Editor’s note: This story is part of the year-long, collaborative series “First-Gen UT,” which will share the stories of first-generation Longhorns. Stories will be produced in partnership with UT’s chapters of the Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, National Hispanic Journalists Association and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
UT’s first-generation college graduates, students whose parents don’t have a college degree, now have a new way to commemorate their accomplishments. This spring will mark the inaugural First-Generation Graduation Recognition Ceremony, which will honor about 4,000 first-generation graduates in the class of 2019 on May 22.
The ceremony is a collaborative event that began as an idea from two students last semester, according to Hollie Yang, a student program coordinator at the Multicultural Engagement Center.
“Essentially, we had two students approach my director and it was just originally generated from them,” Yang said. “They wanted to have a ceremony to celebrate and recognize graduating seniors who identified as first generation, and they came to us wanting some assistance in planning the ceremony.”
After the idea was introduced, organizations such as the Multicultural Engagement Center, Student Government and the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost offered their assistance. Yang said students can expect a keynote speaker and special guests much like annual graduation ceremonies hosted for other minority communities.
“We will be inviting two special guests to present a special token that would recognize the graduating seniors,” Yang said.
The inaugural ceremony is the most recent campus initiative to recognize first-generation students. The Division of Diversity and Community Engagement reported that about 20% of current students identify as first-gen. In response to a growing first-generation presence on campus, the division created a first-gen initiative to organize events, provide assistance and celebrate students who are the first to attend or finish college.
Vinit Shah, a public health sophomore and member of the First-Generation Commitment Working Group, said the ceremony is a step in the right direction for future Longhorns.
“I really wanted to join that group, being a first-gen student myself,” Shah said. “The experience of first-gen students is definitely not homogeneous. We have to continue progressing and pushing for first-generation students because that community makes up such a large part of UT.”
Taylor Terry, a graduating applied learning and development senior, said she hopes the University continues to invest in first-gen students in the future. Terry will be the first in her immediate family to earn a bachelor’s degree.
“Being first-gen was definitely hard for me in the beginning,” Terry said. “I didn’t really know what to expect out of this level of academia. I think that UT needs to publicize and reach out more on things like this for future students.”
Terry also said that graduating as a first-generation college student is a big deal for her family because it means she will be financially stable.
“(My family) knows that I’m going to be financially set,” Terry said. “They know I’ll be safe and sound. That’s something I’m especially proud of as a first-generation student.”
Yang said she hopes to continue the first-generation graduation ceremony for years to come.
“I definitely think in the future years that it could potentially inspire those younger classes to really strive and continue on to finish their degree,” Yang said. “I’m hoping that this ceremony gets housed in a specific location on campus and can continue to thrive and grow.”