On December 2, 2020

A first-generation story

By Haley Frechette

In all the chaos of the election, it would be easy to lose track of the fact that Nov. 8 was National First-Generation Student Day. This day was meant to highlight and celebrate those who are the first in their family to attend college. I am proud to be one of those Vermonters. And I feel compelled to express my deep appreciation of my fellow first-generation students as well as gratitude to the institution that made my dreams of higher education possible. If any Vermont students reading this are trying to decide if and where they will go to college, I hope they might feel inspired by my experience. I also hope that those with the power to fund the Vermont State College System will take note of the importance of our Vermont State Colleges to first-generation families.

Since I was a young child, my family’s world revolved around my education. Every night before bed, my dad and I would sit together in his recliner and he would read books to me. Eventually, that turned into my reading books to him. As I grew up, these moments became fewer, but the effects of those countless nights practicing reading cemented my commitment to academics. Even though, and perhaps because, neither of my parents earned a college degree, they know how important my academic studies are, both for me personally and for my future. My dad attended trade school and became a master electrician. My mom started to attend college for accounting but was forced to drop out after her first semester due to finances and not being able to pay for college. Through the financial struggles that my mom experienced, she was determined that finances would not keep me from attending school and building a bright future for myself.

There was, however, one looming issue: how in the world was I going to pay for school if tuition alone was over $50,000 per year? Then, I learned that if you attend a public university in the state in which you live, tuition is typically less expensive. While searching through colleges in Vermont during my sophomore year of high school, I found Johnson State College (now Northern Vermont University). This small community-oriented campus with beautiful views piqued my interest. Coming from a small school, the idea of making the jump to a huge university made me anxious. Knowing that the class sizes at NVU were around 15:1 calmed down some of this nervousness.

I chose NVU for a number of reasons: Because I loved that it’s a small, tight-knit community perched on top of a beautiful mountain. Because it would be an affordable way for my family to see me through my degree. And because it would offer me a high-quality education and the skills that are critical for success in life as a young adult post-college.

From the moment I set foot on campus, I knew that this place was where I wanted to be. I had found my community. A substantial number of NVU’s students are the first in their family to attend college! I was surrounded by students who were as motivated as I was.

We all felt lucky to be there because we had grown up seeing the limitations that exist for people without college degrees. We were inspired to do what our families had not had the opportunity to do. No one was there to waste time. And we were helped along the way by countless teachers and faculty who cheered us on along the way.

I graduated in the spring of 2020 with my Bachelor of Science degree in biology with a concentration in pre-medical biology. I graduated in three years and was honored as Magna Cum Laude. Currently, I am a doctor of pharmacy candidate (in the doctor of pharmacy program, Class of 2024) at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Albany, New York.

None of this happened by accident, and I take full credit for my motivation and drive. But I also couldn’t have done it without NVU. And I know I am not alone in feeling this deep gratitude.

So as we celebrate First-Generation Students at NVU and on a national level during November, I want to acknowledge all of my fellow first-gen students. I see you, and I’m proud of you. I know it can be a tough road when you are the first one in your family to walk it.

Things that may seem obvious to students whose families are well-versed with the college experience are all new and require learning curves for first-gens. And I want to thank NVU for providing me and people like me with access to such an outstanding higher education that had in the past seemed illusive. Thank you. You are helping to nurture generations of Vermonters who will in turn work to make this state and this world a better place.

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