First-generation students take on graduation

First-generation seniors discuss their time at Temple University ahead of commencement.


Rebecca Jackson entered her freshman year at Temple University with $300 in spending money, which she earned from working at her local library. To find day-to-day meals on a limited budget, she sought workshops and club events that advertised free food.

Jackson is among approximately 30 percent of Temple students whose parents or guardians never graduated college. Nearly one-third of incoming freshmen in 2017-18 did not have a parent or guardian who graduated from college, according to the 2017-18 Temple Fact Book.

First-generation students often have lower socioeconomic statuses than other groups of students, which can increase their chances of dropping out of school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

When she graduates on Thursday, Jackson, a management information systems major, will be a part of the 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students to earn a college degree within six years of enrolling at a post-secondary institution, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute.  

Jackson’s parents worked physically demanding factory jobs throughout her life. Watching them struggle through injuries and long work hours inspired her to pursue a college education, she said.

“I saw the jobs they did, and I didn’t want to trade my body for a salary,” Jackson added.

Jackson’s mother worked at various factories in her hometown Hazleton, Pennsylvania, while her father spent the last 20 years as a journeyman pressman, operating printing equipment that puts ink on plastic. They each worked long days and wore steel-toed shoes that destroyed both their feet and posture, causing her father to have severe back problems, Jackson said.

During Jackson’s freshman year, she saw another first-generation student leave school for financial reasons. Jackson received Temple’s President’s Scholar Award, a full-tuition scholarship, but faced financial burdens along the way. Through it all, she is proud to have made it to graduation. 

Melissa Bellerjeau, a senior journalism major who will also be a first-generation graduate, helped her grandmother clean houses while she was growing up. This influenced her decision to attend college and make financial investments for her future, she said.

“I know how hard you have to work sometimes to earn $7.25,” Bellerjeau said. “I have my own personal ambitions, but I was definitely further motivated by those experiences to aspire to higher things.”

While at Temple, Bellerjeau studied abroad for a year and interned for AT&T. She also interned for U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, whose district includes some of the area near Main Campus, at his Philadelphia office.

She will join the Peace Corps after graduation and hopes to find a job in government when she returns. Wherever she works, she is very conscious about financial benefits offered, she said. Financial planning for retirement has been ingrained in her head at the age of 21, she added.

Tyrell Mann-Barnes, a senior biology major, is one of six first-generation students pursuing a college education in his family.

Attending college was always part of Mann-Barnes’ plan, but he struggled with studying and forming relationships with professors, some of whom doubted his ability to succeed because of his first-generation status, race and sexuality, he said. Mann-Barnes was not introduced to research as a career until his fifth year at Temple. 

“In order to get an opportunity, you have to reach out to someone, and going in I wish I knew that,” he said. “But better late than never.” 

Programs like Penn First, a student organization at the University of Pennsylvania for first-generation, low-income students, could be implemented at Temple, said Maha Ouni, a first-generation college student and the College of Liberal Arts’ commencement speaker.

In 2016, the organization opened Penn’s First Generation Low Income Center, which includes resources like emergency funds, opportunity grants, career and internship assistance and academic assistance.

Ouni, a senior political science and history major said she sought out her own mentors for support at Temple.

The Broad Street Finish Line Scholarship, which Temple University announced this February, is a new initiative to help first-generation students. Those who applied for admission in Fall 2019 were automatically considered for the program. 

“It was something we have always wanted to do, but coming up with the funds to do it is no easy task,” said Shawn Abbott, Temple’s vice provost for admissions, financial aid and enrollment management.

Despite economic barriers along the way, these students are not slowing down.

“The most important thing I’ve learned is I’m good enough,” Ouni said. 

She hopes graduating will set a positive example for other first-generation students, Muslim women and Tunisian immigrants like herself, she added.

“Academic achievement isn’t only for a special group of people. If you can dream it, you can do it,” she added.

Editor’s Note: Maha Ouni was a freelance reporter for The Temple News. She played no part in the reporting and editing of this story. 

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