By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – When Emely Diaz was conducting her field experience at Lexington Middle School, she posed a question to a group of seventh grade boys.
What do you want to do when you grow up?
They all gave a similar answer, and it didn’t involve college.
The middle schoolers assumed they’d be working at the local meatpacking plant or in another labor-intensive job, just like their parents. They hadn’t seriously considered the opportunities that come with a college degree.
“You can get an education,” Diaz told the students. “You can do whatever you want in life.”
Diaz knows because she was once in their shoes.
She’s a first-generation college student studying middle grades education at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
Her parents, Laura and Jose, immigrated to the United States three decades ago and she still has family living in Mexico.
“My parents came to the United States to find a better life and a better home,” Diaz said.
Although they never attended college, they recognized the importance of education and encouraged their children to pursue careers that make them happy.
For Diaz, that joy comes from teaching math and science.
“I had very positive role models in my education, especially my math and science teachers,” Diaz said. “That’s why I love those subjects and why I want to be a math and science teacher. I saw the impact they had on me, and I want to have the same impact on students’ lives and be a positive role model they can look up to.”
Since her parents didn’t know much about college, Diaz turned to her teachers at Omaha South High Magnet School for guidance. With their support, and a school counselor’s recommendation, she visited UNK and immediately fell in love with the campus and community.
“The tour really made me want to go to UNK,” said Diaz, who was looking for a school outside Omaha and Lincoln where she could develop independence while remaining connected to her family and other support systems.
When she was awarded scholarships through the Susan Thompson Buffett and Peter Kiewit foundations, the decision was final.
“The opportunity to go to college debt-free is very special,” Diaz said. “I know my parents aren’t able to help me financially with college, but I don’t have to worry about that at UNK.”
Nearly 80% of UNK freshmen receive financial assistance through scholarships or grants, with the average annual award totaling $9,154 in 2018.
Diaz, who didn’t know anybody when she arrived on campus, also found academic and social support at UNK. As a member of the Thompson Scholars Learning Community, she learned skills that set her up for success and was paired with student mentors who eased the transition.
“Whenever I was feeling homesick, whenever I had a problem, whenever I wanted to give up, I could just knock on their door, send a text or make a phone call and they were right there for me,” Diaz said.
“I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I wasn’t a Thompson Scholar, and I honestly feel like I wouldn’t be where I am,” the UNK senior said. “They have done so much for me, and I’m very grateful for that scholarship, the learning community and the staff members.”
Diaz developed similar relationships with faculty in the College of Education.
“The professors in the teacher education department are so welcoming,” she said. “They make you want to go to class. Building that support system with them really meant a lot to me.”
Through UNK’s teacher education program, Diaz gained hands-on experience in classrooms in Kearney, Lexington and Omaha before she started student teaching this semester at RM Marrs Magnet Center, which is part of Omaha Public Schools.
During her time at UNK, the 22-year-old has been involved with the Thompson Scholars program as a mentor and peer academic leader, as well as Sister 2 Sister, a student organization that promotes breast cancer awareness and women’s issues. She’s also a member of the Sigma Lambda Gamma sorority, another support system that allowed her to develop new friendships, connect with campus and volunteer in the community.
“What really got me into Greek life was knowing the women who were in the sorority and what the organization stands for,” she said. “There was always a Gamma there to help me during my difficult times as a freshman.”
A dean’s list student with a 3.8 GPA, Diaz will graduate in December, then begin her dream career as a teacher. Family members from as far away as California plan to be at commencement to help her celebrate the achievement.
“It’s going to be super meaningful because I will be the first person in our family to graduate from college,” Diaz said. “That will make my parents very proud.”
Hopefully, she said, the accomplishment inspires her younger sister, cousins and any student who doesn’t think a college education is attainable.
“If I can do it, they can do it, too.”
First-Gen Lopers Celebration
Nearly 2,100 first-generation students attend UNK, representing roughly one-third of the student population. At the undergraduate level, just over 4 in 10 students are the first in their family to be on track to graduate from a four-year college.
The university is recognizing these students and celebrating their accomplishments through a new event that will bring the campus community together to show their solidarity and tell stories of first-generation student success – a UNK strength.
The first-ever First-Gen Lopers Celebration is scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday in the Nebraskan Student Union food court. First-Gen Lopers will receive special T-shirts, with free ice cream, a photo booth and information on campus resources that support first-generation students and help them succeed.
UNK faculty and staff who were first-generation college students will also be recognized during the event. All are welcome.
The UNK event coincides with the National First-Generation College Celebration and the anniversary of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which has helped millions of first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students obtain degrees.
By the numbers:
313: First-generation students who are first-time freshmen at UNK in fall 2019
73%: Average one-year retention rate for first-time freshmen at UNK who are first-generation students
46%: Average six-year graduation rate for first-time, first-generation UNK students
Why it matters:
“Shifting populations entering higher education, continual increases in first-generation college student enrollment, debate surrounding rising tuition and costs, and genuine desires for a rise in graduation rates and a better prepared workforce have positioned the experiences of first-generation college students as a renewed focus across postsecondary education.” – Center for First-Generation Student Success