Purdue celebrates first-generation college students during national First-Gen Week

Updated: Nov. 13, 2023

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Purdue senior Toni Joyner says the best thing about being a first-generation college student was that it provided her with a clean slate.

“It allowed me to make this journey completely my own because I didn’t have any affiliations with anything or anyone when I arrived at Purdue,” she shares, adding that her resilience as a first-generation college student played a big role in her success. “I came in as an Exploratory Studies major and didn’t change into my kinesiology major until the second semester of my sophomore year. Today, I’m applying to master's programs. It’s incredible to look back and see how far I’ve come and how much I’ve grown.”

Joyner and her parents were some of the attendees at Purdue’s second annual “Proud to Be F1RST!” reception, one of several events hosted as part of Purdue’s First-Gen College Student Celebration Week. In alignment with the national celebration, Purdue’s events aimed to build community among first-generation college students, staff, faculty and advocates while also celebrating the strengths embodied by the first-generation college student community.

Joyner, who will graduate next semester from Purdue’s College of Health and Human Sciences, says some of her most notable strengths are asking questions and being resourceful.

“There have been so many things I didn’t know that my parents couldn’t help me with,” she notes. “There have been several times when I just had to figure it out or find someone who could help me figure it out. But I’ve never been afraid to send an email to someone I don’t know or set up a meeting to get my questions answered.”

Pictured: purdue student toni joyner stands with her family during the 2023 first-gen celebration

Even though Joyner’s parents didn’t go to college, they have consistently been in her corner providing support and encouragement.

“My dad won Parent of the Year from Purdue Black Caucus last year, and my mom was the one who suggested I change my major to kinesiology with a concentration in clinical exercise physiology,” Joyner recalls. “I was talking to her about wanting to become a Peloton instructor, and she told me I should pick a major that aligns with that goal. My parents are always encouraging me to pursue new opportunities, and they physically show up to support me when they can.”

Paving the Way for Others

Deva Chan, assistant professor in biomedical engineering, also attended the Proud to Be F1RST! Reception and was featured in a short video played during the event. As a first-generation college student (as well as a first-generation postdoc and first-generation faculty member), Chan says she’s proud of the responsibility she has to pave the way for others.

“I really struggled being a first-generation college student, especially during the first couple years of college,” Chan remembers. “I didn’t know what my place was in college. I didn’t know who to ask for information, and I didn’t really know how to navigate academia where things can be really confusing.”

For Chan, building a network of support was essential to her success.

“For me, finding my tribe was really helpful. Finding people who were going through the same thing as me and learning how to ask the right questions and find the right mentors was really helpful as I grew into myself in college,” she shares. “As an instructor, I have a new appreciation for how important first-generation college students are to Purdue’s culture and educational mission. These students bring a unique perspective and understand that the way we’ve always done things doesn’t have to be the only way.”

Joyner agrees, adding that being a first-generation college student often comes with a learning curve, but it is also special.

“You are the one who gets to pave the way for the future while also honoring the sacrifices of the people who helped get you to where you are today,” Joyner says. “I am so appreciative of everyone who has supported me along the way — my parents, friends, professors and other staff members. I am proud to be the first, committed to not being the last and forever indebted to the people who gave it all so I could be where I am today.”

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Andrea Mattingly

Director of Communication for Teaching and Learning, andrea@purdue.edu

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