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Why should I go to college?
How do I access financial aid opportunities?
What classes should I take?
Where do I go for tutoring support?
Who do I ask for help?

MacKenzie Hillsburg

These are just a few of the questions that likely worry first-generation (first-gen) students. Being a first-generation student means they are the first person in their family to attend a four-year college or university to attain a bachelor’s degree. Earning a college degree changes the legacy of their family, but this population of students often has more questions — and less support — when pursuing a college education; however, it doesn’t mean that first-gen students have a lesser chance of success.

“First-generation students may be seen as underprepared for college, but they are indeed very much academically skilled and able to contribute to a campus community in many ways,” said Joshua Gillespie, coordinator of student success initiatives. “However, sometimes first-gen students may not know all the nuances of college life, such as financial aid processes, college jargon, procedures and expectations. And, they may not know what questions to ask. There is no blueprint for college, and the experience is new for both the student and their family. Recognizing this provides an opportunity for Olivet to provide additional support to these students so they may be as competitive and successful as their peers.”

While second-generation students and beyond may only be adjusting to a new environment when beginning their college education, first-generation students are adjusting to an entirely new experience. Gillespie added that this often causes first-gen students to feel socially isolated. The key to success is building a network for first-gen students, which directly connects with Olivet College’s family-like atmosphere.

First-year, first-gen student MacKenzie Hillsburg is still adjusting to the nuances of college life. She’s already found her fit in the insurance and risk management program and is getting involved on campus with Gamma Iota Sigma and the Women’s Leadership Institute. Every day her network is growing and she’s becoming more self-assured.

James Hobson

“I didn’t know exactly what first-generation meant,” Hillsburg explained. “My parents and grandparents didn’t go to college, but I wanted to be an insurance agent, so I knew I had to go to college. Since no one in my family has gone through this, I can’t ask them how they felt about college.

“While I still struggle with self-doubt, I already have a group of people who I can go to for help. Joshua Gillespie is great; I connected with him over the summer and can talk to him about anything. I also met Assistant Football Coach Javier Smith through a summer class. While I have nothing in common with football, we connected over personal experiences because Javier grew up with a similar background to me.”

The list of Hillsburg’s connections across campus continues — her admissions representative, professors and a fellow student-mentor in the insurance program, just to name a few. In addition, Hillsburg is also taking “College 101,” a course taught by Gillespie to help any student prepare for success as a first-year student and beyond.

Senior and insurance and risk management major James Hobson emphasizes the importance of the connections Hillsburg is making now. As a first-gen student, Hobson’s college education is equally important to both him and his parents. His only regret is not diving into Gamma Iota Sigma, the College’s professional insurance fraternity, sooner.

“I come from a family of blue-collar workers, and I always thought I would be just like my dad,” Hobson said. “I am proud of my family’s work ethic, but my dad always told me he didn’t want me to be in his shoes — he wanted me to do better than this, and college was an option for me.

Faith Sams

“It still surprises me that I’m actually here and this is real, but I can’t imagine attending a different college because of the relationships I have with professors, staff and classmates at Olivet. I ask questions, utilize office hours and even have dinner at my professors’ homes. You don’t have to make an appointment just to get help, which isn’t the case at every institution. OC is unique in this way, and I am so grateful for that.”

Junior Faith Sams’ self-confidence has skyrocketed while at OC. As a media production and communication major and first-gen student, Sams’ goal is to become an advocate for others. She’s already practicing this by encouraging other first-gen students to chase their dreams.

“My college journey has made me much stronger and wiser,” Sams said. “I realized that just by being here I am learning for others and making a path for more students to follow. When I was younger, my pastor told me that I would be the first one in my family to go to college, and he was right. Those words were so encouraging, and I hope to be that voice for others.”

First-generation students have questions, and Olivet College offers answers and more.

  • You are welcomed and embraced.
  • Your questions are understood and addressed.
  • There are professors, mentors and allies who support your goals.
  • You are not alone. You are a member of the Comet family.
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