Proud to be first

“Investing in first-generation students is an investment in the whole student body.”

For first-generation students, financial burden is the leading barrier to graduating. But a new K-State scholarship is helping them get over that hurdle.  

In an effort to remove financial barriers, the Office of First-generation Students (OFGS) established the Proud to be First scholarship in 2021. The scholarship directly helps first-generation students complete their degrees.

In its inaugural year, 114 students applied for the Proud to be First scholarship. Applicants submitted essays that were reviewed by a selection committee, who narrowed the field to 21 semifinalists. Ultimately, the OFGS awarded four students $1,000 scholarships. The recipients were celebrated at the end of the National First-generation Student Celebration — a week-long event honoring first-generation students.

Improving one life at a time

For Proud to be First recipient and architecture student Isaί Ceja, higher education often felt unattainable due to the financial investment required. But receiving the Proud to be First scholarship created an opportunity for Isaί to explore different majors and passions, while lessening financial stress.

As a first-generation student, Isaί says his background differs significantly from many of his peers. Although he does not have his parents’ college experience as a source for advice, their perseverance in immigrating and building their life in a new society is what inspires him. And while the financial support of the scholarship is highly impactful, Isaί said Proud to be First, most of all, gives him a sense of belonging and motivation. It reassures him that he is meant to be a Wildcat.  “There is a huge number of disadvantaged students who dream of seeking higher education,” Isaί said. “But they may never experience it because of financial burden, not allowing their potential to be developed and used for the good of our community and future society,” Isaί said. “There are not enough words to describe how

Powering a Generation

Isaί’s story represents one example of the first-generation student experience. OFGS Assistant Director Rebeca Paz says the essays submitted within the Proud to be First application accurately captured the varied voices of K-State’s first-generation students:

“We saw inspiring stories built on hardship, hope, resilience and positivity,” Rebeca said. “Many of the students came from impoverished backgrounds and possess intrinsic motivation to learn and improve financial situations for themselves and their family. Their essays reflected the need for additional scholarship money and their gratitude toward donors who invest in them.”

The OFGS is an essential resource for many first-generation students. For Isaί, the office has connected him to tutoring, campus connections and much-needed advice, while helping him to feel connected to the K-State family. 

“I’ve been extremely fortunate to have enrolled at campus that values and promotes first-generation students as much as K-State does,” Isaί said. “The resources and members willing to help those who need guidance have exceeded my expectations. I’ve allowed myself to expand my knowledge and hope for a better life for myself and my family.”

The Proud to be First scholarship is directly empowered by philanthropy. In its first year, the scholarship fund generated $4,000 in donations through a social media campaign.

Among last year’s recipients, three out of the four may not have finished college if it had not been for the support of this scholarship. The scholarship even enabled one recipient to continue as a full-time student rather than taking the semester off to work.

Growing the impact

In the future, K-State hopes to make Proud to be First an annual award that can be extended to more students. Because of the investment in Proud to be First, many students have expressed their hope to pay-it-forward for future first-generation Wildcats. For Isaί, he hopes to extend the generosity he has received to a cause like Proud to be First, or even create his own scholarship for first-generation students and other underrepresented groups.

“Investing in first-generation students is an investment in the whole student body,” Rebeca said. “First-generation students enrich the campus experience, and they bring diversity to our student population.”

*First published in April 2022.

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