By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – At the University of Nebraska at Kearney, roughly 40% of undergraduate students are the first in their family to pursue a four-year degree.
These students come from a variety of backgrounds, but they share the same goal. They’re all committed to improving their lives through higher education.
“I’m blown away and impressed by the initiative and perseverance first-generation students have,” said Aaron Estes, associate director of UNK Academic Advising and Career Development. “As an institution, we need to value their contributions and do everything we can to help them use those qualities to succeed at UNK and in their professional careers.”
Estes chairs a leadership team formed last year to recognize the achievements of first-generation students and provide additional support throughout their academic journeys.
“Our purpose is to ensure UNK is a great place for first-generation students,” he said. “We have faculty and staff on campus who make that job a lot easier because of the amount of time and effort they put into supporting first-generation students, as well.”
On Monday, the campus community came together to celebrate UNK’s second annual First Gen Day, an event that showcases the success of first-generation faculty, staff and students and highlights the opportunities available at UNK. First Gen Day coincides with the National First-Generation College Celebration and the Nov. 8 anniversary of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which created a range of initiatives to help low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students obtain college degrees.
The UNK program included a T-shirt giveaway and photo booth, as well as a panel discussion promoting UNK’s Study Abroad, National Student Exchange, Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning programs. The socially distanced crowd was limited to 50 attendees inside the Nebraskan Student Union Ponderosa Room and face masks were required. A livestream was also available.
The event was highlighted by the presentation of UNK’s inaugural Trailblazer and Friend of First Gen awards, which recognize an outstanding first-generation student and a faculty or staff member who goes above and beyond to support first-gen students.
Jazmin Matias-Trejo, a junior from Wood River, received the Trailblazer Award.
The 20-year-old was inspired to attend college by her mother Vianey, who works as a housekeeper.
“It’s very important to her because she wants me to have a better job than what she’s doing right now,” Matias-Trejo said. “I understand there are better jobs for me to pursue if I have a postsecondary education.”
Matias-Trejo attends UNK on a scholarship from the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation and she’s received academic and social support from the Thompson Scholars Learning Community and Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion.
“My time at UNK has been really great because I’ve been able to find the resources I needed to get where I am today,” she said.
Her own determination played a big part, too. In summer 2019, Matias-Trejo underwent a pair of surgeries to remove a large tumor from the left side of her brain. She was back on campus just two weeks after the final operation.
Matias-Trejo currently serves as a mentor in the Thompson Scholars program and she was a New Student Enrollment leader last summer. She’s also involved with the annual Nebraska Cultural Unity Conference, Define American student organization, Alpha Omicron Pi sorority and Order of Omega honor society.
After graduating from UNK, Matias-Trejo plans to work as a middle or high school counselor, a job that allows her to help others while serving as a role model for her four younger siblings.
She offers this advice for other first-generation students: “If you want to do something, go after it and chase it. Nobody else is going to do it for you.”
FRIEND OF FIRST GEN AWARD
Rashawn Harvey, assistant director of TRIO Student Support Services, received the Friend of First Gen Award.
Harvey understands firsthand the challenges first-generation students face. He, too, was a first-generation college student when he arrived at UNK.
“I knew nothing about college. All I knew is that I got an opportunity to receive an athletic scholarship to come play football,” said Harvey, who committed to UNK sight unseen. “As a first-generation college student, I had no idea what to expect.”
The Stuart, Florida, native was determined to figure things out on his own, letting his pride impede progress.
“I had to lower my pride and I had to lower my ego and stick my hand out and say, ‘My name is Rashawn Harvey. I need some help.’ And there’s nothing wrong with sticking your hand out and asking for help. Everybody needs help,” he said.
That decision was Harvey’s “gateway to success.”
The former UNK football player received support from his Loper teammates and coaches, as well as his future wife Jennifer, who currently serves as director of UNK’s Thompson Scholars Learning Community.
Another valuable tool was TRIO Student Support Services, the federally funded program he now helps run. The program assists first-generation, low-income and disabled students during their pursuit of a college degree by providing academic support, financial guidance and career development opportunities.
“We want you to ultimately earn your college degree and go on to make a difference in not just your life, but the lives of those around you,” said Harvey, who received his bachelor’s degree in middle grades natural and social science education in 1998.
Harvey went on to earn a master’s degree in instructional technology from UNK in May 2016, the same month he was named head football coach at Kearney Catholic High School.
He wants first-generation students to remember: “It’s OK to ask for help.”
UNK’s First Year Program presented awards to Jennifer Harvey and associate history professor David Vail for their support of first-generation students.