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Faculty member shares advice, experiences as first-gen student

Dr. Kayla Johnson standing in front of pyramid in Egypt
Dr. Kayla Johnson in Egypt

From being in the classroom to leading the classroom — first-generation students and graduates are an integral part of the University of Kentucky.

In fact, nearly one in four incoming freshmen and one in three transfer students at UK are first-gen.

Each year, Nov. 8 is dedicated to recognizing and celebrating those who represent the first generation in their family to attend college.

Dr. Kayla Johnson, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation, shared more about her experience as a first-gen student with UKNow. Johnson is Director of Graduate Global Learning Initiatives in the College of Education. She is also co-founder of Centro Educativo Pallata Ayllu, a non-profit education NGO that facilitates culturally grounded education for Indigenous communities in the Peruvian Andes.

Tell us about yourself:
My name is Kayla Johnson and I graduated in May 2012 from Marshall University as a triple major with BAs in English, French, and Secondary Education. I am originally from Gallipolis, in the Appalachian foothills region of Ohio.

What does being first-gen mean to you?
What being first-gen means to me has evolved with time. As an incoming college student, being first-gen meant that I did not know what I did not know. I did not know how to choose a college or a major, and I relied on the only examples of college-educated people in my life—my teachers. I also did not know what challenges I would face or the solutions I would need to seek out. I didn’t know what questions to ask, who I should ask, or where to go to find those people. Like many first-gen students, I also came from a low-income family, which added to these challenges. I felt very Taylor Swift: “You’re on your own, kid.”

photo of adult and child walking near mountains in Peru
Dr. Kayla Johnson in Peru

During college, being first-gen felt confusing to me. I learned that I was this thing called “first-gen” during my first-year seminar course. At the time, it felt like a label with little meaning. However, as the semesters ticked away, I began to experience issues that my peers didn’t. I began to realize how the opportunities available to other students were not always accessible for me. As a French major, my professors were strongly encouraging me to study abroad, but as a poor kid who had never been on a plane, this felt impossible. If not for the advocacy of one faculty member—a fellow first-gen student from Appalachia–I would have never had that opportunity, and certainly wouldn’t be a professor of International Higher Education today. This was the first time I realized that I wasn’t completely on my own.

Now, as a faculty member, I proudly share my first-gen status with my own graduate students—many of whom are first-gen students as well—so they can see themselves in our program. I leverage what I learned about the barriers I faced as a first-gen student in order to build the best support structure I can for my students. I follow the example of my own incredible faculty advisors and empower my students to explore and achieve their own goals.

What advice would you give to fellow first-gen students?
Being first-gen is a superpower. It’s hard work, no doubt. We face battles that others don’t face, but we also have abilities that others don’t face, too.  People might only see this one identity, but we are so many things all at once. Our journeys to and through higher education might be more challenging than others, but we have so many sources of strength we can draw from. And finally, much like the Avengers or the Justice League, we are also stronger together. So, find your people. Lean on your team of fellow superheroes. And embody your first-gen identity—and all the others that make you you—with pride.