As part of First-Generation College Student Celebration Week, the Office of the Provost presents a series of reflections from first generation faculty and staff.

Dr. Amy Martin is assistant dean for student success operations in the Office of the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education.

Did your parents or guardian help you go to college? What are/were their vocations?

My parents were the ones who pushed me to go to college. My father was a die maker who worked for a GM transmission plant in Toledo, Ohio. My mother was an administrative assistant and raised my sister and me, managing my sister’s care as a person with significant physical and mental disabilities. I remember my mother taking me on campus tours and they introduced me to anyone who might know something about getting into and attending college. From middle school through high school I was focused on my grades and the hopes of attending college. The people who most made higher education possible for me were my teachers in high school. I attended a girl/woman-identified high school whose focus was on access to education and college attainment. 90% of the students in my high school went to college and so applying to and attending college was a pervasive conversation.

What were your first moments or months on campus like? 

I felt like a little fish among a sea of more confident and fast swimming fish! I grew up in a small town, rural area and the college town environment was entirely different. My roommate was from Romania and my first friends were from Detroit, New York City and L.A. I studied very hard and didn’t sleep much and still struggled academically. My first job was in the dining hall and Chef Shirley and the other dining staff taught me so many things and were quite encouraging.

I remember the very first football game vividly (twenty-five minute walk from my hall), my first history TA who wrote a note on my first paper encouraging me to speak up more in class, and taking a required class with my floormates in my hall called “Racism 101,” which sparked my ongoing desire to be an accomplice with marginalized people for change. I loved running in the cemetery and on the track next to my residence hall, frequently as a late night break from studying.

How did your parents/family/guardian prepare you for college? How did you prepare?

Study, study, study! Prepared for the SAT through high school courses. I didn’t know to prepare in any other way.

Why did you decide to go to college? 

I had decided in high school that I wanted to be a psychologist or counselor and going to college was the only way to achieve that goal.

As a first-gen student, how was the application and admission process?  

The application and admission process seemed daunting. I wrote my essay with the help of my high school counselor. My parents were upset they couldn’t pay for college, the financial aid process left me with no other options than loans, and my parents didn’t believe in going into debt to attend college. I applied for scholarships but did not receive any to the institution I decided to attend. I worked at the GM plant where my father worked for two summers under a program that allowed students with proof of college enrollment to work for 90 days in the summer. I paid for most of my tuition that way, my grandfather gave me some summer funding, my parents helped significantly, and being an RA covered the cost of my room and board for two of four years.  Because I worked to pay for college, I did not pursue any study abroad or community service activities. My focus was working and studying. I did volunteer at the hospital on a children’s cancer floor my first year.

What were your first semesters at school like? What surprised you the most?

How much homework there was! Also the big lectures were so impersonal.

What challenges did you run into as a first-gen student?

I knew nothing about the importance of co-curricular experiences, and trying to keep up with my grades didn't leave me for time to consider leadership opportunities. Math and statistics were also huge barriers to overcome.

How long did it take you to get acclimated to university life?

Two years and even then I never felt like I truly fit in.

Were there any systems of support for first-gen students at your school?

Not that I was aware of.

As a first-gen student, what perspectives do you have that other non-first-gen students might not?

I understood the financial commitment required for my education. I think I was more open to the experiences of others, recognizing my own struggles and challenges.

Looking back, what’s one thing you wish you could tell your younger self at the beginning of your college career?

Connect more with your instructors, faculty and advisors — people who can advise, support and challenge you. Try to participate in study abroad/away, undergraduate research, and other opportunities to be exposed to college life beyond the classroom.

Do you have any advice for other first-gen students?

You belong in college like everyone else, you have something unique to contribute. Get connected and engaged, whatever that looks like for you. Don’t hesitate to ask questions. There are others who want to ask the same things and will appreciate that you opened the door.


Learn more about MSU's designation as a First-Gen Forward institution, network with other first-generation faculty and staff, and get swag from the First-Generation Student Success Project team here