Photo Credit: Clinton Global Initiative
Oct 06
October 6, 2014

They’re First: A New Generation Defies the Odds with College Degrees


For many of the college students navigating their first semester this fall, pursuing a degree is considered a rite of passage.

But not everyone on campus enjoys the benefit of a blueprint. For 5.1 million college students in the United States, higher education isn’t a hallowed traditionit's a brave new world.

An estimated 30 percent of America's 17 million college students represent the first generation in their families to study beyond high school. Unfortunately, being first can be brutal: with less guidance and less income, first-generation students have a drop-out rate four times higher than the rate for peers with college-educated parents. 

At the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U), we believe every young person has the potential to impact the world for the better. It's a sentiment shared by I’m First, an online community that offers support and guidance to first-generation college students and publishes videos such as this one featuring First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama.

During the CGI U 2014 meeting at Arizona State University, I’m First sat down with a group of CGI U participants and recorded their stories about navigating the world as first-generation college students. Read on to learn more about their inspiring journeys, and click here for more information on attending the eighth annual meeting of CGI University, which President Clinton and Chelsea Clinton will host at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida from March 6-8, 2015.                                              

Thaddeus Talbot, Cornell University

“My mother immigrated to the United States to escape the political turmoil in Panama….when she got here there were few opportunities and so our family moved into a shelter. At that time, I realized a good education was a solid foundation to really be successful in life."

I'm First: Thaddeus in Ithaca, NY

In 2014, Thaddeus Talbot committed to develop Scholars Working Ambitiously to Graduate (SWAG), a peer-mentoring program that combats low retention and graduation rates among African American men at Cornell University. SWAG is the recipient of a National Pepsi Grant award. The program inspired Cornell to launch an African American Research Task Force to study benchmarks on successful retention strategies. After college, Thaddeus aims to center his career on helping disenfranchised families in New York City, and hopes to one day become a Supreme Court Justice.

Amber Smith, Wesleyan University

“And for everyone else out there—all the kids who don’t know if they can do it—please believe that you can. You just have to stay with your hopes and dreams, keep your values, and never forget where you come from. You always have to pay it forward.”

I'm First: Amber in Middletown, CT

Amber Smith is a recent graduate of Wesleyan University, where she earned a degree in African Studies. Shortly after she was born, she underwent an upper extremity amputation of her left forearm. Her commitment, I Amputee, launched in 2013 as an online community for amputees and their families that establishes relationships grounded on support and common experience. In 2014, Amber committed to develop “I Amputee” into an internet trading and support system where amputees pair together to purchase clothing while splitting costs. Amber is the recipient of the Ella T. Grasso Leadership in Action Grant from the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.

Cristian De Leon, University of California, Berkeley

“A lot of the struggle we had to overcome was the fear of them [my parents] being deported…the fear of losing them.”

I'm First: Cristian in Berkeley, CA

Cristian De Leon is a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. In 2014, he committed to expand ¡Adelante!, an organization that develops youth empowerment centers in Mexico. ¡Adelante! focuses on supporting at-risk, low-income youth in Mexico through mentorship from Mexican American graduates of UC Berkeley, who encourage them to finish high school and go to college. Currently, Cristian is working on gaining his math teaching credential, teaching Pre-Calculus at Aspire California College Preparatory Academy. He also serves as a program assistant for Oakland Leaf Foundation, which offers community services and free school-based programs to provide disadvantaged students and families with access to the necessary tools to excel in school.

Amran Ahmed, Arizona State University

“I look up to my mom. She’s just an inspiration. Growing up I watched her work odd jobs, coming home at three in the morning, five in the morning just to support us; to make sure we had food on the table every night. So she is the one who inspires me to make a life—a better life for myself—to be educated—to set a standard for myself that’s higher than I can imagine.”

I'm First: Amran in Tempe, AZ

Amran Ahmed was born in Nairobi, Kenya, where her parents moved to escape from the Somali Civil War. In 2014, Amran committed to launch Escape through Laughter, a youth community organization in Kismaayo, Somalia that combats tribalism, violence, and prejudice through community engagement, knowledge, and empowerment. She is currently a junior at Arizona State University majoring in Global Health, where her goal is to contribute to the development of the Somali healthcare system.

Undergraduate and graduate students from all backgrounds can apply to attend CGI U 2015, where young people from around the world will gather March 6-8 at the University of Miami to address some of the most pressing social, economic, and environmental concerns of the Millennial generation. The early decision deadline is October 17; the final deadline is December 1. Apply now.