Pursuing a college degree wasn't easy for Josefina Cervantes, who grew up in Mexico with siblings and a single mother.
Nobody close to Cervantes went to college, she faced a language barrier and she didn't know about financial aid until after she began her studies.
“Every single class was a challenge for me,” Cervantes told students Wednesday at Ivy Tech Community College's Fort Wayne Campus.
Ivy Tech, along with nearby IPFW, recognized students like Cervantes as part of a national first-generation college celebration commemorating the signing of the 1965 Higher Education Act. The law strengthened the educational resources of colleges and universities and created grants, loans and other programs for students in postsecondary and higher education.
Ivy Tech's and IPFW's TRIO Student Support Services hosted the activities – the panel discussion at Ivy Tech and a first-generation birthday celebration at IPFW recognizing those, including faculty and staff, for being the first in their families to earn college degrees.
“Offering services and bringing awareness of first-generation issues is especially important here since half of our students are first-generation,” Shubitha Kever, IPFW's TRIO director, said in a statement.
“We work hard to make sure everyone has access to higher education, no matter their background or economic circumstances.”
First-generation students don't have the benefit of having immediate family members who can help them navigate college, said Clifford Clarke, moderator of Ivy Tech's panel discussion.
It's also common for women to face more challenges as first-generation students due to the caretaker role they often fill, he said.
Cervantes and the other panelists, who were affiliated with Ivy Tech, came from varied backgrounds. They spoke about having single parents, parents with some college education and parents who developed careers through on-the-job training.
They encouraged students to ask for help when in need and to take advantage of the resources colleges provide.
Cervantes, who as a student had a family to care for, said she created her own support system and found it at Ivy Tech, where she is now involved in TRIO.
“Here I found all the support I needed,” she said.