Episode 8: First Gen & Changing The World

Featured Guests

Anthony Scales
College Advising Corps adviser at
Washington University in St. Louis

Kennedy Washington
College Advising Corps adviser at
Texas A&M University

Heidi Estrada
Taco Bell Live Más Scholarship recipient and former CAC advisee
George Washington University, Class of 2022


Nicole Hurd: [00:00:43] Happy New Year, everybody. Welcome to the Knowledge for College podcast. I am your host, Nicole Hurd. And I am so happy to see you in this new year. We’ve even got happy flowers out in this cold day in North Carolina.

But the real warmth is going to come from who you’re about to meet. I am thrilled our topic today is about the challenge and rewards and benefits and joys of being a first-generation college graduate. And we have three really special guests. Anthony and Kennedy are both College Advising Corps advisers who are first-generation college grads. And Heidi actually is in the process of being in college right now at George Washington University in DC.

Anthony, Kennedy, Heidi, welcome to the podcast. So thrilled to have you here.

Anthony: [00:01:25] Hi. Thank you.

Kennedy: [00:01:27] Thank you, Dr. Hurd, for having us.

Nicole Hurd: [00:01:29] Great to see you all.

Anthony, I’m going to start with you. I’m a little cold here in North Carolina. I know you’re in St. Louis, Missouri.

Talk to us a little bit about how did you go about becoming a first-generation college graduate? Was it scary? Was it frightening? Was it exciting? Can you take us back a few years? What was that like?

Anthony: [00:01:48] I mean, it was really never a question for me. My parents were always very much, “You’re going to go to college. You’re going to pursue education because we didn’t have the opportunity to.” And so, it was always very much a focus when I was growing up. And so, when it came time to actually do it, it wasn’t frightening, it wasn’t scary. It was like, this is what I have to do with my life because my mother will not let me come back home if this doesn’t happen. But also, because I wanted to explore, I wanted to leave Mississippi, I wanted to see things and learn things and meet new people. So, I was really excited about it.

Nicole Hurd: [00:02:32] Great.

Kennedy, you’re also the first-generation college graduate in your family and you’re in Texas. Kennedy, talk about what was that experience like for you?

Kennedy: [00:02:42] I was very excited, and the way I looked at higher education was not the way a lot of people looked at it. For me, I was not only a first-generation graduate, but I was also coming from a low-income, single-parent household. And so, for me, I looked at college as an escape. A means of escaping a life of poverty. And so, it was very important for me to go to college because I just felt like it was the only way I’d be able to make a living because I saw how many challenges my mom faced not having a degree. And so, I was excited about changing this cycle of generational poverty and a lack of education in my family.

Nicole Hurd: [00:03:29] Kennedy, I’m so glad you brought that up because even during this pandemic, even in this really hard time, education’s still the best investment we can make in ourselves. And it’s such an important investment we make in ourselves and it is the way to break that cycle of poverty. It’s also the way to have economic mobility happen to you.

And the best thing about being a first-generation college graduate, is if you go, then your brothers and sisters are more likely to go. And then your children will go. And your nieces and nephews will go. It changes your whole family structure forevermore is what all the research shows us. So, an incredibly important thing to do. Anthony, Kennedy, congratulations on being the people who did that in your families. It’s a big, big deal.

Heidi, you’re in the process of doing it right now. Tell us all a little bit about where you are.

Heidi: [00:04:11] Yes, I am currently a third-year student at George Washington University and I’m studying international affairs with a concentration in international environmental studies. It’s been quite a challenge being a first-generation student and I couldn’t be more happier of where I am. And I’m so grateful for all of the people who have helped me get to where I am today.

Nicole Hurd: [00:04:35] Heidi, we first met because you were a student at Sam Houston High School and had a CAC adviser who helped you navigate your path to college.

But I want to look at all three of you. I say this all the time. College Advising Corps, what we’re doing is we have sparks and the sparks become fireworks. And so, I’m looking at these three amazing fireworks. You’ve all gone from being sparks to being these fireworks of opportunity. Fireworks of really showing everybody how to do it well.

Let’s talk a little bit, get kind of tactical for a second. Anthony, how would you advise somebody who’s first-generation to think about going to college right now? Again, we’re in a pandemic. It feels a little scary. It feels very expensive. We can talk about that in a second, but what would you say to your students right now who are first gen about why it’s important to go on this journey?

