Campus Life

'There's Power In My Journey': USU Celebrates First-Generation Students' Week

By Kat Webb |

Video by Taylor Emerson, Digital Journalist, University Marketing & Communications

To highlight members of the Aggie community, Utah State University is celebrating its third annual first-generation scholar week starting on National First-Generation College Student Day, Nov. 8.

USU defines first-generation students as anyone whose parents did not earn a four-year degree from a U.S. university, said Heidi Kesler, director of student retention and completion at USU. Kesler helped launch the Aggie First Scholar program in 2018 to help these students navigate the world of higher education and unlock their potential.

“First-gen students tend to be highly motivated and disciplined individuals,” she added. “Their journey at the university is diverse and unique to them, and yet one thing they all have in common is that they cannot lean into their parents’ experiences and knowledge about college. The activities and curriculum of Aggie First Scholars was established to provide these students with the space to ask questions, learn about the resources of higher education, and claim access to the rich academic and co-curricular opportunities available to all students.”

Charity Maeda Van den Akker, the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at USU, has been involved with each of the annual celebrations.

“Each year, Aggie First Scholars works on storytelling and meaningful personal narratives to highlight the strengths and accomplishments of the individuals in this community,” she said. “These efforts help us to raise scholarship funds for first-generation college students and destigmatize what it means to be first-gen.”

Rather than just celebrating one day, it was important for Karla Sandoval Rodriguez, the student coordinator for USU’s Aggie First Scholars, or AFS, to include multiple events from Nov. 8-10.

“It’s one thing to have a day where you can bring awareness,” she said, “but it’s another thing to hold events and speak up about our experiences because it brings awareness to our USU community, and it raises awareness for people outside of our USU community.”

Sandoval Rodriguez added it’s important to dispel the misconception that “because you’re a first-generation student, you’re going to be at a deficit because you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Another highlight of the week will be the keynote address from Jane Irungu — the university’s first vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion — to speak to accomplishments made by first-generation students after they graduate.


Many of first-generation students have strong desires to attain degrees, but they don’t have the typical support system when they get to school. Programs like AFS are crucial to foster a sense of belonging in this new environment, as well as learning to navigate the challenges of higher education.

Priscilla Rodriguez-Suarez, for example, didn’t learn about the AFS program until her last year in school, but now she’s found her community at the university. As the senior team lead for AFS, she is organizing the scavenger hunt that will kick off the “There’s Power In My Journey” celebration.

“It’s important to celebrate and be open about the experience,” Rodriguez-Suarez said. “I feel like a lot of students don’t know about the program, or feel seen or heard, but events like this open it up and give us a chance to say, ‘We’re here for you.’”

She added even members of the community who aren’t first-generation scholars can participate since AFS shares university resources and fosters a sense of community. Many of the services AFS helps connect students to aren’t exclusive to first-generation students, like the Student Nutrition Access Center, or SNAC Pantry, and the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).


Alesandro Rodriguez, a sophomore in the program, appreciated learning about the resources, but said the sense of community was lifechanging. He added while he knew he was a first-generation college student when he started classes, he didn’t realize the full meaning until he joined the AFS.

“I realized there was more to it, like one of the things that stuck with me was unlocking the full potential I have within,” Rodriguez said. “That’s one of the things they say a lot in the program, is knowing your potential within.”

Without the program, he might not have continued his education.

Cache Pitt, a clinical associate professor of audiology and clinic director in the Communicative Disorders and Deaf Education department, is now a mentor for AFS.

“There are great resources on campus, as far as succeeding academically,” he said, “but there's definitely a difference for somebody who has experienced something firsthand to be able to say, ‘I get it, I know what you're going through from my own experience.’”

The festivities begin with a campuswide scavenger hunt and include a “Life of a Latinx Leader” lecture, a panel of Black, Indigenous, and students of color to share their individual USU experiences, and conclude with the keynote address.


Kat Webb
Assistant Director for Strategic Communications
University Marketing and Communications


Heidi Kesler
Student Retention & Completion

Karla Sandoval Rodriguez
Student Coordinator
Aggie First Scholars
(435) 797-1190


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