Last spring, the DDCE launched its new First Generation Longhorn Initiative to support students who will be the first in their families to earn a college degree. We celebrate these students and encourage them to take advantage of the initiative’s many offerings—from scholarships for study abroad to professional development workshops and networking events. We caught up with several college graduates who navigated college life on their own, learning much about themselves and others along the way. Though their stories are unique and varied, they all have common threads of sacrifice, hard work and hope for the future.
Embracing New Experiences
Carmel Fenves, first lady of UT Austin, will never forget the day her parents dropped her off at UC Davis. While watching them drive away, she wondered to herself, “What now?”
“I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like a lot of surprises, so the earlier I can get somewhere to scope it out, the more I feel comfortable and prepared,” Fenves says. “But I didn’t really have that opportunity when my parents drove me to college and left me with my luggage.”
The first in her family to attend college, Fenves can relate to the many students at UT Austin who are feeling lost and overwhelmed at such a large university. She’s open to sharing her own experiences to help students realize that they, too, can overcome their challenges with a lot of work and perseverance.
“I was self-conscious about my reading ability,” says Fenves, who later became a successful textile artist and small-business owner. “Anything that was project-oriented, I could throw myself into, but reading and keeping up with the assignments was challenging.”
Fenves often appears at First Generation Initiative events to encourage students to seek out the resources and opportunities that will help them succeed. But most of all, she wants them to enjoy their time in college.
“It’s so important to just be open,” she says. “I came from a family that was very supportive. They encouraged me to try new things and experience whatever the campus had to offer. That’s what I went for—to learn new things, meet people and grow. It’s really a growth period in your life, and you won’t have anything like that ever again.”
When Matt Thibault embarked on his first semester at UT Austin, his excitement was overshadowed by a relentless pang of guilt.
“The first big challenge at UT that I had to overcome was the guilt of leaving my family behind,” Thibault says. “I had to realize that they were supporting me every step of the way. Even though I wasn’t with them, they were the ones who pushed me to get here. The success of earning a degree was not my own; it was also a gift to them.”
A first-generation college graduate (B.A., Sociology ’18), Thibault is determined to make a better life for himself and his family, who live in a small town just south of San Antonio.
“My first motivating factor for going to college was seeing my parents struggle to take care of my sister, who has disabilities,” he says. “The one thing I could do to help them was school—and I could do it well. I want to be the kind of person who works hard to take care of others and stand up for those who can’t advocate for themselves.”
Finding a Home Away from Home
Tiffany Tillis vividly recalls the first of many challenges she faced as a first-generation college student on the sprawling University of Texas at Austin campus. Without guidance from her parents, she had to find a way to map out her college career.
“Registration was probably the most intimidating experience of my entire freshman year,” says Tillis, who received all three of her degrees from UT Austin (B.A., ’03; M.Ed., ’08; Ph.D., ’17). “I came in feeling like I was the only one who didn’t know how to navigate this system.”
Now the director of the Longhorn Link and Gateway Scholars programs, both housed within the Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence (LCAE), Tillis is passionate about guiding students through the same obstacles she faced as an undergraduate. Her best advice is to find a home base on campus as soon as possible.
“It’s so important to connect with smaller communities,” Tillis says. “The Gateway Scholars program helped me navigate this place and be successful. It made such a difference in my life, and that’s the reason why I’m doing this work now.”
Looking back at her experiences, Tillis is especially grateful for the Multicultural Engagement Center (MEC), where she found her community and discovered her career path.
“I found my fit at the MEC, where I learned so much about life and how to be a good citizen,” says Tillis, who is also a founding member of the DDCE’s Fearless Leadership Institute, a leadership program that supports the total well-being of women of color. “That was where I fell in love with UT, and it’s part of the reason why I started my professional career.”
Taking the Road Less Traveled
Growing up, Nong Xiong rarely ventured far from her tight-knit Hmong-American community in Wisconsin. She never really considered pursuing higher education until a teacher connected her with a program that helps students prepare for college.
“Upward Bound pushed me to think of what I would get out of college that I wouldn’t get anywhere else,” Xiong says. “My parents expected me to get married and raise a family, but Upward Bound helped me ask questions and seek answers.”
She quickly discovered her passion for education and decided to pursue a degree in English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Although the campus was just three hours away, she felt like she was living on another continent. Depressed and homesick, she would make the journey home every weekend just to surround herself with the comforts of home.
It wasn’t until she studied abroad in South Korea for an entire academic year when things started to shift. She soon learned how to embrace the independence of college life and seek new opportunities for growth. She also found support from friends, mentors and advisers in a TRIO program much like the DDCE’s Gateway Scholars program here at UT Austin.
“I had an amazing adviser who supported me in ways that I really needed,” Xiong says. “I was reluctant at first to attend all of those mandatory events and to meet up with my adviser. But looking back at it now, that was a defining experience for me.”
Now a graduate student studying educational leadership and policy at UT Austin, Xiong is helping students at the LCAE—many first generation—overcome similar challenges she faced as an undergraduate. In the future she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. and continue making a difference in students’ lives.
“I want to be a source of access and inspiration for first-gen students,” she says. “If I could’ve been involved in a first generation initiative like this, I would have been more connected with my school and with myself.”