How I Did It: Got Through College as a First-Generation Student

How to get through college as a first generation student.

Ashlee Reece graduated with honors from the University of Missouri May 18, 2013, with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, minors in Business and Sociology, and a multicultural certificate.

Ashlee Reece had one thing on her mind when she got to college: to do as good as she could do, and get as good of a job as she could get.

“This might sound crazy, but I honestly didn’t know that college had a social life,” says the 22-year-old University of Missouri (MU) alumna from Rialto, Calif. “The reason I was in college was not to hang out and have friends—I didn’t even plan on making a friend.”

As the first person in her immediate family to go to college, Reece took it seriously. She left for MU two days after graduating high school and didn’t look back. Reece’s focus and commitment paid off when she graduated from MU this spring. Up next: a tenure with Teach for America, followed by Saint Louis University School of Law, where she already has been accepted.

“I definitely think being a college graduate has been a prerequisite for a lot of things that I am interested in,” says Reece. “I can’t imagine what kinds of jobs I would be applying for right now if I wasn’t a graduate.”

Reece can talk about her college experience in a positive light now, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t struggle along the way. She’s sharing what she has learned, both her challenges and successes, with fellow first-generation and nontraditional students.

Freshman Year Wake-Up Call

The reason I was in college was not to hang out and have friends—I didn’t even plan on making a friend.

Reece always knew she wanted to go to college, and she attributes much of her success in getting there to the support she received early in life.

“I’ve always been academically minded,” says Reece. “My family instilled that in me at a very young age, and I’ve always had some kind of structure going on.”

Reece’s involvements ranged from YMCA youth camps in the summer to college readiness programs such as AVID (Advanced Via Individual Determination) during high school. And all of them helped her get closer to her goal.

“The college application process was very confusing, but programs like AVID really broke it down,” says Reece. “I don’t even know what my processes would have looked like without their help.”

When Reece got to MU, however, she says she had to be more innovative and outgoing in seeking the assistance she needed, especially with understanding financial aid.

“They told us the facts; I got that. But as far as how payments were going to roll through and what it means to have a hold on your account, that was something I had to do trial and error with,” says Reece. “I would visit the cashier’s office and financial aid; I would go find the help that I needed. But sometimes I didn’t know who to go to, and that was tough.”

Scrambling to Make Due

During Reece’s first semester at MU, paying for college wasn’t a challenge. She had an adequate balance of financial aid and scholarships from the Rialto community.

“Administrators and teachers at Wilmer Amina Carter High School had supported me in going to college by writing me letters of recommendation so I could attain local scholarships,” says Reece.

But when that funding ran out, it could not be renewed. And because Reece didn’t like taking out loans in the first place, she continually looked for alternative payment methods, working two jobs from her junior year on and securing private scholarships when she could.

Paying for school was a combination of a lot of methods—whatever needed to work at the time to get that bill paid.

“Paying for school was a combination of a lot of methods—whatever needed to work at the time to get that bill paid,” says Reece.

As a result, Reece graduated with $12,000 in student loan debt, less than half of the national average, according to the Project on Student Debt.

Paying it Forward

On top of getting herself through college, Reece has worked to help her fellow students get by, launching Fundamental Firsts, a student-run campus organization for first-generation and nontraditional students. Fundamental Firsts provides financial, academic, and social support, in addition to leadership opportunities, to help students graduate on time.

Reece’s journey has rubbed off on her siblings, too.

“When I’m in the room, college is always a topic,” says Reece, whose 19-year-old brother currently is working toward his GED and 20-year-old sister is in community college. “What I’ve been doing is pushing them, and college has started to become a standard. And I really love that, because I want that to be on the priority list.”

Advice for Others in Her Shoes

“Being able to say that I’m getting a salary and not hourly or minimum wage is only a result of the college degree,” says Reece. “I always stress that when people are on the fence about college; unless you’ve got some extreme skills, this is where you need to be.”

And when you get there, Reece says, understand that you’re there for your degree, and don’t let anything get in the way of that.

“There are some people who can come to college, party, drop out, go home, and live off their parents,” says Reece. “That’s cool, some people can do that. I didn’t have that choice.”

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