Anthony: [00:05:23] think a lot of it goes back to what Kennedy was talking about, regarding breaking cycles of poverty. I think nevermore now do we see just how vulnerable communities of color are, how vulnerable families are, and how fickle income really is. The most stable of jobs have disappeared. And so, I’m talking to my students and a lot of them, especially the ones who are less interested in going to college anyway, are like, “Oh, I’ve managed to pick up all these hours. I’ve managed to find this job and this job.” And I’m like, that’s very true. But stopping the process of building yourself and building your skillset and your knowledge set is only going to make you more vulnerable in the future.

This was the first one of these pandemics that we’ve encountered in our lifetime. We don’t know what the next one will be like. And so, while yes, this current way of living may have been working right now, you may have figured out ways to navigate that, you have to keep changing. You have to keep evolving. You have to be able to do two, three, four, five things nowadays, especially when you’re coming from a community that doesn’t have enough social supports to support you if you can’t.

Nicole Hurd: [00:06:44] That’s an incredibly important reflection, Anthony. And I think, when you talk about being first generation and how it changes everything, it’s also the difference between short-term and long-term. That’s what you’re teasing out, right? There’s some short-term opportunities right now, but the longer-term opportunities are tied to education and educational outcomes. The more you go to school, the better the outcomes are.

Kennedy, you’re in Texas. Texas has been an interesting state because there’s been some opening and closing and maybe a little bit more opening than some other states, so there might be different opportunities for your students. But what are you saying to your students right now about why it would be important for them, especially if they’re first generation to go to college?

Kennedy: [00:07:22] Like you were saying earlier, it opens up the doors for other people in your family. I know that for me, when I was in college, my cousins that were applying to college, they didn’t have their parents to look to either. And so, they would text me and I would help them with their FAFSA and things like that. And so, when I’m talking to my students, most times they’re the oldest in their family or maybe their brothers and sisters didn’t go, and I just talked to them about breaking that cycle. And I also touch on my own experiences. I told them that college was the best decision I’ve ever made. It was worth any loans that I took out, any tears I cried, because I just was able to experience a lot of things that I never imagined as a first-generation student.

I didn’t travel, but when I was in college, I was able to study abroad. Now, I don’t know if that will be likely in this pandemic, but I gained leadership skills and it was just a very transformative experience and I want that for them. And I just tell them that those are the things that you can experience if you go.

Nicole Hurd: [00:08:26] Heidi, you’re studying international relations. Obviously, it’s been a difficult year with a pandemic, but you said you’re exactly where you want to be in terms of the right university and studying the right thing. So, tell us all, what has it been like, not just this year, but when you think about your college career? Obviously, you made a decision you’re proud of. What has it been like to be kind of the first in your family to go?

Heidi: [00:08:49] It’s been quite the challenge. Like I mentioned, I think that something that a lot of us first-generation students feel is imposter syndrome or feeling like we don’t fit in, especially going to a predominantly white institution. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into when I committed to George Washington University. I didn’t know what it meant to go to a predominantly white institution, much less an institution where a lot of the students have parents that are in the top percent of income.

I remember one of my first conversations that I had with GW students, we were talking and I was just casually mentioning about my experience going to a public school and I was just hearing the reaction of people. And people were talking about how their parents were diplomats and I immediately felt so out of place. And so, it has been really, really hard to find a sense of community on campus as a first gen.

But I really think that there is strength in numbers and the first-generation community is very, very supportive of one another. And so, whenever it comes to giving advice to students who are first gen, I always say lean into your peers who are also first gen, because we’re all in this together. We all come from similar backgrounds and we’re all facing the same challenges. And that’s what I always tell people.

Nicole Hurd: [00:10:16] Heidi, I’m glad you brought that up because there’s also a lot of faculty, a lot of staff, and others who are also first gen and you might not know it. And so obviously identifying yourself that way and other affinity groups that you might identify with are incredibly important. One of the things we all need to do is find community, and I think you just brought up something really important.

Look it. I’m much older than all of you, but imposter syndrome doesn’t leave you. That’s something that happens through your life is you have to keep reminding yourself you do belong. And you have to keep reminding yourself, you did earn this. And you have to keep reminding yourself that you’re not alone. That you have to love yourself and believe in yourself, and you have to have those other supports around you that love and believe in you too. And that you can shine together. That’s an incredibly important part of life and that journey keeps continuing. But I think building that muscle in college is part of the experience. I’m so glad that you brought that up.

