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University of Missouri

Determined To Be First

First-generation students at MU face a variety of challenges.

First-generation students at the University of Missouri

From left, Gabrielle Deabler, Luca Mollel, Jessica Hoyos, Traci Payne and Kaylan Holloway have all faced challenges — but are finding success — as first-generation students at Mizzou.

Being first is usually lauded as a success, but for students who are first in their families to attend college, that accomplishment also brings challenges. Today’s parents have a reputation for being involved in their children’s lives. But parents of first-generation college students sometimes struggle to guide their children through a process with which they have no experience. And the students might feel isolated compared to peers who are following their parents’ footsteps.

Fall 2012 brought 1,590 first-generation freshmen to campus. About 25 percent of all Mizzou undergraduates have parents who didn’t graduate from college.

Their stories are unique, but their goals are the same: to be the first in their family to earn a university degree.

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Traci Payne

The hardest decision Traci Payne ever made was to send her 5-year-old daughter to Florida with her ex-husband so Payne could focus on her studies.

At 31, Payne came to Mizzou in fall 2012 after 10 years in the U.S. Air Force. She left behind a great job and a lot of friends. But the military was supposed to have been a temporary detour from college, a way to pay for otherwise unaffordable courses. Turning 30 was a wake-up call: The detour was over.

Traci Payne

Traci Payne

Payne moved back home to Fayette, Mo., to live with her mom, who helped look after Haylie, now 6. Payne commuted 45 minutes to Mizzou to major in strategic communication. At night she’d skimp on sleep and squeeze in playtime with Haylie and homework for class, feeling like she was cheating both. When Haylie told her once that she “hated homework,” Payne knew something had to change. She didn’t want Haylie to associate school with something negative, so she asked Michael, Haylie’s dad, to take her for the spring semester.

I want to be a good example for her, that’s why I’m doing this,” Payne says. “I want it to be different from when I was growing up. I want her to know education is not an option. It’s a necessity.”

That desire keeps her motivated. When other students are goofing off, Payne remains focused. “I put all of my energy and effort into this,” she says.

Yet part of her feels selfish. “I feel guilty if I’m having a good day sometimes because I feel like I should be sad, missing Haylie.”

Payne benefits from TRiO CATS, a federally funded program that provides free one-on-one tutoring and extra academic support to 650 students. The program primarily serves low-income first-generation students but also assists veterans and students with disabilities.

Its tutoring helped Payne survive Spanish and statistics — tough challenges after a decade out of school. Meanwhile, the MU Veterans Center helped with the paperwork of registering and paying for classes.

But returning to school has still been hard.

I thought I was good at managing time before because in the military that’s all you do,” Payne says. “But I come here, and you have four classes, all these tests are due different days, and you have all these projects and tutoring sessions, and you have to work out and eat. And when do you sleep? I miss the days I could come home from work and have a glass of wine.”

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Luca Mollel

Luca Mollel’s education began when armed men came to his village and snatched him out of the fields, away from his family. The men were police sent by the Tanzanian government to make sure that Mollel and other children in his pastoral Maasai tribe went to school.

For generations, the Maasai have raised animals in the bush of northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. No one went to school. There was no need.

The Maasai are not a “calendar community” and don’t keep track of birthdays, but Mollel thinks he was 11 when he was taken — kidnapped as he calls it. He was put in a boarding school where students were given gifts and praise for earning good grades and beaten with canes for getting poor grades or disobeying the all-male teachers.

Luca Mollel

Luca Mollel

Mollel tried hard never to disappoint.

Soon, he grew to love school and saw education as a way out. Mollel was the first in his family to attend school of any kind and thinks he is the first in his village to go to college. He worked as a translator for the Humanity for Children charity, which later, with the help of a sponsor family, paid for him to pursue a master’s degree at MU’s Truman School of Public Affairs.

Mollel’s transition to America was difficult. It took months to adapt to the multitude of paved streets and sidewalks, women in skin-baring clothes, and the fast pace of life. Then there were the classes. In Tanzania, few books are available; he and his classmates learned from lectures and the Internet, so the way they studied was different. Their style of writing papers was different. The way they cited sources was different.

It has not been very easy,” says Mollel, who arrived in Columbia in fall 2011. He turned to his host family, Brian and Kathryn Morgan, for encouragement. Facebook helped connect him to friends back home. MU professors never turned him away when he asked for extra help.

Now he’s already aiming for a doctorate in education policy so he can return to Tanzania to help improve its school system. “I have a passion to help people,” says Mollel, adding, “A country without education entertains poverty.”

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Gabrielle Deabler

In small-town Bourbon, Mo., population 1,632, Gabrielle Deabler was never alone. Whether heading to class, exercising or shopping, she was always with people she knew. Coming to Columbia, she had to adjust to the anonymity of city life. “When I first came here, I felt if I went anywhere by myself there was a big spotlight on me because people would be wondering what I’m doing,” says Deabler, a 20-year-old junior majoring in soil, environmental and atmospheric science. “But now that I’m here, I’ve adjusted to that, and I’m part of the crowd a little more.”

Learning to do things alone extended to her studies as well. Deabler’s parents started a family when her mom, Katrina Deabler, was a teenager. Neither parent attended college. When Deabler applied to colleges, she relied heavily on her school’s guidance counselor and her Missouri College Advising Corps adviser, Becca Fallon, BJ ’10.

