A generation of first generation students


The number of first-generation students at the University of Dallas has been on the rise in recent years, with 20% of the freshman class pursuing the first college degree of their family. UD President Thomas Hibbs, himself a UD student, has animated efforts to support the first-generation students. He recently helped establish the Constantine scholars program for first-generation students with a $750,00 grant to the university. Also, Hibbs and his wife, Dr. Stacy Hibbs, endowed a scholarship for first-generation students in 2019.

This year, UD has the most first-generation students in our school’s history. The University News spoke to 17 first-generation students, faculty and alumni, and asked them “what does being a first generation student mean to you?” Here is what they said: 


Photo courtesy of Anthony Reyna

Anthony Reyna 

Junior biology and nursing major

Being a first generation college student is a hard, yet worthwhile thing to put yourself through. Being first gen myself, I struggled adjusting to the environment around me when I arrived to UD. I remember walking into UD on my first day of orientation like ‘oh my gosh Anthony what did you just get yourself into.’ Although I did feel a lack of representation for the communities close to my heart, being a first generation UD student means you must be willing to get out of your comfort zone and do something about things you are passionate about. This year I decided to challenge that in myself and decided to help start this club [FGSA]  and also become an RA. As an RA, I’m also able to bring community to those around me in a positive and comfortable environment!

Achievements: Bishop Duca Scholarship, FGSA club officer, Resident Assistant for Clark Hall

Photo courtesy of Jasmin Gudino

Jazmin Gudino

Senior politics major

“A lot of it is about setting a precedent. Being first gen means that I have to learn a lot as I go, as opposed to knowing what I’m doing ahead of time. [Being first gen] means that I’m setting a precedent and setting an example for students who were like me who felt lost and confused and overwhelmed. I don’t want people to feel that way, just because you’re a first generation student. Even if you feel a little confused, a little lost, that is okay! I wish someone had told me that. 

There’s a lot of assumptions about first gen students. The assumption is that a lot of us are people of color, and it’s true a lot of us are, but not all of us are. Anyone can be a first gen student, and there are many reasons why their parents may not have gone to college.

But since we’re such a small campus, you can kind of feel the difference of who knows what they’re doing and who doesn’t. It’s very personal. I don’t mind coming up with clubs [like FGSA], and setting a precedent for people who are here at UD or will be coming to UD. It’s not about changing UD, it’s more about extending UD and its transitions to everyone. I wanted to feel more like I was a part of UD, and for a long time I didn’t because I didn’t feel like I related to a lot of people. And I want people to relate. That’s part of what makes a community, it’s about including and embracing everyone. Even though for me, it was a little tough at the beginning, if I can help make it better for current and future students, it will have been worth it.” 

Achievements: Senior Senator in Student Government, FGSA club officer and member

Photo courtesy of Annette Kaehler

Annette Kaehler

Sophomore psychology major

“The best thing about being a first-gen student is that I get to be a part of a unique community. Since I was a first-gen student who was also homeschooled my entire life, I felt really behind upon coming to UD. I was terrified of failing socially and academically. I quickly learned that if I was going to stay at UD, I’d have to have the courage to ask for help where I needed it. One of the greatest lessons I learned as a first-gen is that I need to be comfortable with asking questions and asking for help. But I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the community. Being a part of a first-gen community has allowed me to give myself grace where it’s appropriate. I’m reminded through my community that I am not alone in this– that there are people struggling with the same things and feeling just as behind as I felt. Being first-gen isn’t a bad thing, however. Like everyone else, we are at UD to learn. What makes us especially unique is that we can build each other up in our communities and create work ethics that will bring us far in our careers. It’s the greatest comfort knowing I have people to lean on, to relate with, and get through college with. It fosters a sense of pride and has allowed me to really appreciate my hard-work as well as my peers.”

Achievements: Peer mentor at the Academic Success Office, FGSA mentor

Photo courtesy of BeLynn Hollers

BeLynn Hollers 

Senior politics major

 “As an aspiring attorney it is always necessary for me to be forward focused whether that is in an assignment, applying for internships or planning for my future. However, those aspirations would not be possible if my parents hadn’t made the sacrifices they have for me. My mother devoted her life to my education, homeschooling me through 12th grade because she valued my independent spirit. My father, a superintendent for a construction company, has always encouraged my pursuit of knowledge and has ingrained in me his resilient work ethic. Similarly, I am inspired by my Grandpa Gene who strained for everything he had; he chose to educate himself through mail-in business courses back in the late 1960s while raising a family and building a swimming pool business. He always remarks that I am so much smarter than him because of what kind of education I have been gifted, but I think about how many barriers of entry that were placed before him in comparison to the success that he has accomplished. To me, being first gen is honoring those who sacrificed, those who came before me, those who have provided me with a life full of limitless possibilities. Sure, they couldn’t tell me about dorm life, but instead my family instilled in me the value of hard work and perseverance and for that I will forever be grateful.” 

