Exceptional Students Take the Spotlight at First-Gen Event
By Hazel Scott/ASU
On Thursday, April 20, Alabama State University held a special event to honor 30 graduating students who identify as first-generation scholars. The University College, TRIO programs, the National Alumni Association (Montgomery Chapter) and the ASU Foundation hosted a First Gen Senior Luncheon in the John Garrick Hardy Student Center Ballroom.
The luncheon is one of the overall objectives for the Alabama State University First Gen initiative, which is designed to develop a campus culture and bring awareness to first-generation students.
The keynote speaker was Dr. Wislene John-Guiney, School Improvement Specialist at Metro Regional Educational Service Agency, an ASU Foundation Board member and a member of ASU’s 50 Under 50 class. A first-gen professional, Guiney discussed the luncheon’s theme, “The Art of Perseverance: Through the Lens of a First-Gen Scholar.”
She shared her narrative of accomplishments and career advancement from the perspective of first-generation college student success.
The daughter of an immigrant mother from Haiti, John-Guiney recounted how she struggled as a first-generation student and how she sustained herself by getting a part-time job and joining the United States Army Reserve.
John-Guiney also shared how she navigated her college journey successfully even after leaving ASU for one semester, returning after becoming pregnant and then struggling to maintain her studies while taking care of her baby girl, who was born with sickle cell anemia.
“I was committed and determined…I was going to make it….I wasn’t going to leave school even if I had to get five jobs. I was motivated to show everyone that I could make it….I worked my butt off to ensure that I could overcome anything that came my way.”
Two years after resuming her studies, John-Guiney graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Special Education in the College of Education. She continued her educational journey by earning her master’s degree and her doctorate.
“We didn’t have this (first-gen) program when I was in school, but I sat where you are today. You are getting ready to transition from an undergraduate into the real world. You have the opportunity to change the trajectory of your life.”
John-Guiney told how a chance meeting with her elementary gifted resource teacher changed her life.
“She congratulated me on my success and recalled how her colleague didn’t think that a little Haitian girl could be gifted…I knew at that time that I had to stand in the gap for students who did not have a voice and students whose parents were not as engaged not because they didn’t want to be engaged but because they had to work. I understand their struggles.”
She asked the students if they had heard the saying, “We got it out of the mud?”
“Well, I stand before you, a person who did get it out of the mud…You can do anything that you put your mind to,” John-Guiney added.
She concluded by telling the graduating scholars what the word “First” means to her.
- F: Find your passion and identify your gifts and talents. “That’s what will drive you moving forward. If you operate in your passion, it’s not going to feel like work.”
- I: Invest in yourself. “Go to graduate school, take development courses in your particular field, or find a mentor in your field so when you get to the table, you can compete with anyone in that room.”
- R: Reach back and help others. "’R” also stands for a role model. Help someone to get out of the mud like we had to.”
- S: Serve O’ Mother Dear. “Join an alumni chapter after graduation, donate or give back to your alma mater or adopt a first-gen student.”
- T: Take time to honor your accomplishments, and clap for yourselves because you made it. “This is you breaking barriers, breaking generational curses. You are the first in your family and it means a lot…You are making history. Congratulations class of 2023!”
Delandra Walker was one of the first-gen seniors who benefited from John-Guiney’s presentation. The Business Marketing major emphasized the importance of building a legacy.
“It means everything to me to be a first-gen student. I’m building a legacy for my nieces and nephews…to let them know that it is possible to attain a degree,” Walker said.
Forensic Biology student Tony Harris can relate.
“This is an emotional moment for me, solely based on that I’m the only male in my family to actually go to a four-year university. I’m kind of a stepping stone for my little sisters. My younger sister is actually a freshman at ASU. Me graduating is kind of setting an example that she can graduate too,” said Harris. “If you work hard and believe in yourself, you can get wherever you have to go.”
Majesty C. Hart, a social work major, said being a first-generation student is bigger than herself.
“To be the first in my family feels great. I feel like I’m setting a standard— an example for the young ladies who come after me in my family,” Hart added.
Special moments at the luncheon included awarding of a First Gen lapel pin and a certificate to each of the students, who also received a professional headshot. The students’ names will be included among the national list of First Gen graduates. John-Guiney also received a First Gen lapel pin and certificate.
“This is one of the greatest honors…We will continue to demonstrate our commitment to these students by providing support services for student success. Events like this show these first-gen students that they matter and foster a sense of belonging for them here at ASU.” said Dr. Evelyn Hodge, dean of University College. “I’m very excited about the program.”