Kent State Awards Celebrate First-Generation College Students and their Supporters

Speaker talks of pioneering spirit needed to be a first-gen student, pass it forward.

Kent State University celebrated the journey of first-generation college students and those who have made an impact serving as their mentors and advocates with the “I Am First” awards ceremony on Wednesday. 

The event took place at the Center for Undergraduate Excellence, before a lively crowd of students, faculty, staff and administrators, many of whom sported `I Am First’ T-shirts, to celebrate their status as the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree. 

Melanie Jones, director of Academic Diversity Outreach in University College, opened the ceremony and noted how 40% of all Kent State students are first-generation college students. Kent State, she said, is committed to improving the experiences and advancing the outcomes of those who are the first in their families to earn a college degree. 

Three students offered testimonials on their experiences as first-generation students, followed by the event speaker, Michael A. Daniels, Ph.D., the director of Kent State’s Student Multicultural Center, who also shared his journey as a first-generation student. 

Lillah Tolbert, a senior psychology major, shared her story as first-generation college student.

Lillah Tolbert, a senior psychology major from Columbus, Ohio, who came to the United States as a refugee from West Africa, talked of how she often suffered from “imposter syndrome” doubting her skills, doubting that she belonged at college and worrying that she would be exposed as a fraud. 

Her advice to other first-generation college students: Never feel like you don’t deserve to be in the room, “And don’t let yourself be the person telling you that you can’t.”  

Daniels, a native of Lorain, Ohio, was a summer Upward Bound student at Kent State, and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in psychology from John Carroll University in 2012, his master’s degree in Student Affairs Administration from Michigan State University in 2015 and his doctorate in Philosophy in Higher Education Administration at Kent State in August. His research focuses on men of color, identity development, and leadership.

Michael A. Daniels, Ph.D., the director of Kent State’s Student Multicultural Center, served as speaker for the first generation awards ceremony.

Daniels talked about his own past, the missteps he made and the challenges he faced as a first-generation college student. 

He gave mention and credit to those who supported him and helped him along the way, from his mother and grandfather to teachers, professors and mentors along the way. 

Being a first-generation student, he said, means being a pioneer for your family, but he noted that no one is on the journey alone. Parents and family help to prepare you for the journey, and others are there along the way to offer support along the way. 

“Here’s to being first-generation, not alone, not the only and not the last,” he said. 

Most important, he said, is paving an easier path for others to follow. 

“Being a pioneer means supporting others that come behind us. Your goal is not just to trailblaze, your goal is to chart territory for others to come behind you,” Daniels said.

Yvonna Washington-Greer, assistant vice-president of Equity, Identity and Success in the Division of Student Affairs, signs the first-generation student banner.

The event concluded with the presentation of the 2022 First-Gen Awards.

"I Am First" first-generation award recipients.

Recipients are: 

  • First-Gen Undergraduate Alumni Award: Imani Johnson, a Kent State graduate who currently works in California.    

  • First-Gen Graduate Alumni Award: Carmen Roberts, a Kent State graduate who currently serves as associate director for Academic Budget Management within the University Budget and Financial Analysis Office. 

  • First-Gen Advocate Award Faculty: Jennifer L. Marcinkiewicz, Ph.D., associate professor in the Science of Learning and Education Center. 

  • First-Gen Advocate Award Staff: Cynthia Smith, administrative assistant for Air Force ROTC and Aerospace Studies. 

  • First-Gen Undergraduate Student Award: Ronshai Jones, a freshman psychology major from Washington, D.C. 

  • First-Gen Graduate Student Award: Hezakiah Seun Adewinbi, a native of Nigeria, and graduate teaching assistant in mathematics. 

     Hezakiah Seun Adewinbi, a native of Nigeria, currently a graduate teaching assistant in mathematics, accepts his First-Gen Graduate Student Award.

POSTED: Wednesday, November 9, 2022 04:23 PM
Updated: Friday, December 9, 2022 07:10 PM
Lisa Abraham