel discussion a chance to talk about their experiences.

“This is so exciting,” said UND Provost Eric Link, who gave welcoming remarks. “We are so pleased to be able to take a moment just to recognize the courage, the determination, the ambition and the drive of everyone who falls into the category of a first-generation student.”

Link said the same “determination and grit” that propelled first-gen students to seek out a college education will see them through to their goal of earning a college degree, and beyond. He urged attendees to believe in themselves, stay the course and not give up.

UND Provost Eric Link addresses the panelists and attendees of the inaugural First-Gen Day Celebration on Tuesday, Nov. 8. Photo by Adam Kurtz/UND Today

Link and the panelists spoke before dozens of pre-college TRIO students from target schools of the Upward Bound and Talent Search programs. The programs prepare students for college enrollment and identify promising students in grades 6-12. Both programs are among those administered by the office of UND TRIO Programs.

North Dakota high schools represented at the event included:

Turtle Mountain Community High School; St. John High School; Dunseith High School; Four Winds High School; Devils Lake High School; East Grand Forks Senior High; Central High School; Grafton High School and Goodridge High School in Goodridge, Minn.

In the panel discussion, moderated by Alex Pokornowski, UND dean of students, sophomore accounting student Hannah Thorlakson said graduating from UND will allow her to reach her potential, and will usher in more varied and competitive job opportunities. Thorlakson is also president of the UND First Generation College Students organization. She urged attendees to come to the group’s regular meetings.

Kaleigh DeGeldere, a senior and political science major, said she gets her drive to become a college graduate from wanting to be a lawyer, something she can’t accomplish without a four-year degree.

In early November, DeGeldere appeared in a video with UND President Andrew Armacost to discuss the First-Gen Day event. In that video, she said the TRIO advisor at her high school in Grafton, N.D., helped her navigate applying to UND and filling out the Free Application for Student Aid. Her advisor also walked her through scholarship opportunities at UND, which ultimately led to her being named the recipient of the Ralph Engelstad Underrepresented Scholarship.

“I don’t know where I would be if I wasn’t in school,” she said.

Now pursuing a doctorate in education leadership, Gavin Nadeau said the importance of higher education was something that only slowly grew within him. He said he had a difficult time as an undergraduate student, and one of his primary motivators now is assisting undergrads through what was a difficult time for himself.

UND Math Professor Ryan Zerr was also a first-gen student and member of the panel. He said he didn’t have a goal or plan for attending college when he was younger. It was only after he enrolled that he came to learn the experience is about exploring ideas, making connections and positioning himself to take advantage of opportunities.

Jevlyn Medina, a senior at Dunseith High School and participant in the TRIO Upward Bound program, had a piece of advice for the other gathered high school students: set and stick to a schedule. That’s how he keeps the balance between being a student, playing sports, doing homework and making time for friends and family. It was a sentiment on which the other panelists agreed.

“I would definitely miss a lot of things,” DeGeldere said, if she were to lose her planner.

High school students pose for photos at the First-Gen Day Celebration. Photo by Adam Kurtz/UND Today

At UND, approximately 20% of the student body are first-gen students. Nationally, nearly 5 million students, 1 in 3 undergraduates, are first-generation. These students face hurdles many of their peers do not, such as feeling out of place in a college environment, and not being able to rely on family experience when questions arise about navigating their college career.

Being a first-generation student is significant because those students are in the position to break long-standing cycles in their families, which can lead to earning $1 million more over the course of their careers than if they had not gone to college.

Speaking after the panel discussion, Derek Sporbert, director of TRIO Programs at UND, told UND Today that First-Gen Day will now be celebrated at UND every year. It’s a way to show support for first-gen students who often feel “Imposter Syndrome,” or the feeling that they don’t belong on a college campus. Sporbert wants to let them know that this is not the case.

“This is where they belong,” he said.

Parents who’d like to learn more about TRIO programs are invited to speak with a guidance counselor at their child’s high school or visit the UND TRIO Program’s website. From there, all it takes is a phone call to learn about participating in a program.