Living My Legacy: First-Generation College Student

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Friday, May 27th is #ProofPointDay when we celebrate first-generation college students and graduates. We admire your resiliency, commitment, and diligence! San José State University Leadership Coach Bree von Faith shares her experiences and lessons learned as a first-generation college graduate and how she has applied them to her career. 

By Bree von Faith, San José State University graduate, SJSU Braven Leadership Coach, Senior Marketing Manager at VolunteerMatch


There is something I have to admit. I am not a first-generation college student. My mom graduated two days before me.

Bree and family at graduationFlashback to Fall 2002. I was researching colleges as the first in my family to attend a four-year university. The process was dizzying: Was I applying for undergraduate or graduate school? What’s the difference between a commuter or resident school? Do I need loans, grants, or scholarships?

Not knowing the answers to these questions was embarrassing then and is embarrassing to admit now. To make the process worse, I was one of only a few students in my high school honors classes who didn’t get automatic admissions to the local university.

But, I was taught to not let labels define who you are or simplify your experience into preconceived notions, so I hid this label (and thus, the experience) until recently.

In reflecting on my university experience as a first-generation student, there are lessons I learned that have benefitted or defined me throughout my professional journey thus far.

Key to Success #1: Own who you are and where you want to go.

In college, there were so many ways I wanted to leave a legacy and yet, so many things I hid (the challenges of being an overachiever).

  • Don’t let others know that you are first-generation ⁠— check.
  • Get involved in leadership on-campus ⁠— check.
  • Don’t let others see how much you’re are struggling financially in comparison to them ⁠— check.
  • Get crowned Homecoming Queen ⁠— check.
  • Don’t let others think you are an imposter even though you feel like one most days ⁠— check.
  • Graduate with honors ⁠— check.
  • Don’t defend yourself and let others define you ⁠— check.

By beginning to learn how to own who I am and where I want to go, I was able to navigate my college journey by changing my major, trying out career paths through internships, and creating the person I wanted to become. While college began this journey for me, it would be several years after graduation that I would fully own who I am. These lessons have continued to guide my professional journey as I’ve found and worked for organizations aligned with my values such as Girl Scouts and VolunteerMatch.

Key to Success #2: Take calculated risks and find ways that you can combine talent, passion, and grit.

I graduated college with a job directly related to my major — a huge success for any college grad. Within six months I left that job for one that better aligned with my values, skills, and passion. Having joined several membership organizations and a sorority during college, I knew that I loved recruiting new members. Now, I could get paid for it. Leveraging the grit and talent I had fostered within myself, I recruited girls and volunteers to join Girl Scouts nearly doubling membership in one of my communities. I discovered that taking calculated risks within college and post-college helped me find ways to combine my talents and passions.

Key to Success #3: Know that no matter what you do, others will be looking to you for guidance or inspiration.

Bree and her sisterWhat I didn’t know then is that my biggest legacy would be the path I helped shape for my mom and sister to attend and graduate from college. The best part: the conversations we had about choosing their major and what classes to take. While this seems small, these were some of the biggest challenges I faced when I first started undergrad. Paving the path, showing how they could succeed, and being open about my experience enabled my family to pursue higher education.

I hope that first-generation college students and Braven Fellows find the strength, courage, grit, and grace it takes to graduate from college and begin a new path for not only their future but also the future of others.