Students find second home at UNK thanks to First Gen Lopers

Small-town life was comfortable for Courtney Swisher and Brittany Chavez.

Swisher graduated from a class of just six students in Halsey, Nebraska. Chavez grew up in Imperial, Nebraska — a town of about 2,000 people. Both Swisher and Chavez love their hometowns more than anything. In some ways, these communities provided the pair with unique skills as they prepared to take the next step in their life as first-generation students at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

“I feel like I grew up being in a position of leadership because there weren’t very many people who could step up to the plate,” Swisher, now a sophomore at UNK, said. “I think I incorporated a lot of that when I came to college.”

The support of their friends, family and community was critical to Swisher and Chavez. However, both grappled with the uncertainty that came with uprooting themselves from their communities to pursue a college education.

“It was a big moment of doubt,” Swisher said. “Am I where I should be? Am I going to be prepared enough for this? Sometimes it’s hard to know, as a first-generation student, what opportunities you should take advantage of.”

Swisher and Chavez arrived on campus as freshmen looking to blaze their own trails as first-generation students. Swisher hoped to follow in the footsteps of her older sister, who graduated from UNK a decade prior. Chavez strived to become the first woman in her family to earn a college degree.

Thanks to the First Gen Lopers program, the pair found each other and, more importantly, a community that helped make UNK feel like a second home.

“I started going to some of the events held by First Gen Lopers and realized that I wasn’t the only one still trying to figure things out,” Chavez, a sophomore at UNK, said. “It felt really nice to have others around me that I could reach out to for support.”

Even more, Chavez said getting involved with First Gen Lopers as a freshman helped her become more active on campus.

“Nobody wants to be stuck in their dorm all day because you don’t know what’s going on around campus,” she said. “So those events helped me a lot.”

Swisher agreed. Opportunities to attend workshops that built healthy studying habits and learning techniques benefited her in the classroom. Other events, like the chance to experience the climbing wall at UNK’s Wellness Center with fellow first-generation students, helped her find a family.

“I initially went to those just knowing I could get skills that would help improve myself and help improve my college experience, but at the same time I made so many friends because of it,” Swisher said.

That includes the friendship between Swisher and Chavez. The pair met through First Gen Lopers and now serve as the vice president and president on the organization’s leadership team. As they begin their sophomore year at UNK, they’re working even harder to help even more first-generation students find their home at UNK.

That work began over the summer when First Gen Lopers held the First-Gen Trailblazer Academy. The week-long event in August brought in nearly two dozen incoming first-generation students and provided them with class preparation and study strategies, individual advising and the chance to familiarize themselves with campus and its resources before the start of the fall semester.

“It was a good chance ­­­­­­for them to get to know that they weren’t alone and that there were other people, lots of people, coming in that were just like them,” Swisher said. “It was a great opportunity for everyone to connect.”

Chavez said she hopes to see the program continue to grow. One way she wants to do that is by establishing a scholarship for incoming first-generation students. In doing so, she hopes to help ease the financial barrier potential students may face when choosing whether to attend college.

“A lot of students that I have talked to have said the biggest concern when they were coming to college was money,” Chavez said. “They were scared that they weren’t going to be able to afford it. I want this scholarship to help someone who is struggling financially so they don’t just give up on college because of a lack of money.”

These opportunities wouldn’t be possible without the support from donors who play a critical role in raising funds for programs such as First Gen Lopers. That commitment already has made a positive impact on the students who participate in First Gen Lopers, Swisher said.

“I just want to give a very big thank you, because you have done something that has definitely changed somebody’s life in unexpected ways,” she said. “Our goal is to help people and by giving us this resource, you’re helping us do that.”

You can support First Gen Lopers and countless other programs and student organizations during One Day for UNK on Oct. 5-6. This 24-hour giving day provides anybody from longtime supporters to recent graduates with an opportunity to positively impact the University of Nebraska at Kearney and its students.

During One Day for UNK, you will have the chance to make an impactful gift that benefits a variety of different areas on campus, including:

  • UNK’s three colleges; 
  • scholarships;
  • Loper Athletics;
  • student organizations; and
  • vital programs.

Visit today to make your gift and help us make this year’s One Day for UNK our biggest, most impactful year yet. 

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