First to Finish: First-Generation College Students Share Their Journeys

Marla Elsea
May 17, 2021

Navigating the path from high school to higher education can be challenging, even with the best support system in place. Students venturing into that world as the first in their family to do so often find it even more daunting of a task.

These Phi Kappa Phi members recently shared their stories as first-generation college graduates and opened up about why the added acknowledgement of Society membership was important to them.

Mary Anne Gunter (University of Louisiana at Monroe) realized there would be challenges from the very beginning. "When I started my first freshman class, I was so green I didn't even know what a transcript was," she said. As a single mom, she sometimes worked multiple jobs during the two decades she spent working on her bachelor's degree, but with determination, she persevered. "I put in the work. I paid my dues. I am working on my doctoral dissertation, and it's a journey I would take nothing for."

She has tried to inspire others along the way. "I have often helped other women, of all ages, believe in themselves to finish that GED or that doctorate," she shared. "I am a grandmother earning a doctorate with a 4.0 GPA when I was told more than once I'd never make it."

"When I finish my Ph.D. one of the proudest days of my life will be to put on that Phi Kappa Phi stole and braid and wear it proudly," she said.

Judy Kaiser (San Diego State University) was a senior when she was initiated into Phi Kappa Phi in 2014. "I was a returning college student in my 40s. To be the first in my family to graduate university and accomplish it with summa cum laude, highest honors, is one of the greatest achievements of my life," said Kaiser.

When asked why she joined Phi Kappa Phi, she shared, "Finishing what I started so many years earlier means a great deal to me, which is why I joined the honor society when I was invited."

Amanda Knapp (University of Maryland, Baltimore Campuses) grew up with parents who hadn't finished high school at the time. Though she was a good student, she didn't have the help that many have when it came time to apply for college. Her success was a triumph. "As a first-generation college student from rural West Virginia, I will never forget the day I was inducted into Phi Kappa Phi," she said. "I felt emotional, honored and beyond grateful to have been recognized by colleagues in this way."

Now as an associate vice provost and assistant dean at University of Maryland, Baltimore Campuses, and a Society officer at the UMBC chapter, Knapp works to help others who are facing similar challenges. She serves in the First Generation Network at UMBC to support their students. "I have devoted my entire career to working in higher education and being a part of Phi Kappa Phi, now serving on the executive board (at UMBC) has been one of the highlights," she shared.

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