By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – The featured speaker at the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s First Gen Day celebration shared a story many people in attendance could relate to.
“I’m not unique,” Adrian Gomez Ramos admitted, “and that’s a good thing.”
The spring graduate stood at a podium inside UNK’s main dining hall Monday afternoon as proof that first-generation college students can accomplish anything they set their minds to.
“I think that’s what we have to start realizing,” he said. “We might not think these opportunities are for us, but they really, really are.”
The son of Mexican immigrants, Gomez Ramos attended UNK through Kearney Bound, a scholarship program that supports first-generation students academically and financially. Open to students from Kearney, Kearney Catholic, Lexington and North Platte high schools, the initiative provides advising, tutoring, mentoring and other educational experiences that help prepare participants for college, then they receive a scholarship covering the full cost of tuition, books, fees and room and board for up to five years.
Gomez Ramos was accepted into Kearney Bound as a freshman at Lexington High School, opening the door to higher education.
Although he was “nervous and scared” when he arrived on campus in August 2017, those emotions quickly turned into feelings of joy and accomplishment thanks to the support he received at UNK.
“Everyone wants to help you. From your peers to your professors to the university resources, people are really here to help you,” he said. “I definitely got that impression from my four years here.”
Gomez Ramos found a second family at UNK, where he was part of the Honors Program and student government. He connected with students and staff from similar backgrounds through the Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion and gained confidence from the Department of Political Science faculty who encouraged him to think big.
That led to some amazing opportunities for Gomez Ramos, who presented at the Asian Undergraduate Research Symposium in Tokyo, Japan, and was accepted into Princeton University’s prestigious Public Policy and International Affairs Program Junior Summer Institute. He also helped fellow Lopers achieve their goals as a peer adviser for UNK Academic Advising and Career Development.
Gomez Ramos, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public administration while working at the nonprofit HelpCare Clinic, encouraged all first-generation students to set an example for themselves and others by continuing to pursue their dreams.
“You may be the first to be here, but do not be the last,” he said. “I think it’s incumbent on us to make sure that we’re doing more to help other people get ahead.”
Being a first-generation college student is a badge of honor at UNK, where roughly 4 in 10 students can proudly claim this distinction.
In its third year, First Gen Day is a celebration of these students and the faculty and staff who contribute to their successes.
“We want to build a sense of community for first-generation students and recognize their contributions to campus,” said Aaron Estes, director of UNK’s Academic Success Offices and co-chair of the First Generation Leadership Team. “They’re capable of doing great things, and we want them to know we’re here to help them realize their potential.”
The annual event, which included free T-shirts and other giveaways, a photo booth and snacks, also highlights the UNK programs and initiatives that support first-generation students.
Among them, the Center for First-generation Student Success selected UNK as part of its 2021-22 First-gen Forward cohort, a designation that recognizes higher education institutions for their commitment to improving experiences and outcomes for first-generation students. UNK also joined the First Scholars Network, another initiative of the Center for First-generation Student Success. First Scholars provides expert guidance, tailored resources and evidence-based solutions for institutions to transform first-generation student success.
“UNK has emerged as a first-generation destination. That’s the key message that we want to share with everyone today,” said Kyle Means, UNK marketing director and co-chair of the First Generation Leadership Team.
Means credited the dedicated faculty and staff and outstanding students “who are showing so much pride and the spirit necessary to overcome challenges, push through stereotypes and embrace the positive side of what it means to be first-gen.”
Two of these Lopers were recognized Monday with special first-gen awards.
FRIEND OF FIRST GEN AWARD
Ashley Olivas, assistant director for enrollment and events outreach in UNK Admissions, received the Friend of First Gen Award presented to a faculty or staff member who goes above and beyond to support first-generation students.
Olivas teaches a University Foundations course that introduces first-year and transfer students to life at a four-year university and prepares them for the academic expectations. She’s also willing to assist students with nonacademic issues, even if it means meeting outside regular office hours.
“She is someone who helps first-gen students feel welcomed and supported on campus and she’s a big reason why I’ve been successful during my first semester,” her nominator wrote.
UNK senior DJ Hardwick of Benkelman received the Trailblazer Award honoring an outstanding first-generation student.
As the student coordinator in UNK’s Office of Student and Family Transitions, Hardwick ensures incoming freshmen and transfer students develop a sense of belonging that leads to long-term academic success. He also supports students as a resident assistant and previously served as a New Student Enrollment leader.
The general studies major is a student representative on the First Generation Leadership Team and he played a key role in the creation of the First Gen Lopers student organization. Launched earlier this year, First Gen Lopers connects students with campus resources, faculty, staff and each other while creating a tight-knit first-gen community.
“He is a first-generation student who has made a great impact at UNK,” his nominator wrote.
UNK’s 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.