Enrollment Blog

The greatest gift: A first-generation student's journey to college

By John Doane

My mom worked the morning shift at the furniture factory. And that meant I had a morning shift, too.

I got up at 6:30 a.m. every day to ride with her to work and would sit at the front desk, waiting for the school bus to pick me up there. Those were long hours sometimes.

But long hours were pretty common in my hometown. Galax, Virginia is a small manufacturing city in the southwest corner of the state, right on the North Carolina border, sitting on the Chestnut Creek. The total population was only around 7,000, and when I was growing up, it seemed that those furniture factories employed just about everybody.

Most days, I felt like the other kids had families like mine: lower-middle class, parents with only high school educations who were long-time factory workers. But one day, my mother set me apart on the way to that morning shift. Out of the blue, she said, "I don't care what you do with your life so long as you go to college. It will give you opportunities I never had—and you'll be able to leave this town if you want to." My mother rarely asked anything of me, so this moment remains a vivid memory.

And of course my mother was right: Going to college did change the course of my life and it continues motivate my current work for EAB.

How I found my four-year institution

Although I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life (and frankly, I'm still working that one out), I knew I was going to college. In an attempt to save money, I applied to my local community college right out of high school and planned to go there until it was time to transfer.

How community colleges can improve the enrollment process from start to finish

But then I helped my best friend move into his dorm at a four-year university. I've had very few "aha" moments in life, but when I stepped on the campus, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I should be there.

So I applied after my first semester at community college and was denied. I applied again after completing my second semester and was denied. Not easily discouraged, I applied again after my third semester and was, again, denied. Denied. Denied. Denied.

My GPA was higher than a B average, so I was surprised by all this rejection. I asked to have a meeting with undergraduate admissions staff so that I could find out what I needed to be accepted. The woman stared across her desk at me and suggested, "Maybe you should consider other schools because I'm not sure you're the right material for this school."

Naïve and undeterred, I asked if I could include letters of recommendation the next time I applied. She agreed, I thanked her for her time, and left.

And then I had 32 (yes, 32) letters of recommendation sent on my behalf. All but one, which came from the mayor of Galax, were from alums. Later that spring, my phone rang and it was Director of Admissions. She told me I had been admitted—and asked me to please stop sending letters.

Break down barriers to transfer at your institution

After I proudly graduated, I pursued my master's degree, where I got to study International Public Relations in Southeast Asia—one of the most eye-opening experiences in my life. I learned a lot of academic lessons, but more important were the life lessons about cultural differences, natural beauty, and opportunity.

In Malaysia, I visited Taman Negara, the oldest tropical rainforest in the world. My classmates and I hiked through the jungle canopy, swam in the steamy river, and met a local Aborigine tribe that taught us how to make fire and shoot a blow-dart gun. It was surreally amazing to me that I was having these experiences. I remember thinking, "this is what my mother dreamed of for me."

Paying it forward

Now in my work at EAB (where I have spent 6+ happy years), I am committed to finding those first-generation students who don't even know they can earn degrees from good, four-year institutions, who can't imagine a chance to build their own fire in Malaysia. I know a lot of them won't have 32 alums to ask for recommendation letters or even the money to pay application fees. Although our members are colleges and universities, I am inspired to work hard for the students our emails and letters are reaching—for the students who do a morning shift with their mothers.

I'm very fortunate that my mom gave me the sage and brave advice to attend college. I will go home to Galax to share the holidays with my family where I will thank her again for that guidance, one of the greatest gifts of my life.

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