Anthony, can you talk a little bit about… Heidi brought up different kinds of institutions. You’re now helping a bunch of students think about different kinds of institutions. What do you think about when you think about match and fit for a student? Or when they’re first gen? Two-year, four-year, HBCUs, HSIs, predominantly white institutions. There’s a whole lot of diversity in the higher ed space. How do you talk to students about finding that match and fit?

Anthony: [00:11:32] I usually start by encouraging them to reflect on the parts of their high school experience and the parts of their experience in the St. Louis community that they’re comfortable with and that they’re happy with, and that they’re not comfortable with and they’re not happy with. And that tends to guide a lot of the conversation.

A lot of my students who end up not being interested in pursuing HBCUs or minority-serving institutions, they’re like, “Ah, I’m tired of being in the same place.” “I’m tired of not being able to have conversations that I really don’t understand,” is something that one of my students brought up and I thought was really important. He wanted to have a conversation that he really didn’t get and I can really understand that. And so, helping them to identify, what do you want your life to look like, can help guide what institution they go to.

And then also where the student is academically. Does it make a lot of sense for you to go straight to a four-year university? Or does it make more sense to start at a two-year school, build your skills, make yourself more competitive for scholarships? What really makes sense for you? Because there is no timeline.

Nicole Hurd: [00:12:49] And Kennedy, you’re obviously in a position that’s filled with a lot of passion. I mean, you don’t go into the College Advising Corps, you don’t go into helping students and serving, unless there’s a lot of passion. Where did you find your passion? Was it in college? Was it before then? How did college kind of help you figure out your passion?

Kennedy: [00:13:05] It’s actually funny. I didn’t actually want to go into college access until I was a junior. And I had bounced around to different career paths and most of them were motivated by my desire to find a high-paying career. And then I just thought back to my own high school experience and I had a College Advising Corps adviser, as well as a college guidance counselor that went to my alma mater, Texas A&M. And I just thought about how grateful I was for my own college experience and how much I learned. And I just always said, “I just wish everyone could experience this. I wish everyone could have the opportunities I’ve had.” And it kind of hit me one day when I was thinking about what do I do with the rest of my life? And I thought about everything that was important to me and it all tied back into the same place. And then I found out about the job opening for Advise TX and I was like, “Wow, this is a sign. I didn’t even think about this.” And I still talk to my Advise TX adviser, and the impact she had on my life is something that I wanted to pay forward. And I just was grateful to have this full-circle moment.

And when I have students come into my office and they’re like, “Ms. Washington, I got accepted,” or, “Thank you so much for helping me,” and I just have to tell them, “You did all the work. It was you, not me.” But it’s very heartwarming.

Nicole Hurd: [00:14:25] Well, Kennedy, you just brought up something that I think is incredibly important, which is finding your passion and also thinking about careers and thinking about finances. And that’s obviously a stress for a lot of students. It’s a stress that makes students sometimes make decisions that aren’t the best decisions, because they’re so worried about the cost of college.

And so, Heidi, I want to talk about… Our episode today is being sponsored by our friends at the Taco Bell Foundation and we’re very, very, very, proud of our affiliation with them because they do marry exactly what we’re talking about. They marry passion and changing the world with college opportunity.

For those people who are listening or watching who don’t know, the Live Más Scholarship is open right now. It’s open until January 20th. But what I love the most about the Live Más Scholarship is you’re not going to go to your adviser or go to your parents or go to your support system and start filling out papers and thinking about your GPA and thinking about testing that didn’t happen because we’re in a pandemic. It is a two-minute video and that’s it. It is not about an achievement process. It’s about a passion process.

And Heidi, you happen to be Live Más scholar, so you want to talk to us a little bit about A) what that process was like for you, but; B) what did it mean to have people believe in you in that scholarship process and really put yourself forward that way? I’m sure it was scary making that video. You want to talk a little bit about being a Live Más scholar and that process?

Heidi: [00:15:44] Of course. I love talking about the Live Más Scholarship and the Taco Bell Foundation. I couldn’t even really put into words what that organization means to me because they mean the absolute world to me.

And the process of applying to Taco Bell scholarship was actually a lot of fun. As you mentioned, the application is very different. It’s something that is very unique, and I loved the opportunity to be able to make a video. And I love making videos. It’s kind of like a side passion that I have. And for me, I had a lot of fun just thinking about what shots am I going to include, what texts do I want to include in the video? What the voiceover was going to sound like. And so, it was a lot of fun for me. And I think that it also just allows students the opportunity to be very creative that a lot of other scholarship applications don’t have. So, I always encourage students to take that opportunity and apply to the Taco Bell scholarship because it’s something that’s very, very unique.

