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Twelve Donuts, Six Grissom Scholars, & One Conversation: The Impact of Teachers on the Lives of First-Generation College Students

To celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week, the Student Voice Team asked students which teachers made the biggest difference in their life. This post was written last year for the Forum.

From left to right: Chase Cavanaugh, Digna Rosales Cruz, Mariama Minteh, Emmely Ovalle, Leah Kelly, & Drew Meaux

By Laney Taylor
The beginning of the end is near at Centre College. Between papers, presentations, poetry readings, and preparation for finals (not necessarily in that order), students already have plenty on their plate. Despite this, six students agreed to take an hour out of their Friday to share their stories. I brought some pre-planned questions, donuts, and a legal pad to the meeting; I left with a stomach sore from laughing and a joy that’s often lost in the basement of the library.
These six students are members of the Grissom Scholars Program at Centre. Each year, ten outstanding first-generation college students are competitively chosen to receive a full-tuition scholarship and additional resources. Additionally, students receive frequent mentorship to guide them towards success in their four years on campus and beyond.
This roundtable seemed particularly fitting for our series because a common theme arose from our conversations: the gratitude for the role models, professors, and teachers in their life.


Chase Cavanaugh is a first-year Grissom scholar planning on majoring in math. Outside of being a Grissom scholar, he is also a member of the men’s basketball team, and a member of Phi Kappa Tau fraternity.

Digna Rosales Cruz is first-year Grissom Scholar planning on majoring in Anthropology/Sociology with a minor in Latin American Studies. On campus she is the Secretary for the Latin American Student Association (LASO) as well as a first-year interviewer for the Humans of Centre College.

Leah Kelly is a sophomore Grissom scholar majoring in International Studies and minoring in Global Commerce. She is a member of Diversity Student Union, Sister-to-Sister, and a tutor for the After School Program.

Drew Meaux is a first- year Grissom Scholar planning on double majoring in Computer Science and Math. Outside of the classroom, Drew is a member Archery Club, CentreFirsts, and the Centre Admirals Mentoring Program.

Mariama Minteh is a sophomore Grissom Scholar majoring in Anthropology and Sociology. When she’s not studying in the library, Mariama is a Resident Assistant and a tutor for the After School Program.

Emmely Ovalle is a sophomore Grissom Scholar majoring in Behavioral Neuroscience. On campus, she is a Resident Assistant (RA) and newly appointed to be a Resident Director for the upcoming academic year. She is also the treasurer of CentreFirsts which is an up and coming club on campus meant to serve as a beneficial community for FirstGen students on campus.

In a word, what is like to be a first generation student at Centre?

Leah: I think appreciative. Specifically being a Grissom, I do feel like I have support. I feel like I’ve gotten that from faculty and staff outside of Grissom as well.

Mariama: Community. Being first generation, it’s not something that’s plastered on your face… so knowing someone else who’s first gen. is something I really appreciate.

Digna: I’m gonna say pioneer simply because I feel like we’re paving the way for either our younger siblings and our children if we choose to have them.

Emmely: I was gonna say challenging but in the sense that… I like challenge myself to break the mold or the stigmas that may be associated with being a first generation student, so it motivates me to do my best.

Drew: I would say adaptive because you have to be able to adapt to the new situations since it’s a new place for all of us, and you just have to be able to go with the flow sometimes and take the challenges as they come.

Who is your favorite teacher and why?

Leah: I’m really bad at picking my favorite professor or teacher ever, but definitely right now I’m taking a class with Dr. Axtell and it’s the hardest class I’ve taken, but it’s a freakin’ 110 level class, but he’s really good and you can tell he is a good person and that he actually cares and he wants you to become a better student and he’s very cognisant in the fact of just because you’re at Centre everybody comes from different backgrounds. He actively engages the differences within individuals to enrich the class conversations.

Emmely: My favorite teacher was my 7th grade teacher. She was my favorite because she was the director of the AVID program in my middle school. It was an interview process to get into, and I was constantly missing the interviews because I was late or I’d forget about it, but she continually gave me a chance again and again and again and again. When I finally got to the interview, I was like, “Why did you give me so many chances?” and she said, “Because I see potential in you to go to college, and I know that your parents haven’t, so I want to make sure I’m able to help you with that.” So she was the first person to believe in me going to college after high school, and that was the first time that I believed in myself as well.

Chase: I would say my favorite teacher was my eighth grade Spanish teacher because eighth grade was a pretty tough year for me, and she was always there. She knew everything about my life and talked to my parents constantly. She was really good at telling when I was having a bad day. She was really my second mom. I haven’t talked to her in awhile — I need to text her, or call her, or email her or something.

Digna: I think it also made teachers special when they cared for you outside of the academic realm, when they cared about you in your personal life.