Achievements: FGSA (Vice President), Alexander Hamilton Society (Secretary), The University News (Commentary Editor), Hatton W. Sumners Scholar,  competitive ballroom dancer, UCWDC (United Country Dance Council) 2019 Worlds 3rd Place Overall Couples Open Division

Photo by Peter Burleigh

Valeria Reyna Salaices

Senior psychology major

“As a first-generation student, every additional year of education I receive is a milestone for my family. I’m the eldest daughter of Mexican immigrants, and third oldest grandchild out of 15. I’ve set the example for my younger siblings and cousins, while also helping my cousins with college applications. It is a huge responsibility, but I am glad I am charting unfamiliar territory, especially since I am taking a step towards breaking the cycle of poverty. Due to their financial situations, my great-grandmother did not go to school, while her daughter, my grandmother, was able to take classes to read and write. My mom also was not able to finish middle school. Being a first-generation student means I have gone beyond history, and now I’m able to push my family towards a better future.”

Achievements: Editor-in-Chief for The University News, Southwestern Psychological Association Undergraduate Representative, former Dallas Zoo Intern and Volunteer Services Assistant, Trustee Scholarship, National Hispanic Scholar Scholarship, National Alumni Board Rome Scholarship, Charles T. Uhl Memorial Rome Scholarship

Photo by Peter Burleigh

Jeanine Dorrough 

Junior business and English major

“For me being a first generation student means being a pioneer. Neither of my parents went to college and neither did any of my siblings. It can be intimidating to find yourself in such foreign territory. I had to start without any prior knowledge on how to apply to college or what college life was even like. I had to blaze my own trail and figure out how it all worked. It’s all about being determined. I want to succeed and I want to make my parents proud knowing that they are the reason that I have been able to attend college when they could not. I am also a first-generation college student peer mentor with the Department of Academic Success here at UD. It is a program that I am very happy to be a part of. I myself am first generation, and I love being able to help people get through all the challenges that come along with being first-gen.”

Achievements: Lacrosse player (freshman year), FGSA peer mentor with the Department of Academic Success at UD, dean’s list for 3 consecutive semesters

Photo courtesy of Prince Obegolu

Prince Obegolu 

Junior economics major with a business concentration 

“Whenever I reflect on my whole academic career at UD and just in general, as a first gen student, it makes me feel a great sense of gratitude and appreciation. Looking at who I am as a black young man, the first generation student, life is meant to be challenging for me, but by God’s grace I’ve been able to figure out my way each day, each semester to see what works for me. I feel a sense of gratitude but also [I feel] lowkey stress not to mess up, and I haven’t messed up at all, but there’s this pressure like ‘be successful’ but also remaining humble in my progress because I know all the things I’ve accomplished are not my works, it’s God. Being a first gen student gives me a sense of gratitude and appreciation because I recognize just how lucky [I am] to have the opportunities my parents did not have. Sometimes, I feel an underlying pressure looming– the pressure of having to be successful and make my friends and family proud. I know I can’t lose hope no matter how challenging life gets, I just have to remain appreciative of the things I have accomplished and optimistic about the great things that I have yet to accomplish.”

Achievements: UD Tennis Club, Men’s Society mentor and small group mentor, humanitarian volunteering including North Texas Food Bank and church community

Photo by Peter Burleigh

Mariah Houser 

Sophomore physics major

“Being a first generation student at UD means not only struggling with the expectations of college classes, and college life, but also trying to find the purpose of a liberal arts college alone. I came into UD not knowing what a liberal arts education is or how it will benefit me and I felt unprepared and out of place. So not only do I carry the burden of expectation from my family to be the first with a college degree, but also the expectation that I should know what to do with a liberal arts education.  I’m very passionate about my job as a First-Generation Peer Mentor. My job is to engage with fellow first-gen students to answer any questions and help with any obstacles first-gen college students face. I try to help adjust to college life and give resources and tips to succeed academically. One the side, I help the Groundhog Library which is a student-led library of textbooks for students. Any student can check out any book from this library for an entire semester. It’s a great set up to help students who struggle to buy their textbooks on time or need help financially.” 

