Five Questions: ETSU student talks about first generation student challenges

Brianna McMillan (Contributed photo)

Brianna McMillan says being a first-generation college student at East Tennessee State University often feels like being pulled between two worlds.

Luckily, students like McMillan receive help navigating college through Federal TRIO programs like ETSU’s Ronald McNair Program, an eligibility-based graduate school preparation program that assists “disadvantaged and underrepresented students.”

McMillan said the program, administered through ETSU’s Student Support Services, is a big part of why she’s set to graduate in May.

The Press caught up with McMillan ahead of First-Generation College Student Celebration Day on Nov. 8 to ask her about what it’s like being a first-generation college student, starting with some fast facts about herself.

Fast Facts:

Field of study: Major in sociology, minor in political science

Hometown: Kingsport

Age: 21

Hobbies: “When I have time, I like to go outdoors. I like to go hiking, I love concerts.”

Dogs or cats: “If I had to pick, I’d probably pick a cat because they do their own thing.”What got you interested in sociology and political science?

“I guess a lot of it has to do with growing up poor and seeing how opportunities are different for everybody in this world, and especially in this country. I started out as a social work major, and I did that as a goal to help people. Then I realized you can’t really help people in a broken system, so I wanted to study the systems more.”

What challenges come with being a first-generation student?

“When you become a first-generation college student, there’s kind of a duality that you have to deal with. People at school can understand your school-related stress; professors can definitely understand that. Your classmates can understand why you’re stressed about school and stuff like that, but they don’t understand family issues that you might have to deal with.

“With first-generation students growing up in poverty, most of the time there’s going to be some sort of childhood trauma you’ve had to deal with ... things that a lot of people in college don’t have to deal with unless they’re first-generation or poor too, but a lot of people in college are not. I think that’s the main challenge — being part of two very vastly different demographics.”

Who has been most supportive of you in your personal life?

“I would say the most supportive person would be my sister. … Other than that, I have a big support group of people through McNair because they were all first-generation college students as well.

“We have to hold each other up because nobody else really understands the things we have to deal with.”

How has the M c Nair program supported you as a student?

“You get access to free tutoring, free counseling and financial literacy workshops and grad school workshops — things that you’d otherwise not be getting.”

What are your plans after graduation?

“I do plan on going to grad school, and I will say that the McNair program through TRIO has been one of the things that have pushed me into grad school and got me prepared for it.

“I probably want to work for a non-profit in some capacity. I’m not sure what position I would want, but I just want to work in a setting where I am fostering growth in the community and addressing social problems in the community without it just being a one-on-one thing.”