Nicole Hurd: [00:16:45] And so obviously it was more fun than scary. How much did it help you make your decision to go? Was it a big piece of it or was it a little piece of it? How did that scholarship process help?

Heidi: [00:16:56] Oh, it was the main reason that I went to GW. Without the Taco Bell Foundation, I would not be at GW. I didn’t hear from a lot of scholarships throughout the academic school year, and I had applied to one scholarship every single week. I was applying, but I just kept getting rejected and it was very, very daunting to walk into May and still not know where I was going because I didn’t have the financial resources to be able to go where I wanted to go. And where I wanted to go was GW. So, when I was surprised with the Taco Bell Foundation scholarship, which was $25,000, it was such this sigh of relief that I can do this, that there are people who believe in me and who are going to support me.

And one of the things that I love about the Taco Bell Foundation is that they don’t just support you financially, but they also open up the door to so many other opportunities. And I really felt like I wasn’t going into college alone. I had the support of the Taco Bell Foundation, so that was amazing.

Nicole Hurd: [00:18:00] That’s awesome, Heidi. I’m so glad you brought up your resilience and your persistence. I’m sure Kennedy and Anthony would agree. To all students right now, you just gotta keep applying. Whether it’s scholarships or college you can’t hear “no” and you can’t hear “yes” unless you apply. So, you just have to keep on applying. And “no” is not fatal. “No” is just “no,” and it means that they might not see how awesome you are, but the next foundation might, or the next school might. So, you have to just keep on going forward.

Anthony, I know your students are probably worried about finances and scholarships. Any advice in that space, in addition to thinking about things like the Taco Bell Foundation?

Anthony: [00:18:38] I think it’s just the things that people tell them. Like you were just saying, apply often and apply early. And just like you were saying, don’t get disheartened by “no,” because at the end of the day, that puts you in no worse position than you were when you started. You’ve lost nothing.

And also, be creative. And when writing these essays or making these videos, especially at my school, a lot of students are like, “Oh, I haven’t participated in a lot of clubs. I haven’t participated in a lot of sports.” But you’ve worked jobs to help your family. You’ve taken care of family members. You’ve taken care of siblings. You have a rich experience. You have a story that deserves to be shared.

Nicole Hurd: [00:19:21] That’s great.

Kennedy, any thoughts about financial aid and scholarships you’re telling your students?

Kennedy: [00:19:27] I would agree with Anthony. I feel like the number one concern my students have is how are they going to afford college? And I know that most of the times when they’re talking to me, they say, “The last thing I want to do is to take out loans.” And I do love scholarships like the Live Más Scholarship, because a lot of times my students who may not have the 3.0 GPA or they may not be incredibly involved in school, they feel discouraged because they can’t really find a scholarship that really fits. And I just encourage them to just keep looking.

And sometimes I encourage them to apply anyway, because there are a lot of scholarships that don’t really have a lot of applicants and they’re just looking for people to apply. And so just take a chance.

Nicole Hurd: [00:20:12] Look it. I think we’re pulling on some really important themes here. I think one is to go back to some of the comments about finding a community, especially as a first-gen college student. There’s also a thing coming out about just persistence and resilience. Whether it’s imposter syndrome and getting over that, or it’s financial aid and trying to figure that out, just the need to keep pushing forward and pushing forward. And then I think the third thing I’ve seen in all three of you—and I hope the viewers can see this—it’s just being willing to change the world. Being willing to show your passion. So, as we kind of wrap up this episode, I want to just let you all shine for a second, be those fireworks.

Heidi, why don’t you tell us all. You did a video a couple of years ago. How do you want to change the world?

Heidi: [00:20:56] When I think about what I want to do to change the world, I think about elevating people whose voices aren’t being elevated and they deserve to be elevated. I think, especially over the past couple of months, we’ve seen national movements across the country trying to bring awareness to issues that we haven’t really talked about and that are really sensitive. And whenever I think about changing the world, I think about not necessarily being a voice because people already have voices, but being a megaphone for them and allowing people to hear other people’s stories.

Nicole Hurd: [00:21:29] Thank you for that, Heidi. That was beautiful.

Kennedy, when you think about changing the world, what do you think about?

