My name is Renee Countryman, and I am a first-generation college graduate. I am also a professor in the psychology department with a focus on neuroscience. My dad was a high school dropout, and my mom only earned her high school diploma. My dad learned how to be a mechanic in the Army, and my mom made her way by working in factories by day and as a food server by night and on weekends. As a young child, my parents always told me I was going to college, but neither saved for my education or knew how to help me to navigate the system once I started. I was often lost and felt like no one would understand or care about my issues/needs as a student. Even worse, I often did not know what I needed to know to be successful in school. I even took a year off from my undergraduate program to join the Army so that I could afford to finish college. I worked full-time, and my path was not always clear, but eventually, I finished my Bachelor’s degree with a major in Psychology and a minor in Sociology.
What motivated you to attend college?
My dad. He just always told me the only way to leave the Working Class was through education.
How did your early mentors help guide you to college?
I had an Aunt who attended a technical school to be a nurse. She was the only person in my entire family who was able to discuss the importance of education with me beyond the lofty dreams of my dad. I really don’t remember her giving me any clear advice for picking a college, but her positive attitude and confidence in me meant everything.
What were your fears about going to college?
Money. As the child of working-class, divorced parents, there was a constant concern about finances. I worked full-time throughout college and even had to join the military in order to afford to stay in school.
What advice do you have for current first-generation students?
Ask questions. Get involved. My best years of college were when I finally learned the importance of these two parts of education. College is as much about social development as intellectual development. Be a part of the life of the college.
What helped you persist in difficult times?
My friends. Always.
What does being a first-generation student mean to you?
It means that I worked hard to change the story of my family tree. It also means that I didn’t know what I was doing most of the time. I am so lucky to have fallen in love with teaching so that I can help other students find their way as they navigate through college.