Of Illinois State University’s 18,000 students, more than 3,000 students – 17% – are the first in their family to attend college.
Three first-generation students — Ash Ebihoomi, Christian Arcea, and Makaya Watson — share their stories about college.
Ash Ebihumi Jr. is a political scientist born in Nigeria and currently residing in Darien. At Illinois State, he is a trustee of the student board of trustees, director of the Alternative Breaks program, an honors teacher, and works in university housing services and student affairs.
“ISU gives you the opportunity to grow and soar,” Ebihumi said.
Ebihumi chose to study at Illinois State based on the “friendly environment” and “family feeling” he experienced while visiting the campus.
As a first-generation college student, Ebihumi said, “It’s like you’re discovering a whole new world.”
Ebihumi said he can always go to his mom and ask her questions, but she hasn’t experienced the whole college process. “It’s very interesting and very exciting because I was the first pioneer,” Ebikhumi said. “I get to blaze that trail, get all that experience and pass it on.”
Ebihumi credits Illinois State with providing him with the resources to help him succeed, such as career services, student counseling and student health services.
“ISU has created opportunities for growth,” Ebihumi said. “Dean of Student Services has a LEAD program where I met some of my first friends on campus doing a leadership initiative, meeting more people, being active and learning to be a leader on campus.”
As an active student and someone who maintained a 4.0 GPA, Ebihumi said finding a balance between academics, involvement and social life in college was not easy. He said there was a lot of freedom and he had to learn to “create personal responsibility” for himself.
As a first-generation college student-to-be, Ebihumi said, “College is scary at first, but look at it as an opportunity to grow as a person, as well as a leader and a person.”
Cristian Arceo is a senior majoring in criminal justice and political science. A native of Berwyn, Arceo interned twice in Washington, D.C., in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. At Illinois State, he serves as the membership and recruitment chair for the First Gen Redbirds, a Registered Student Organization (RSO).
“My time on campus has been better than I could have imagined,” Arceo said.
As a freshman, Arceo said it was difficult for him to be in a new environment where he didn’t know many people. Still, he said the campus feels welcoming and he’s happy to be a part of the Illinois community.
In addition to his work with the First Gen Redbirds, Arceo is involved with the Latino Student Association, the Mentoring, Academics, Scholarship, and Achievement Initiative, University Housing Services, and he volunteers with Habitat for Humanity.
“The best thing ISU did for me was make me aware of all the resources I could turn to,” Arceo said. He noted student counseling services and organizations such as First Gen Redbirds and TRIO Student Support Services.
Arceo said he had his share of problems in college. “For me, as a first-generation college student, I didn’t have anyone in my family that I could turn to with questions about college,” Arceo said. “I sort of had to figure it out on my own. But I think it really helps in building character and resilience, which is important for success in life.”
Speaking to current and future first-generation Redbirds, Arceo said, “Believe in yourself and find the right resources that ISU has and let them point you in the right direction, because they definitely will.”
Makia Watson ’22
Makia Watson ’22 is a first-generation graduate who received a Bachelor of Science degree in Human Development and Family Science last May and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in the same program. Originally from Chicago, Watson immersed herself in the Bloomington-Normal community. She works as a graduate assistant at TRIO Student Support Services and is the host and producer of the First Generation Triumph podcast.
Watson said she was inspired to create the podcast to create a platform for first-generation students to share their stories.
“What it means to be a first-generation college student and what that looks like is not really talked about,” Watson said. “Having a podcast and being able to do it allows me to help people see that glory; that triumph; this victory is in their stories.”
Reflecting on her own experience as a first-generation college student, Watson said, “Being a first-generation college student means being first in a thousand ways. It means being a pioneer in your family and walking with faith and hope. It’s breaking through something unknown, and with that comes a lot of characteristics and skill sets that you didn’t even think you had.”
At Illinois State, Watson said she is supported by the university’s many resources and connections in the admissions office and TRIO student support services.
In addition to her graduate school internship and the Triumph First Generation Podcast, Watson recently participated in the Make it Matter program through the College of Applied Science and Technology’s CAST Connections, which included a 2022 service project for the YWCA’s sexual assault program. Last year, Watson became the first student to receive a Diversity, Equity, Belonging and Inclusion (DEBI) award. She also received the Future Alumni Leader Award 2022, which is awarded to one student at the university.
While Watson is proud of her accomplishments, she said her journey has included some challenges along the way. “As a first-generation college student, I would say it’s difficult to pave a road when you don’t have a sidewalk in front of you,” Watson said. “How do you know where to go?”
Watson managed to create his own path. She said: “Being a first generation student is great. It’s powerful. It’s a learning experience, but it’s definitely an opportunity for student development that a lot of first-generation students aren’t aware of or don’t know about.”
As a TRIO Student Support Services graduate assistant, Watson has attended several First Generation Fridays, a TRIO-sponsored event that provides an open forum learning community and “empowerment zone” for first-generation students, professionals and advocates. Activities focus on building unity and closing gaps in knowledge, opportunity and access.
First Generation Fridays are the first Friday of the month. Upcoming First Generation Fridays will be held on Friday, November 4th and Friday, December 2nd from 11:30am to 1:00pm in Escalante Hall at Hewett-Manchester.