The second annual first-generation college student graduation commemoration celebrated more than 85 first-generation college graduates.
Hundreds of undergraduates, graduate students, families and friends gathered Wednesday night to support the students in the East Ballroom of the Wilkinson Student Center, commemorating their efforts to graduate.
A dream come true
BYU junior Camilla Clark volunteered at the event, helping students and guests sign in for the dinner and celebration. “I think it’s really awesome that they are giving recognition to these students,” Clark said.
Clark went to BYU—Hawaii for a few years before transferring to BYU. She remembered there were many first-generation college students at BYU—Hawaii, where she first got support on her own journey. Many of those students worked at the Polynesian Cultural Center to earn money to attend college.
Here in Provo, Clark hopes to see the First-Generation Student Organization grow over the next several years. “Everyone, no matter where they come from, no matter what their past is, deserves to get an education,” Clark said.
BYU graduate Ivana Borba brought her two children and husband to the event. Originally from Uruguay, Borba says it has been good for her to make her family proud. “I feel like it’s a dream come true. I never even dreamed it would be possible,” she said.
Borba’s master’s degree in marriage and family therapy will allow her to help couples and families work out their relationships even while she continues to be a mom to her children.
Borba said she was tempted to quit while she was still an undergraduate student. One day after her first baby was born, she was “really close” to dropping out of school. Her husband persuaded her to stay in the program, reminding her of the impact her choices would have on her children. “I wanted to be an example to them,” Borba said. “That’s why I chose to pursue a college education and a master’s degree.”
BYU sophomore Blake Jones was not originally planning on attending college. After completing his mission, he felt prompted to apply to Utah Valley University before transferring to BYU. “I wasn’t going to come to school, and God told me otherwise,” Jones said. “Now I’m trying to find out why.”
When Jones transferred to BYU and applied for the pre-business track, he decided to ask as many questions as he could to figure out what resources were available to him. “I’m here, and I might as well get as much out of it,” Jones said. He said he has a drive for finishing college to prove to himself that he can accomplish this difficult task, even if, according to Jones, they “drown you in homework.”
As dinner was served by BYU Catering, three speakers addressed the gathered students and family, each of whom were also first generation students. BYU senior Cooper Lush, former president of FGSO, spoke to the students about the importance of trusting others. “There is always help available,” Lush said. “You just have to ask.”
Lush first came to college in the summer of 2019, when he had “no money, no friends and no idea” what he was doing. He made friends with his fellow students, and after years of college became the president of the FGSO. His time at BYU taught him the importance of trusting others, and being there for those around them. “I came with apprehension and fear,” Lush said, “and now I’m leaving with gratitude and a desire to serve.”
Assistant professor of psychology Chelsea Romney shared her personal experiences as a first-generation student. Romney had been baptized years before, but was so focused on classes that she did not attend church very often. One day, while she was feeling very alone in her apartment, her music app turned on the song that played at her baptism. She knew then she was not alone. “You belong here,” Romney told the students, “and I hope that you know that too.”
Dr. Lita Little Giddons, associate vice president of the BYU Office of Belonging, spoke about her experience growing up the youngest of three children. Her single-parent mother worked hard to provide for her family, even when money was tight. As Giddons grew up, she was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and served a mission in Leeds, England, where she used her singing voice to bear her testimony.
While she served her mission, the idea of attending college was introduced to her, and she was accepted to BYU with help from a vocal scholarship. “God was watching me,” Giddons said, “as He was and is watching you, for the time and purpose of bringing us here, and for the time and purposes of the future.”
A day worth celebrating
As the evening concluded, Director of Alumni Relations Michael Johanson welcomed the first-generation graduates into the BYU graduate family. Attendees took photos, gave hugs and ate cake. Students laughed, cried and celebrated together, paving new paths for generations of future students after them.
As these students finish their time at BYU, they can move forward with the certainty that they can do hard things. Giddons praised the first-generation students that had made it this far in their education, encouraging them to “go forth with God, and go find your place where you belong.”