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Capitol Hill Celebrates First-Generation College Students

November 13, 2017

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)On November 8, 2017, the Council for Opportunity in Education, in partnership with NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, hosted the first annual celebration of First-Generation College Students on Capitol Hill. The event began with welcoming remarks from Ebony Toussaint, a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland and TRIO alumni ambassador and featured a prominent group of speakers.

The event kicked off with remarks from Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who has been a fierce advocate for students — fighting to lower student loan interest rates and make college more affordable by cosponsoring a bill to allow refinancing of student loans and introducing innovative legislation based on Oregon's "Pay It Forward" concept that would allow more students to attend college debt-free. Merkley spoke of his experience as a first-generation college student who knew nothing about college prior to enrolling. He said the idea of TRIO is that we need to have conversations that give kids an idea of what college is all about; the familiarity of what your vision of the future is and the preparation to seize that vision. "The reason I was able to pursue my vision of trying to do things that seemed like they'd make a difference, is because I had the foundation of a college education," Merkley said.

Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO)Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) also shared his experience as a first-generation college student and the impact of that experience on entire families. "Having a college degree makes a difference to more than just the person with the diploma — it inspires others," he said. Blunt also talked about the importance of year-round Pell Grants, which Congress restored under his leadership as the Chairman of the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee. The availability of year-round Pell Grants is critical, Blunt shared, because "if you don't have the support that you need and need to step away, you may intend to go back to school, but sometimes life just gets in the way. Sometimes that needs to happen, but it should never be because you don't have the financial help you need."

Representative Salud Carbajal (D-CA-24)Representative Salud Carbajal (D-CA-24), who immigrated to the U.S. when he was five years old, also participated in the Capitol Hill celebration. He shared that while neither of his parents had much of an education, his father knew that "education in this country was the greatest equalizer" and encouraged him to do well in school. Growing up, he thought college was for either the rich kids or the smart kids — and he didn't consider himself to be either of those. But, with the help of financial aid and resources from enrolling in the Marine Corp Reserves, he was able to piece together enough money to go to college. As a result of his personal experience, Representative Carbajal introduced the Middle Class Chance Act, which not only affirms the year-round Pell Grant but also increases student eligibility from 12 to 15 semesters. "We want to make sure we're providing opportunity for every student who is pursuing a higher education so that they can continue to achieve their educational goals and contribute to our great country," Carbajal said.

Representative Gwen Moore (D-WI-4)Representative Gwen Moore (D-WI-4), House Co-Chair of the Congressional TRIO Caucus, stated, "It's a shame that in the wealthiest nation in the world, we're celebrating that we're first-generation college students." She continued, "Higher education should be available to a much larger range of people — for our own national interest and security." Moore said that being a first-generation college student meant to her that she was able to create a higher level of expectation for people within her family, community, and for herself. "A higher expectation to grow and to give back to my community," she said.

"One of the highest priorities I have in my life is to sow the seeds of educational opportunity for others," Moore said. "I believe in educating our kids and getting them out from an enormous debt burden of getting a college education." She continued, "First-generation college students are giving us their talents, their skills; we have people who are scientists, who are creating the newest treatments for disease, who have come through the portals of being first-generation college students," she said. "What if we had lost these students because they weren't trust fund babies?" Moore said that this is the challenge that we face. She concluded her remarks by reminding the audience, "Don't forget about first-generation students."

In addition to congressional guests, the celebration also featured Tyler Lattimore, a recent graduate of Emory University and I'm First! Scholarship recipient. Lattimore shared that while growing up, his mother made it clear that he was expected to go to college; however, once he got there, he had trouble with the "how" — until he found other students with similar feelings of displacement. His involvement with the I'm First! project helped him realize that being a first-generation college student was something to be celebrated. "Every first-generation student has a unique voice; a story that needs to be shared to inspire other students who are trying to follow in our footsteps," he said. Through the I'm First! project, he was able to blog about his college experience, give advice, and became a role model.

During the celebration, participants had the opportunity to share their own personal experiences and engage in small group discussions about how Congress might address the challenges facing first-generation students in the coming years. Sarah Whitley, Senior Director for the NASPA Center for First-Generation Student Success said that she hoped everyone in the audience would find ways to think about first-generation students in their decision making in the future.

The Capitol Hill Celebration was just one of many events honoring first-generation students on November 8. Search the hashtag #celebratefirstgen across social media to see how college campuses took part in the celebration.