Achievements: FGSA peer mentor

Photo by Peter Burleigh

Emily Alvarado 

Sophomore theology and Spanish major

“Being a first gen student at UD means representing my family and community proudly. It means achieving my parents’ American Dream and exploring areas outside my comfort zone. The reality of growing up in a stereotypical and restricted community was difficult to overcome but being here now means I have the very opportunity to achieve my goals and dreams. Being a first-gen student also lets me advocate for students like me and lets me share ways to overcome struggles. The smallest accomplishments continue to motivate me to be the best version of myself. It can definitely be intimidating at times, but as my favorite quote says: ‘If your dreams don’t scare you, you aren’t dreaming big enough.’”

Achievements: Aspiring Theologians Society, Spanish Club, Blessed is She and JOLT,  Marketing Coordinator at the Irving Schools Foundation, Parish & Community Relations Intern at Catholic Charities of Dallas, Event Coordinator at Texas Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, FGSA peer mentor, Gilman International Scholarship recipient (July 2020), Irving Elks’ Lodge Teenager of the Year (May 2019), US Presidential Service Award (2016), dean’s list (Spring 2020)

Photo by Peter Burleigh

Kien Tran

Junior education major

“I’ll be the first person in college [in my family] and [I’m] setting a great foundation for the future, not just for [myself], but also for others. You being the first person in college, you create a unique story. You don’t know what’s going to happen to you, academically or socially. I wasn’t nervous coming into college because I noticed that, even in highschool, doing something for the first time is always bad. I know for a fact, if I go back next time, it will be great. This is my first time experiencing college, experiencing something that my parents never experienced before. I have a younger brother, I have young cousins as well, me being the first one to go to college, it sets a foundation for me and for everybody. And then I help them by saying what not to do, and by telling them what opportunities to take. Being a first generation student around here it’s all ‘legacy, legacy, legacy’ but I’m here creating a legacy. It’s not just any legacy, it’s a unique legacy. I think what’s amazing about first generation at UD: inquiry and discovery. For me, inquiry is beautiful, beginning to know, beginning to understand a discipline. I’m more worried about my own learning. I am now beginning this age of discovery and there’s a lot of things that I don’t know.”

Achievements: Swing Club, FGSA student mentor, freshman mentoring, youth teacher at his church, and performing at the Cap House!

Photo courtesy of Vanessa Villagomez

Vanessa Villagomez

Junior interdisciplinary studies major with a concentration in Spanish

“Being a first-generation student at UD to me means being able to fulfill my parents’ dream of going to college. My mom was passionate about her studies but unfortunately did not have the opportunity to go to college. It was an accomplishment not only getting accepted into college but actively being a part of the student body at UD. The beautiful thing about being a first-gen student not only allows me to fulfill my dreams of receiving higher education but I also in a way fulfill my mother’s dream of going to college.”     

Achievements: Volunteer at a non-profit organization, FGSA peer mentor


Photo courtesy of Dr. Thomas Hibbs

Dr. Thomas Hibbs, president of The University of Dallas 

“My first experience as a college student was not at UD but at the University of Maryland.  I transferred to UD as a junior.  I spent two years at UMD and went through a period of alienation and bewilderment, partly from not having anyone close to me who had been to college and partly as a result of a tough transition from my modest sized Catholic high school to a very large, stridently secular university.  But the transition shook me up in a healthy way and led to me taking my education and my faith much more seriously than I had previously. I certainly struggled a bit to get up to speed on some collegiate matters, but I think I also had a greater sense of exploration than many of my peers, who had pre-determined ideas about what college was and wasn’t. College for me was a nearly constant experience of discovery: new subject matters, new authors, professors who were willing to talk about important questions outside of class, and the possibility of learning new skills, especially those having to do with verbal and written expression.  I know the pressures are much greater on today’s students than they were on students of my generation, but I hope first-generation students at UD will have a sense of discovery about college and see their lack of pre-determined ideas as an opportunity and not just as a challenge.”

