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When students entered the lobby of the Rifle campus of Colorado Mountain College on Nov. 8, they were surprised to be handed coffee and donuts by Gethzemani Hammond and Collin Edwards.

Photo of Collin Edwards

Student Support Services student ambassador Collin Edwards helped organize the First-Generation College Students Celebration on Nov. 8 at CMC Rifle.

Hammond, TRIO SSS coordinator at the campus, and Edwards, SSS student ambassador, organized the local observance of the inaugural First-Generation College Students Celebration, on behalf of the TRIO Student Support Services program.

“I noticed that some of our faculty and staff did not know what ‘first generation’ was or what it actually meant for them,” said Hammond. “It was then when I realized how beneficial and impactful this celebration was going to be. My mission was to harness the faculty and staff’s stories to educate, share and disseminate knowledge to influence our students.”

Students learned about the First-Generation College Students Celebration and were encouraged to apply to the TRIO Student Support Services program if they were not already enrolled. Degree-seeking students at CMC who are first-generation, low-income and/or disabled are eligible to apply.

TRIO is a set of federally funded, college-based educational programs that motivate and support students who come from families that typically earn less than $36,000 a year and/or whose students are the first in their family to graduate from college. Program participants must meet specific eligibility requirements set forth by the U.S. Department of Education.

The program began in the mid-1960s and originally consisted of three programs, hence “TRIO.” Now TRIO involves eight educational support projects, including, at various campuses within CMC’s district, Student Support Services and Upward Bound.

Local event part of nationwide observance

The Council for Opportunity in Education, in partnership with NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and other higher education organizations, organized a nationwide Annual First-Generation College Celebration on Nov. 8, 2017 — the anniversary of the Higher Education Act of 1965.

The CMC Rifle First-Generation College Student Celebration was just one of many events honoring first-generation students on Nov. 8.

During the celebration in Rifle, participants were invited to check out the First-Gen Wall of Fame, where posters of first-gen faculty and staff were displayed along with inspirational messages of encouragement and advice. “We wanted to create an impact on our students’ lives, so they can also relate to their professors and believe in the betterment of their education,” said Hammond.

Carole Boughton, CMC vice president and Rifle campus dean, showed her support for the display and empowered other students by sharing her own success story as a first-generation student herself. “Education is something that no one can ever take away from you!” she said. “Work hard to earn this, so you always have education as you shape and define your future.”

Students were then encouraged to share their stories and have their pictures taken to celebrate their own status as first-generation college students.

Faculty were first-generation college students

Dr. Robert VonAchen, professor of English at CMC Rifle, was the first one in his family to go to college. He attended State University of New York at Albany where he majored in Chinese studies, English language and literature. In the early 1990s, he was awarded a doctorate in medieval English literature from Oxford University.

VonAchen offered advice to first-generation college students: “Own your performance and your goals. If you don’t care about your future, nobody else will. Read the HECK out of books. Don’t rent them – OWN them and use them. When you have a choice between reading a book and playing video games or staring at a cell phone, read the book! Study grammar. Writing clear, well-formed sentences is a skill that will set you apart from your competitors. Trust me.”

Dr. David Ruffley was also the first one in his family to go to college. He majored in Russian history at the U.S. Air Force Academy, got a Master of Science in international relations from Troy State University, received a Master of Arts in Russian and East European studies from the University of Washington, and obtained a Doctor of Philosophy in Russian and world history from Ohio State University.

Ruffley offered advice to first-generation college students: “Ask for help when you need it! Use the resources available to you. I spent half of my four college years on academic probation. Once I learned to ask for and use the help available, I spent my last two years on the Dean’s List. I would not have ‘survived’ in college if not for the help I received from academic advisors and student services counselors. Most importantly, ‘using resources’ includes talking one-on-one with your instructors. I visited my instructors often outside of class time to get help with coursework. We talked about study skills, things of interest from their classes and about life in general. This enabled them to get to know me and better assist me in areas where I was weak. But it also made them aware of the strengths that I had — which they encouraged and helped me to develop. Their example inspired me to teach!”

For more information about the 2017 first-generation student event, search the hashtag #celebratefirstgen to see how college campuses took part in the celebration.