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Celebrating the first-generation experience

Dionna Williams

Dionna Williams is a newlywed, a soon-to-be mom and a first-generation student. The second oldest of six children, the Savannah resident graduated high school in 2018 and had no college plans until she realized how limited her options were.

“I did not want to work as a warehouse worker anymore,” Williams said. “I decided this was not for me.”

So last year, Williams made two big decisions. She joined the Air National Guard and enrolled at Georgia Southern University, becoming the first in her family to pursue a higher education degree. She chose Georgia Southern, she said, for its affordable tuition and academic reputation. Williams, who is expecting her first child in December, was honorably discharged from the military this fall and grants are helping her pay her college costs.

“I’m so blessed that I haven’t had to take out any loans,” said the communications studies major who grew up in a working-class family. Her mother went to high school but her father never finished. Williams recalled college was intimidating in the beginning because she didn’t have an immediate family role model to guide her through college successfully.  She relied heavily on the various resources and information that Georgia Southern provides to help first-gen students succeed, and she joined the TRIO Student Support Services program on the Armstrong Campus.

“I joined on a whim,” Williams said. “But once I went into their office, it was an instant connection; a bond that I felt with the leadership there and the staff. I was able to join because I am first-gen, which I didn’t even know at the time. They have been amazing with guiding me through this process, and working with me and giving me options.”

Williams, a strong student with a 3.78 GPA, said Georgia Southern has provided her with a solid support system that has helped her succeed academically, even through the pandemic.

“Oh, it definitely impacted and turned my whole life upside down because I’m not the type of person to sit in front of a laptop,” she said. “It has taught me discipline. Even though the pandemic happened, school did not stop. We had to have assignments done. I have become a lot more disciplined because of it.”

The first-gen student also relies on her husband, Carlos, for support when she is feeling stressed out. 

“My biggest worry is that I stop believing in myself because sometimes it gets a little stressful,” she said. “I get to the point where I’m like, OK, can I really do this while being a wife and a mom? But my husband has been my rock and he is not letting me give up on myself because he knows that this is what I really, really want.”

The sophomore is looking forward to completing her degree so that she can help others. Her original career goal was to become a broadcaster in local news, but now that she is working as a radio intern, Williams thinks a human resources management position in the radio industry will allow her to serve others by overseeing community service projects.

First-Generation College Celebration

Georgia Southern University is joining colleges across the country this week to celebrate the success of first-generation students. First-gen students are the first in their family to earn a college degree. In 2017, the Council for Opportunity in Education and the Center for First-Generation Student Success launched the National First-Generation College Celebration, which is held on Nov. 8. That date marks the 55th anniversary of the signing of the Higher Education Act, which strengthened access to postsecondary education for first-generation and low-income students. Georgia Southern is hosting an entire week of events from Nov. 2 through Nov. 8. All members of the Georgia Southern community are welcome to participate in the activities that honors first-generation college students, faculty and staff.


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