Achievements: UD, BA 1982 Constantin Scholar, English; UD, MA, 1983, Philosophy

Photo courtesy of Dr. Deanna Soper

Dr. Deanna Soper, associate professor of biology 

“I was born in a poor suburb on the South side of Chicago, but at 6 my parents moved to a middle-class home in Crown Point, Indiana to escape the poor living conditions.  After 12 years of education in Crown Point, I attended Tri-State University (now called Trine University) and majored in Biology and Science Education.  Upon graduation, I obtained a job teaching high school biology at my Alma Mater, Crown Point High School.  During my time teaching there, I went to graduate school in the evenings for a Master’s in Business Administration.  Although I ultimately decided not to pursue a career in business, that degree taught me that I am truly an educator and my passion is biology.  Three years later, I began a Ph.D. at Indiana University (Bloomington) in the fields of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior.  After a postdoctoral position and visiting assistant professorship, I began my faculty position here at UD. Throughout this journey, I had many stumbling blocks that I had to overcome and a number of them were due to the fact that I was a first-generation student.  For example, it took me a long time (3 years) to figure out how to apply and get into a Ph.D. program because I had no one that I personally knew to ask questions of.  As a result, I took every opportunity possible including three summer teacher workshops that enabled me to interact with professors at major research institutions.  It was those interactions that helped to be my guiding light in the process.  Because of my own experiences and difficulties, I want to help other first-generation undergraduate students to navigate the postbaccalaureate world to help make their path a bit smoother than mine.” 

Achievements: advisor for ECO and for FGSA

Photo courtesy of Dr. Scott Crider

Dr. Scott Crider, Professor of English 

“What being a first generation student at UD means is this: Little in the education here is already known, so it all comes as a fresh adventure: difficult and disorienting, yes, but exciting and reorienting, as well. You haven’t inherited the education; you have to earn it. When first generation students achieve the liberal learning they have had to work so hard for, they fulfill a potentiality they doubted they had and experience and exhibit that high characteristic of liberal education: surprise, the surprise of wonder.” 

Achievement: “My only notable as an undergraduate student was meeting and proposing to Mrs. Crider.” 

Photo courtesy of UD Athletics

Nick Schneigert, cross country and track and field coach

“As the first gen student, it means a lot to me. My father is actually a refugee from Communist Poland and defected in the early 1970’s where there was no opportunity. When he came to this country, he only had one full time job for 45 years working in a factory. We never made a lot of money, but my father knew the importance and value of money and was a strict fiscal conservative with his savings. We always [had] food on the table and never had issues with money. Meanwhile, my mom also came from Poland, but she came on a student visa. Unfortunately, it was very hard for her to adjust and alcoholism got to her so it was really rough on both my father and I. I joined the military after high school and it was the best thing I ever did where I finally realized the importance of a college education. I also got some great benefits out of it. After I got out of the Navy, I went to Southern Illinois University under the Illinois Veterans Grant and it opened up a lot of doors for me. My dad always told me the importance and the high value of a college degree and both my brother and I now have one!! But it was a rough childhood and I am proud of all the obstacles I had to go through just to get this.”

Achievements: Bachelor of Science in Radio and Television with a Minor in Public Relations in May 2004 at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale; United States Track and Field Association Level II Coaching Certificates in Endurance, Jumps, Youth, and a Level I Basic Coaching Certificate; 2000-2002, Naval Security Force; 2006-2010, United States Navy Reserves, serving as Naval Coordination and Guidance Support 

Photo courtesy of Dr. Bernadette Waterman Ward

Dr. Bernadette Waterman Ward, associate professor of English  

“I was a first gen student at Harvard. My father finished high school but had no college; my mother left school at fifteen. … Being first generation at Harvard meant negotiating between the respect my parents had earned and the new world of knowledge I encountered with such joy; I’d never had so much I could learn before, and so many people eager to  show me how to understand things, from poetry to physics to history to art. My family had respect for knowledge, but also  a practical wisdom that helped me to put into place the ideas I was encountering. Their moral grounding made it possible for me to map the new ideas and information  onto a more comprehensive view of life. I could write and read things that they couldn’t understand–but what they did understand about how to live one’s life  made it possible for me to see how all these ideas stood in relation to one another. I was blessed both ways. While in my college days it was fashionable to   look down on one’s parents, I couldn’t do that; seeing their virtue strengthened me  and kept me focused on the good in what I was learning.” 

Achievements: Stanford University, Stanford, California. Ph.D., English and Humanities, January 1991. Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. B.A., English, 1981, Magna cum laude.


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