WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) - Purdue University is joining other universities across the nation this week to celebrate its first generation students. About 20% of undergraduates at Purdue are first generation.
"I just want a better life for my family and also for myself," said Ziwei Wang, a senior about to graduate with a degree in Electrical Engineering.
After moving to Indiana from China at age six, she grew up knowing what she wanted in her future.
"I always wanted to come to Purdue because I had an interest in engineering and this is obviously a great STEM school," she said.
She said being a first generation students created some unique challenges. She said her parents didn't have as many connections or as much knowledge about the U.S. higher education process.
"Everything I do I have to start from the bottom up, so in a way, I have to work twice as hard to get an internship or to create that network," she said. But she doesn't let it hold her back. "It keeps me motivated, a more self driven person."
There are programs at Purdue in place specifically to help students like Wang, including Horizons and Purdue Promise. Horizons works with students from in and out of state. Purdue Promise only works with 21st Century Scholar students. And since 21st Century Scholars is an Indiana program, they only work with in-state students.
Michelle Ashcraft is a first generation graduate from Purdue and is director of the Purdue Promise program. She's been leading the program for the past eight years.
"Purdue Promise is a four year scholarship and support program for eligible 21st Century Scholars who come to Purdue," she said. "We offer a four year scholarship that in addition to their state awards and other financial aid covers the full cost of attendance for four years.
She said one of the most important things they do is providing people who are ready to answer questions and give guidance to students.
"We also offer four years of support, the most important being full time student success coaches," she said. "There are dedicated spaces where students can go and know that there is someone there they can ask a question to or talk through a process with."
Indianapolis native Brigitte Gurrola decided to go to Purdue after getting directly admitted to the nursing program. Being a first-gen student, she said there was a lot of guesswork when it came to applying, but it was the coaches at Purdue Promise who helped get her through it.
"There was a time I felt like giving up on school because I did not see myself pursuing the nursing degree," she said over e-mail "But through the help of my success coach, I was able to switch degrees and continue the path to graduating on time with a degree I love."
She's now about to graduate from the Polytechnic Institute with a degree in UX Design.
About 60% of the students Purdue Promise serves are first generation. They define a first-gen student as any student with a parent or guardian who does not have a bachelors degree. Ashcraft said many of their first-gen students break many of the stereotypes they may be associated with, like having an unsupportive family or not being strong academically. She said if the students are smart enough to get into Purdue, it proves they are worthy of being there.
Students can also go to AmeriCorps ScholarCorps member McKalaih Mitchell, another first-gen Purdue graduate, who is now working with students like her.
"Being first generation and having access to that resource and then sharing that now that I know the resources available on campus was something that touched me," she said.
Mitchell also works specifically with 21st Century Scholar students who are not supported by Purdue Promise. She helps connect students to resources on campus and helps prepare them for life after college as they seek a job. She remembers being overwhelmed when she first arrived at Purdue as a freshman in 2014, so she makes it her goal to help other students navigate the waters of attending a large scale university.
"My favorite part has to be the students," she said. "You meet a bunch of unique individuals and then you see a strength in them as they overcome barriers. To me, that is rewarding."
"We see a lot of siblings," said Ashcraft. "What ends up happening is that the come here and realize the level of support that they get not only from the scholarship, but the support programs. And then they either tell their siblings that they have to come here or their siblings see the experience they are having and want to come. So we have entire families that we have served."
This week is all about raising awareness for the resources on campus and breaking down the stigma of being a first-gen student.
"It's really just an opportunity for campuses to celebrate not only their first generation students but also their first gen faculty and staff," said Ashcraft.
"It's allowing students the opportunity to be proud of who they are and be proud of the accomplishments they've done," said Mitchell.
Wang has some words of advice for future first-gen students who may be intimidated about higher education.
"Don't be afraid to get outside your comfort zone," she said. "Research the programs that will help you, like Purdue Promise, who will make your experience less stressful. Going for four years of education can be really scary and it can be easy to fall back and want to give up, but in the end it's all worth it. Looking back at how much I have grown, I will never forget this experience."
"It can be an intimidating process, but always try to seek out help and advice," said Gurrola. "If you do not have people to ask, I encourage you to find current students or contact admissions for any questions. I had my doubts, but you will not know unless you do not try so shoot for the stars. Amazing things can happen if you take a chance."