It’s 3:20 p.m. and students start to fill seats in a second-floor classroom in Peabody Hall. One student turns to another, asking about how her week has been. Almost everything about this class is normal. Almost.
Here’s the difference: the professor at the front of the room was a first-generation college student, and so are the 38 students in the chairs.
The professor is Carmen Gonzalez. She is the director of undergraduate retention at UNC and the head of a new program for first-generation college students that brought all of the students here: the Lookout Scholars program.
While Gonzalez was completing her first college application in western Nebraska, she didn’t have anyone to guide her. But when her younger sisters started their applications, Gonzalez was there to help. She felt like she owed it to them.
Now, Gonzalez wants to do the same for her students.
When she's not teaching, she sits calmly at her desk and sifts through her schedule. She tries to find gaps in the colored blocks of her calendar to meet with some of her 100 students. Her desk on the third floor of the Steele Building is covered in certifications and signs. “One Act certified,” “LGBTQ+ ally” and a list of other accomplishments and groups she supports are stuck to her desk with small pieces of clear tape.
Despite the bustle, she’s glad she works with students because they “have so much energy,” she says with a kind of half smile. The half becomes whole when she thinks about their stories.
“It’s just knowing that someone else understands what your experience is, you don’t feel so isolated and alone,” Gonzalez said.
Though her parents didn’t have college degrees, they wanted her to earn one. Through a collaborative model, Gonzalez helps first-generation college students and encourages interaction, relationships and support.