Mariama: My 12th grade AP Lit Teacher. She was really helpful. She would sometimes drive me home after school if I had to stay after for something. She would ask about life at school and things like that, trying to connect those things. She was also really helpful when it came to college. She was one of the ones who brought us to Centre to show us around the school, and even last year or this year, if I needed a recommendation, I would shoot her an email or text her, and she would send me recommendations that I need. She has been really helpful this past year.

How have your teachers and professors assisted you in navigating the difficult terrain of being a first-generation student? At times, have they at all?

Digna: Unfortunately for me, I didn’t acknowledge that I was a first generation student because it was so normal in my community. So when I was applying for this scholarship [the Grissom scholarship], and I had to be a first generation college student, it was the first time I was recognizing why, for lack of better phrasing, [I] was having such a difficult time in the college process, and I think coming to Centre and having the support group I have made me more resourceful and made me acknowledge the additional steps I need to take to find that network.

Leah: I didn’t know until my senior year of high school when I went into her [my guidance counselor’s] office one day when she said “You have this GPA, why aren’t you taking any AP classes?” and I said “If I want to go to college, don’t I need a high GPA?” and she, who had 300 other students, said, “How did this slip through the cracks? You’re a senior.” From that point, while [my situation] was unfortunate, [I was] more cognisant to ask those questions and be more inquisitive about things. I know that I may not quite know the right way to do things.

Emmely: For me, in high school, I think the majority of help that I got was from the AVID program and then the people I hung out with. If it weren’t for the people I hung out with, I would not have known to take any AP classes in high school or wouldn’t have gone down the same path they did. So like my friends were mainly the ones who directed me, but now in college, it’s more so the professors. Because now, students here feel like we’re on the same playing field although some people do have advantages. Professors for sure nowadays are the ones helping me out.

Do you think a relationship with a teacher is more powerful for students who are first generation compared to those that are not?

Leah: Absolutely, from my experience. Last Spring, I took Intro to Econ. with Dr. Fabritius at 8:00 AM, and first thing he asked was “Who’s taken an Econ class before?” and only two people didn’t raise their hands. But he was first-gen, and I was struggling at the beginning because I had a tougher course load and I didn’t know how to study for Econ, it’s different. Literally every Tuesday and Thursday I was going to his office at seven in the morning, and not even with questions. We even talked about career paths and different things, but he connected with me. He knew that I was a Grissom and was like, “I know being a first-gen student at a school like Centre is different. I know that you as an individual probably have bigger hurdles than that, but I’m gonna help you in whatever ways I can.” And that was being there at seven in the morning, before every Tuesday and Thursday class. He did that because he cared, not because I was a first generation student, but that connection we had was beneficial for both of us.

Drew: I would say that relationship is really powerful here, specifically because at Centre, it’s easier to find that connection. Around here, if you take advantage of it, it can be a powerful thing.

How do your professors shape your experience at Centre? How do they guide you?

Emmely: We got a list from Grissom last year of all the staff and faculty that are first-gen. I noticed that one of the names on there was the advisor for pre-physical therapy, and I plan on going on that route. When I went to her office for advising in the spring, I somehow threw in there that I was Grissom, and she was like, “You’re first-gen., oh my God, me too!” and I was like, “Oh my God, you are!” (I totally knew that already.) So, I’ve built a relationship with her that’s been really beneficial for me. I’m on her radar when it comes to opportunities and applying to grad school. She took me under her wing.

Mariama: I think when professors know you’re Grissom or something, they’ll hold you accountable. They will look out for you but also hold you accountable to a high standard. First semester, I was in class with another Grissom, and [her professor] was like, “I know you!” And from that day on, I was always on time and I did my best.

Is there anything else we haven’t talked about that you want to add?

Chase: To speak on the student-teacher relationship, I have a pretty good relationship with my academic advisor Kyle Anderson, and it’s really just built off of just keeping it real and not being more than what you are. It’s not forced. We just talk. That’s how you build relationships. When we had our OL [orientation week] thing at the very beginning of the year, we went to his house and had a movie night with him, his wife, and kids. Now, we try to do it as much as we can, watch classic movies like “The Breakfast Club” and stuff. Just being normal. Acting like you’re a human being.

Mariama: Thinking about student-teacher relationships, we have a person who’s not a professor, Sarah Scott Hall. She really cares… She’ll go above and beyond to make sure you have all of the information. Having that as first-gen makes you realize it’s okay to ask questions, and it’s okay not to know something.

Leah: What I love about Sarah is that she can be whatever you need her to be. Having that, my mom didn’t know how to prepare me, so to have Mama Hall on campus to tell her, “This is happening. I don’t know what this means. I don’t know what I need” and having someone who not only listens to me, but helps me get what I need. Just anything.

Laney Taylor is a sophomore at Centre College in Danville and a graduate of Scott County High School in Georgetown.

Since 1983, the Prichard Committee has worked to study priority issues, inform the public and policy makers about best practices and engage citizens, business leaders, families, students, and other stakeholders in a shared mission to move Kentucky to the top tier of all states for education excellence and equity for all children, from their earliest years through postsecondary education.