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Black first-generation students reflect on their experiences at UNC

In the fall 2019 semester, there were 19,154 undergraduate students at the University, and of those students, about 20 percent of them were the first in their families to attend college. Only 467 of these first-generation students identified as African American. 

Some of these Black students reflected on the challenges, triumphs and pride they have experienced with this identity:

Access challenges 

For one student, the frustrations associated with being a first-generation college student started before college acceptance letters were received.

Onyinyechukwu Mazi, a first-year studying chemistry, said filling out her FAFSA presented challenges for her as not only a first-generation student, but also as a first-generation immigrant.

“I think the hardest part of all that was going through FAFSA because not only is there just a barrier of not knowing how to fill out the paperwork, but also a language barrier, so for a lot of my life I did have to translate stuff for my parents,” Mazi said.

Beginning the college journey and assimilating to the academic and professional culture without being able to ask their families for advice was the greatest frustration for some first-generation students.

Jazmine Bunch, a senior broadcast journalism student, recalled her experience of adjusting to this culture.

“I remember popping up to professional events that I didn't understand were professional, wearing jeans and a T-shirt,” Bunch said. “Simple things like that would have made all the difference, had I not been first-gen.” 

Robert Susewell, a sophomore studying computer science, said his greatest challenge came from him feeling like he hadn’t been prepared for the academic rigor.

“I would say the biggest problem was having to adapt to the course load and difficulty of classes,” Susewell said. “Since nobody I knew had been to college, I didn't really have any way to prepare for them or many resources to navigate me through classes.”

Myioshi Williams, a senior studying exercise and sports science, remembers having a hard time figuring out what classes to take during her first year.

“My mom couldn’t really talk to me about course selection, my dad couldn’t talk to me about course selection because they don’t know how that stuff works, what classes I’ll need to fulfill my major,” Williams said. “I kind of just had to figure it out on my own.”

For Emma Amaglo, a junior, her distress came from a lack of access to resources.

“Everyone knows UNC is one of the most resourceful schools; however, people don’t know about these resources,” Amaglo said. “It’s also hard to get these resources sometimes; they don’t do a good job of making these resources easily accessible to minority students, especially first-gens.”

Some of Bunch’s stresses of being a first-generation college student were alleviated once she found community through organizations like First-Generation Student Association and the Tri Alpha Honors Society, which celebrate the academic achievements of first-generation students.

“I think that it's very important that we have that community because it gave us an identity, and it also shows us that we aren't alone, because I think as a first-gen that's one of the biggest things, you feel so alone,” she said. 

Gaining a sense of pride

The students said though being a first-generation student can be challenging, it also comes with feelings of immense pride and opportunities to give their parents experiences that they never had. Williams recalled the moment that she first realized the significance of being a first-generation college student.

“I definitely had that first experience when I got accepted into Carolina," Williams said. "It was just that feeling of ‘My parents didn’t go to college and now I’m going, this is crazy.' 

"I was just super grateful because that gave them the chance to live vicariously through me and get that experience that they didn’t have.”

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When Williams went back home after the University first transitioned to remote learning, her father had that opportunity to live through her.

“I was sitting in class and my dad came in the room and he just sat on the bed and was looking at everybody just listening, and he sat there with me throughout my entire class,” she said. “That really made his day for him to just be able to sit in on a class.”

Oczaveus X, Williams' father, shared what was going through his head while attending his first college class alongside his daughter. 

“I sat in on her Chinese class and I was so excited at the fact that she was home,” X said. “My daughter left the nest for the first time when she went to boarding school, and again when she went to college, but she was actually home.”

X was fascinated by both his daughter’s ability to go to college and her journey to finish.

“Given I never went to college and then just thinking about the fact that my daughter is not only in college, but is about to graduate, is just something amazing,” he said. “I learned a lot that day, even though I didn’t know anything her professor was saying,” he added with a smile.

For Mazi, being a first-generation student means she is leading her family into new opportunities and opening doors for more possibilities.

“I think it's really cool being the first generation in my family to get a higher education and basically leading them out of poverty and leveling up, and curating generational wealth, and it's like breaking generational curses, so I do carry first-gen with a lot of pride,” she said.

Amaglo said her duty extends beyond her family to future generations of other first-generation minority students.

“I'm proud, I'm very honored, that I'm able to go through this process, and especially at UNC because again, UNC has some amazing resources and opportunities,” Amaglo said. “I’m very passionate about helping first-gen students and minority students get the resources that they need to be successful.”

Bunch carries her title of being a Black first-generation student as a badge of honor and encourages others to do the same.

“As a first-gen, especially a Black first-gen, at Carolina, I think it's really important to understand the power that your position as a first-gen holds,” she said. “That is such a feat in itself, and once you realize that your circumstance doesn't define you in a way where it’ll hinder you, but it'll push you forward, I think that just makes all the difference.”


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