Kennedy: [00:21:35] When I think about changing the world, I think about changing or improving broken systems. And I think there are a lot of systematic problems that have just been going on for a long time and it’s easier said than done, but I know that it’s possible. And it needs to happen now. And I know that sometimes change can look like progress, but that’s not necessarily the case. So, I want to see progress.

Nicole Hurd: [00:22:04] Thank you for that, Kennedy. These are feeling like very good new year’s resolutions, kind of January reflections as we kick off this season of the podcast.

Anthony, when you think about changing the world, what do you think about?

Anthony: [00:22:16] At the end of the day, it’s about honesty. I want this country and Western civilization to keep its promises to my students. I want people like my students and people like me to be able to achieve and succeed and pursue their passions without feeling constrained by poverty and disease.

Nicole Hurd: [00:22:39] One of the reasons why we’re starting the season, this January, this episode with this kind of first gen theme was really to do one thing: get everybody to realize that they should still apply. It’s not too late. Apply to college, apply for scholarships. To think about ways to stretch themselves and make that opportunity they’ve earned happen.

But part of the reason why is just to give us all, and I think we all still need it—we’re all getting ready hopefully to be vaccinated—to give ourselves a little shot in the arm of optimism. A little shot in the arm of hope. A little shot in the arm that whether you’re going through… And we’ve had so much disease and death and destruction and displacement. But to also find moments of hope and potential and opportunity. And as I look at the three of you, all I’m seeing is hope and potential and opportunities.

So, want to wrap by just having the three of you say something to our first-gen college grads and our first-gen hopeful college grads as they continue to go on, either starting their semester or finishing up high school. Just a couple of words of encouragement from the three of you. What would you say to everybody right now?

Anthony, I’ll let you go first.

Anthony: [00:23:50] I would tell them you are not alone. You’re not by yourself, even though it may feel that way sometimes. And it’s rough right now, but you will be okay. And the more that you believe that the sooner that it will come.

Nicole Hurd: [00:24:06] That’s beautiful, Anthony.

Kennedy, what would you like to say to all of our first-gen friends?

Kennedy: [00:24:10] I would say that the journey will not be easy at all times, but it’s definitely worth it and you’re going to change your life. And I can say that for my family—my mom is about to get her bachelor’s degree in fall of 2021. So that’s the impact you’ll have on your family.

Nicole Hurd: [00:24:30] Kennedy, that’s awesome. And congratulations to your mom. That’s amazing.

And Heidi, what would you like to say to students out there and folks that are thinking about going back to a scary semester that’s been so bumpy or applying to college right now? What would you say to them?

Heidi: [00:24:45] I’d say to not give up, whether you’re applying to college, scholarships, internships, fellowships, et cetera. I would say you’re going to get noes. And sometimes those noes are where I know I received noes. And those noes are probably one of the best things that could have happened to me because you just need the one “yes” to really get you to where you want to be.

Nicole Hurd: [00:25:07] Look it. I’m so inspired by the three of you.

I share sometimes, I’m the product of two first-generation college grads. If people hadn’t believed in my mom and dad, I wouldn’t be the first in my family to have a Ph.D. I wouldn’t be the one that got the opportunity to spend my career holding hands with all of you. So, I just think there’s something so powerful about education. And it’s so universal. It is so important for all of us to know that our potential is limitless and that we believe in each other and that there’s a way to hold hands even during these difficult times and know that we can change the world.

So, thank you for starting our season off with such optimism, with such love and light, and with such good advice, because I think we all need to be told… The words I like to say are “I believe in you.” But we also need to be told that “no” is not fatal. We’re all on a journey together and it’s about finding communities and lifting each other up.

Thank you to the three of you. Thank you to our friends at the Taco Bell Foundation. Like I said that opportunity’s open until January 20th. We will put a link on our site. You could actually see Heidi get her scholarship. It was an amazing moment when she got surprised, so we’ll put that link up as well. But we want you to know that this is real. You can be just like Heidi and have your life changed by having some incredible people say, “I believe in you,” and provide you some resources. So, we’ll put that link up.

This is the beginning of another season. And hopefully, even though it’s a little cold and gray here in North Carolina, it’s the beginning of a spring semester where we see a lot more health and happiness and hope. And so, thank you all for tuning in. Thank you for believing in Kennedy, Anthony, and Heidi, and spending some time with them. Thanks again for tuning in. This is the Knowledge for College podcast.