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A first for the firsts: BSU celebrates first-generation students with ice cream social

Caitlin Wacker, BSU senior and first-generation college student, adds a note to a poster board at a celebration honoring first-generation college students on Thursday at BSU. Wacker’s note said “I beat my brother to a degree.” (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI—Caitlin Wacker, a senior at BSU, is on pace to be the first person in her family to earn a post-secondary degree.

She hopes to parlay that into an elementary teaching job, she said, someplace away from—and at least a little bigger than—Frazee, her hometown.

"I don't know what else I would do with my life. I've always wanted to be a teacher, and I don't have a backup plan, basically," Wacker said with a laugh in the university's Lakeside Lounge, where university administrators had organized a small shindig for first-generation college students on Thursday, which the nonprofit Council for Opportunity in Education declared to be the second-annual First-Generation College Celebration.

Wacker and other Beavers enjoyed apple crisp, ice cream and hot chocolate on a chilly November afternoon. Last year, schools across the U.S. hosted speakers about first-generation college success, formally launched mentoring programs, and more, according to council staff.

Wacker wants to finish her studies here so she can have a financially stable lifestyle—and to stick it to her two brothers, who had gone to college before her but didn't graduate. She and other students at the university's celebration attached personal notes to a board emblazoned with "proud to be first..."

Wacker's read, "I beat my brother to a degree."

But she's far from the only first-generation college student at BSU. About 40 percent of Beaver students are the first in their family to go to college, estimated Kelli Steggall, who heads the school's TRIO program. That's higher than the national average of about 33 percent indicated in a February report from the U.S. Department of Education.

TRIO doesn't offer financial support, Steggall explained, but it helps "first gen" students with their class schedules, sets them up with tutors, helps them choose a major and navigate financial aid, and more—the sort of help that family members at home might not be able to provide because they haven't been to college themselves.

"Parents don't always know the resources and how to navigate the system, and that's what we're there for," Steggall said.

Steggall herself was the first in her family to earn a college degree, but she said her parents still managed to do well for themselves.

"My parents had amazing jobs. My mom was a vice president of a bank with a high school diploma. My dad was a supervisor for a John Deere with a high school diploma," she said. "That's not happening today...The importance of education now is different than it was when our parents were going to school."

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education and health for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He is a Minneapolis native and a 2009 graduate of St. John's University. Before moving to Bemidji, Bowen covered education, local politics, crime, and everything in between for the Perham Focus in Perham, Minnesota, and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis.

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