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There Was Always a First 

From the President:

On November 8, the nation will celebrate first-generation college students. At CMU, we’re celebrating those who are first in their family to earn a degree the entire month of November. The recognition of first-generation month applauds those who overcome barriers to embark on a life changing, educational journey and recognizes those who help them along the way. Because CMU serves a large population of students who are first in their family to graduate from college, there is certainly reason for celebration. For some families, the year 2022 marks the occasion when someone from their home attended college for the first time. For others, the first to get a degree was in 1822. But for all those who hold a degree, there was always a first. 

The late Madam Secretary Madalyn Albright was the first female United States Secretary of State. I was fortunate enough to meet Secretary Albright several years ago during the annual CMU Capital Conference. Albright spoke with CMU students in the nation’s capital, and many remember her remarks and advice. One CMU student gained inspiration from her story and on first-gen day in 2019, he held a photo of Secretary Albright to honor her legacy of being first at CMU’s first-gen celebrations.  

Recalling this memory reminded me of the significance of this month. November is not just about the first-generation students on campus right now. The celebration is about everyone throughout history who took that first step. Because for every family who has higher education as part of their culture, there was someone who was the first to dare greatly and earn a degree. And that legacy is worth celebrating. 

For my family, the most impactful first was my maternal grandmother, Jennie. Grandma Jennie grew up on a small farm and was educated in a one room schoolhouse. In those days, women did not ordinarily go to college. But Jennie was no ordinary woman. Jennie was a humble woman of exceptional intellect and iron will. She exited that schoolhouse and entered onto a college campus. She later returned to the same school as a teacher, educating children during the difficult Dust Bowl years in western Kansas because of her strong belief in the power of an educated mind. This belief was based on the transformative power that college had in her own life. Grandma Jennie took it upon herself to not only put herself through college, but also put her many siblings through college. A humble hero in a generation of heroes. 

A family’s trajectory changes forever once higher education is introduced. This fact is manifest. The experience becomes a new foundation — a new generational cornerstone. In my family, that one decision by a humble country teenager touched the lives of all of us. Today my parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins in every direction — nearly all of them have a college degree because of the power of Grandma Jennie’s decision to defy ordinary, set a new path and earn a college degree. I am a university president because Grandma Jennie knew the world did not end at the steps of that one room schoolhouse. She understood the books and tools she found in that room were where the world of knowledge began. 

I wonder how many Grandma Jennies there are learning at CMU today? How many Mavericks fully comprehend their choice to be here means their grandchildren might cure cancer, invent the next technological revolution; or, that they, like Jennie, may return to the classroom to inspire others. 

In the past, first-generation programming at CMU has focused on a single day of celebration. This year, CMU has extended the celebration to cover an entire month. This expansion is meant to create a space to talk about the fact that for everyone, there was always a first.  

Please join me and the rest of campus on Monday, November 7, at the First-Generation Speaker Panel in the UC Ballroom at 11am. There we will hear from students, staff, faculty and alumni as they share stories of courage, love, perseverance and what it means to be a generational cornerstone — what it means to be first.