TJC salutes first-generation college students

On Tuesday, Nov. 8, Tyler Junior College will join higher education institutions across the nation in observing the 6th Annual First-Generation College Celebration Day.

First-Gen Day encourages campus communities to better understand the systemic barriers plaguing higher education and the supports necessary for first-generation students to be successful.

The first national First-Generation College Celebration Day occurred in 2017 when the nonprofit Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) encouraged institutions nationwide on or around Nov. 8 to celebrate first-generation college students or graduates. 

“First-generation students have repeatedly demonstrated that supporting and encouraging promising students, often low-income, whose parents never went to college, is one of the great investments our country can make,” said COE President Maureen Hoyler. “Their success stories are worth celebrating.” 

COE selected Nov. 8 to honor the anniversary of the signing of the Higher Education Act of 1965. This landmark legislation emerged as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. It ushered in programs, particularly the Federal TRIO programs, necessary for postsecondary access, retention, and completion for low-income, potential first-generation college graduates.

Tuesday’s event on the TJC central campus will include an information resource fair, free T-shirts and gift cards as well as a drawing for a $250 scholarship to an eligible first-gen student.

Many of TJC’s faculty, staff and administrators were first-generation college students themselves, so they understand how earning a higher ed degree can seem insurmountable.

Signs bearing inspirational quotes from many of those employees will be displayed across the TJC central campus.

Some reveal personal, real-world struggles they overcame by attending college.

“My biggest victory was graduating with a 4.0 and my mom telling me her prayers had been answered,” wrote Tim Bell, TJC education professor.

Danielle Pritchard, TJC biology professor, said, “Seeing my mother struggle to find decent jobs without a degree motivated me greatly.” 

Others offer encouragement for current students.

Rebecca Hollen, TJC art professor, said, “Do not give up on your dreams, even if they seem unachievable.”

“Never stop learning, exploring and staying positive,” said Aziel Espinoza, TJC TRIO alumnus and tutor.

Current first-generation TJC student Vanessa Treviño is taking those words to heart.

Treviño, a sophomore government major from Dallas, was introduced to TJC by her debate coach at North Mesquite High School.

Trevino 2

Vanessa Trevino

“I wasn’t sure at all where I was going after high school,” she said. “I had been competitive on my debate team, and my coach, Mrs. Naomi Bell, told me that I wouldn’t get any better instruction than at TJC, under M’Liss Hindman and Joan Andrews. She was right. Also, the scholarship money was there and it all came together.”

Treviño earned a speech and debate scholarship. She is also the recipient of the Dr. Sam Houston Legacy Scholarship and the Dr. Jean Speller Browne Endowed Scholarship.

“I was really thankful for it, too, because the way I grew up, my family and I moved back and forth between south and east Dallas,” she said. “I spent a couple of years in Oak Cliff and a couple of years in Pleasant Grove. We moved all the time and were in Section 8 apartments, on food stamps, almost every Social Security program you could think of.”

It wasn’t smooth sailing at the beginning, but Treviño eventually found her footing at TJC.

“I started about three weeks late in my freshman fall semester because right after my high school graduation, my sister, my grandparents and I all got COVID,” she said. 

It took all summer and into the fall for her recover, plus her grandfather went into a coma and her grandmother was still recovering from the illness. In addition to starting college three weeks late and being in all new surroundings, there was the added stress of knowing her grandparents were still sick while she was away from home.

“I struggled a lot in that first semester and thought about packing up and going home; but the people who didn’t let me go home were Ms. Amber (James) and Ms. Rosa (Hopkins) from TRIO and my debate coaches, who would call and check in on me,” she said. 

She came very close to quitting.

“I had dropped a class and was getting ready to drop the rest and just go home, but they told me, ‘No, you are not going to go home. You are brilliant, you are strong, you are meant to be here, and we are going to figure this out.’ And they did. They helped me figure out food and finances,” she said.

Treviño eventually began to thrive and get involved on campus. She joined TRIO; became a co-captain of TJC’s the speech and debate team, Phi Rho Pi — and was the only member of the team to earn gold at last year’s national tournament; serves as a TJC Ambassador; is executive president of the Hispanic Student Organization; served as a Student Senate officer last year and is a senator this year; and is a member of the Baha’i Club, a campus group based on faith and unity.

She is also active in the Alpha Omicron Chapter of Phi Theta Kappa and the Presidential Honors Program, and she is working on a research project as an intern in the TJC Government and Economics department.

She’s currently pondering her next move after she graduates from TJC in May.

Since winning gold at speech and debate nationals last year, a few universities expressed interest, including Southern Methodist University and Texas State University.

“I’m leaning toward SMU because my grandfather very much wants me to come home to Dallas,” she said. “It would also be a full-circle moment because my great-great-grandmother, whose name was Trinity Castillo, who came to Dallas in the 1930s and cleaned houses for a living, worked her way up to being a cleaning lady/janitor at SMU in the 1970s and ’80s. My grandmother said, ‘Imagine, she came here with no connections and no resources, and she worked there — and wouldn’t it be such a story for you to go there now?’ I think that would be a really interesting thing to do because it would be a ‘fulfilling of your ancestors’ dream come true’ type of thing.”

Eventually, Treviño plans to go to law school.

“I want to be a lawyer to help people because not only is it something I would feel good doing, I would also love to save anyone I could,” she said. “That would be the dream: to do what I can in what little time that God gives me to make it better. Because that’s all you can do.”

Wherever she goes, she will take her TJC experience with her.

“To be a first-generation student is to already feel behind in the game,” she said. “You already feel like there’s no way you can make it. You think, ‘I’m not smart enough. I don’t have enough money. I don’t have the connections.’ But the wonderful thing about TJC is that no matter who you are or where you come from or what you’ve been through, we can all more or less start on equal footing.”

She continued, “We have smaller classes with professors who will actually check in if you’re not around. They notice. There are people who genuinely care. I was so afraid that nobody would care, but everyone here cares so much and it’s obvious in everything we do. TJC has been a beautiful stepping stone. I’ve had a beautiful East Texas adventure — and whether I go back home or down south, I will always be grateful for everything I’ve learned here and for the people I’ve met here.”

For more information on TRIO and other programs available to assist first-generation students, go to

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