Gabrielle Deabler

Gabrielle Deabler

Deabler says she was constantly in the counselor’s office seeking advice. “She’d tell me, ‘Fill out these scholarships. You should probably think about doing this [other task],’ ” Deabler says.

For the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, she and her mom sat at Fallon’s desk and completed the online worksheet together.

The day before classes started her freshman year, Deabler called Fallon from her cell phone, upset as she drove her car around campus, trying to find the garage in which she was supposed to park. Another call was about how to change her meal plan. Like a set of training wheels, Fallon helped her every time, knowing the calls would soon subside. “It’s about empowering them to do stuff on their own,” Fallon says.

It worked. Deabler taught herself how to study at the college level, found an apartment and roommates after freshman year, and in fall 2012 emailed local TV stations requesting an internship.

She landed at ABC affiliate KMIZ, where she shadowed morning meteorologist Neville Miller, BA, BS ’06. She learned how to organize a weather report, work the equipment and do forecasting. By April 2013, she turned her internship into a job as a forecaster.

She still wishes her mom had gone to college so they could share their experiences “because she’s the easiest person in my life to talk to,” Deabler says. But she also likes charting her own path.

I don’t have anyone saying, ‘Well, I was in this fraternity, so you should do that,’ ” Deabler says. “That’s a great advantage of being first generation: I get to decide whatever I want to do, and my parents are just excited that I’m here.”

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Kaylan Holloway

Meet the first African-American governor of Missouri, or at least that’s his goal.

His name is Kaylan Holloway. He is from St. Louis. His story starts out sadly familiar: He never met his father, more of the kids he grew up with went to jail than to college, and his high school showed greater concern with preventing weapons from coming in than with the education of the students going out. The odds he’d earn a university degree were long.

Kaylan Holloway

Kaylan Holloway

Those odds used to intimidate him. Admitted to Mizzou on academic probation because of marginal high school grades and ACT scores, Holloway struggled to convince himself he belonged. “There’s no other choice but to feel you can’t make it.” Eventually he was able to shake that attitude. “I learned to embrace my story,” says Holloway, a senior interdisciplinary studies major with emphases in political science and communication. “Every obstacle I overcome I get happy about. Every test I pass is part of my testimony.”

MU featured him in an advertisement in The St. Louis American, a weekly newspaper for African-Americans, which caught the eye of then state Sen. Robin Wright-Jones. In 2012 she gave Holloway an internship with her legislative affairs staffer, Michael Butler, MPA ’11. Holloway says that’s where he “fell in love with public policy.”

His internship ended when Wright-Jones lost her re-election bid in November 2012. But on the same night, Butler won his own state House of Representatives seat and hired Holloway as a legislative affairs staffer.

Holloway, a top-10 Homecoming royalty candidate in 2012, now works full time in Butler’s office and takes a full load of classes in Columbia. He expects to graduate in December 2013, after which he plans to go to law school and enter politics.

Holloway credits his faith, family, community and Mizzou mentors for getting him this far. Even small things have been critical, such as the high school adviser who helped him submit his college applications because he didn’t have a computer at home to fill them out on or a stamp to mail them.

I’m a champion for the non-cookie-cutter student,” says Holloway, “You don’t have to have the perfect life [to succeed here] — and that’s something I’m really proud I go to Mizzou for.”

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Jessica Hoyos

Growing up in Chicago, Jessica Hoyos’ neighborhood was mostly Hispanic. So was her high school. “I was a minority, but it never hit me until I came here,” says the senior psychology and Spanish major.

As an MU freshman in 2010, Hoyos found herself one of 637 Hispanic undergraduates — 2.6 percent of the student body — in a state where only 3.7 of the population is Hispanic.

Jessica Hoyos

Jessica Hoyos

She says she was picked on for her race — “in a playful way” — during her ROTC training freshman year. “It didn’t hurt, but it was there, drawing attention.”

Worried about losing her culture and looking for somewhere to belong, she found a place in the Hispanic-American Leadership Organization. “It’s open to anyone interested in Hispanic culture, in wanting to know more about Hispanic people or Latin countries,” Hoyos says. Their attitude is, “ ‘We speak Spanish, and let me show you what we’re about.’ ”

Though the ROTC experience was a culture shock, it has helped her succeed. Students had to list every class they’d take during their eight semesters to graduate in four years, and seeing the path to the finish line has helped Hoyos relax. Students also received semester-long planners to mark every test, paper and project deadline. “I’ve continued doing that even though I’m not in [ROTC] anymore,” Hoyos says. “Otherwise I’d be lost.”

She wishes she’d had similar guidance in high school, where she scrambled senior year to get classes she needed — not to look good on college applications, but merely to graduate. “There were many things I wish I would have done, classes I wish I would have taken that I didn’t” because no one recommended them, she says. “I had no idea where I had to go and no idea how to get there.”

She misses her parents’ input when making academic decisions. The family’s culture is one of group decision-making, but for her decisions at MU — which meal plan to get, which classes to take, whether to study abroad — those conversations didn’t happen.

But even if she doesn’t always have her parents’ advice, she knows she has their support. “My mom told me before I left [for Mizzou] that she’d always been saving up for me to go to college. She’d always been conscious of, ‘This little girl is going to go to college, and she’s going to go somewhere expensive. So I’m going to save up for her.’ ”

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Read about Flagship Scholar Joshua Dalton, a first-generation college student studying math.