Celebrating the achievements of students at the Universities at Shady Grove (USG) is always a high priority, but the annual “First Generation Celebration” of those who are first in their families to go to college is a particularly special event for the campus community. This year’s event took place on Tuesday, Nov. 9 in a hybrid format, with some participating in person and others via Zoom. 

Dr. Anne Khademian, USG Executive Director, kicked off the celebration by honoring “the hard work and perseverance of students who are paving their own path into the world of higher education and making their families so proud in doing so.” 

The event also featured a special guest speaker, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen who congratulated the students for advancing their personal and career goals through higher education. He said, “I am encouraged by the work that’s being done at USG” to so successfully serve first-generation college students. Van Hollen made special note of the Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success (ACES) program at USG, in partnership with Montgomery County Public Schools and Montgomery College. The program provides students with support and a seamless transition to progress from high school to the community college and, ultimately, to one of the partner universities at USG to earn a bachelor’s degree. 

Serving as emcee for the event was Jonell Mahone, a 2019 graduate from the University of Maryland, College Park at USG, who served as the 2018-19 USG Student Council President. Growing up, he mentioned that he saw many challenges that students would face, and “where there isn't direction, sometimes there's a lack of purpose and drive.”

As a high school student, Malone said he was given the opportunity to join the ACES program and that with the program’s help, he was able to make it through high school and college, including his time pursuing his bachelor’s degree in the UMD Communication program at USG. Speaking from experience, he encouraged attendees to connect with others, as “they can be lifetime connections.”

Leading the activities section of the event was Freidricka Camille, career coach in the ACES program. She led a virtual questionnaire, where participants answered questions about first generation students and the struggles they may face. She also spoke about the challenges she faced, personally, having immigrated with her mother to the U.S. from the Philippines, when she was in middle school. She said she came to the United States with the “promise of the American Dream”.

Among the panelists at the event was Annie Foster Ahmed, Director of the Macklin Center for Academic Success at USG, who told the audience about her coming to the U.S. at a young age, after growing up in poverty, in Guatemala. She said she wanted to go to college as “a way out,” in order to help her family. When seeking help in high school about going to college, she recalled her guidance counselor saying: “No, you need to go work. Your family can’t afford it.” 

Having spoken to her family, her mother said she would support her. She spent time in the high school library looking at books and seeking majors in which she would earn enough money. She was fortunate to have met the learning center director who helped walk her through the college application process. Ahmed said, “She gave me an opportunity.” To this day, Ahmed said she goes back to her alma mater, Daemen College, to help other students, in addition to all of the students she is able to help at USG. 

Emily Samuels, an alumna from the University of Maryland, College Park at USG, said her parents were the one’s encouraging her to attend college. They told her “to go past the point we have been able to reach and go further.” As an ACES student, she was told to apply to as many scholarships as she could. The ACES program pushed her and enabled her to see firsthand how supportive the career coaches are to students. Having found an internship with their help, she was able to set the “foundation for [her] resume”, where she is now working at Walter Reed Medical Center. 

Lastly, panelist Yalonda Yar, an alumna from the University of Maryland, College Park at USG, spoke on her experience as a returning student. She mentioned that when she was working at a law firm, a co-worker at the time told her she could take paralegal classes at Montgomery College. She said that “put the sparks back in [her]”. She was also able to attend classes, thanks to her mother and sister, who would watch her children while she was in class. When she had to attend classes during the day, her employer allowed her to take two hours off, so that she could be able to attend classes.

With the many opportunities and resources available, Yar mentioned that her biggest supporters were the scholarship donors. Whenever she received a letter congratulating her, it “kept enforcing ‘I can believe in myself’.” 

The event not only covered the struggles many first generation students face when attending college, but the opportunities it has opened up for them. At USG, there are many programs and resources available to help students in their path to earning their bachelors or graduate degrees.

Photos from the event can be found here on USG's Flickr page.