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Perspectives on Grit From a First-Generation College Student: Blazing Trails in Math and Computer Science

04/22/2015 02:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015

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I had the pleasure of working with Jessie Dowding at the NROC Project member meeting earlier this spring. Jessie participated on a panel of first-generation college students who shared their unique issues with a room of educators who don't typically have students "at the table" during their conferences. Their insights were illuminating.

Jessie followed up with me after the session and I asked if we could share her path and story as the first in our series on first-generation college students who persist and succeed against all odds.

What made you decide to go to college?

My birth parents were dropouts and drug addicts. After foster care, my sister and I lived with my grandparents. At age 9, I was adopted by my aunt and uncle in California. As I went through school and learned where I had come from, I realized I wanted a completely different life for myself and to get there I would need to continue my education and go to college.

What experiences in your life motivated you as a first-generation college student?

I was in 2nd grade after leaving foster care and moved in with my grandparents. I couldn't read. At night, my grandma would work with me. In class there was a special teacher, who I called Ms. T because I couldn't pronounce her name, who would help me with my writing and reading. By the time I finished 2nd grade, I had fallen in love with reading and learning, and frankly I'm going to be hooked on learning for the rest of my life.

Based on your experience, what would you say to a first-generation college student who isn't sure about the value of college?

Imagine working a minimum-wage job and doing that every day for the rest of your life. Or you could imagine your dream job. Is it traveling around the world, owning your own business, changing someone's life for the better, or something else? If you want to get a step closer to your dream job, you're going to have to put the work in and get experience in that field. The first step to doing that is going to college (even if it's a junior college) and getting involved. Nothing in life is just handed to you on a silver platter; you have to work for what you want.

Once you have your degree, what would you like to create for yourself personally and professionally?

Personally, I want the family package with my little white picket fence, but before that, I want to travel and experience the world around me. Whenever I talk to my parents' friends, they tell me of their travels around the world. Once, I met a man who lived in China for six years. He was born in the United States and lived in Australia for a large part of his life and also traveled around Europe. I want to travel like that and meet many new people.

Professionally, I am definitely going to major in Computer Science and minor in Mathematics. Although I just learned Python and C++ this year, I love the challenges and puzzles (both C.S and Math) present. I have a friend who thinks it's strange that I still don't know what I want to do, but I feel that life is too complicated for me to plan my entire life when I'm 18.

Who are the people who have had the biggest influence on your life up to this point? What are their qualities?

Given enough time, I think I could list everyone that I have ever met, but as cliché as it sounds, I think the two biggest influences on my life would have to be my parents (my aunt and uncle). My birth parents gave me challenges early on in life to overcome, but my aunt and uncle (mom and dad) who raised me are the ones who truly shaped who I am. My dad taught me to love nature and to always work hard and be early. My mom has taught me to be strong and let no one push me around. My dad's qualities are hard work, intelligence, and kindness. My mom is loud, strong, and caring. Both of them are sociable and committed to volunteering their time to the community. My dad has been a Docent at Point Lobos for almost 10 years, and my mom works with the Master Gardeners and MPVS Thrift Shop.

What is the greatest risk you've ever taken? What is the greatest risk on the road ahead that you'd like to take?

The greatest risk I've ever taken would have to be going to college. It was scary at first. I chose not to go too far from home, but I live on campus in a room with three people I don't know. However, I've met some wonderful people and have experienced tons of new things.

I think the greatest risk I'd like to take is going to a different country and experiencing the world from that country's point of view. I feel that traveling to a country where I've only read and heard about would be a huge risk, because all my support systems would be here in America.

What is your dream for the arc of your life? Who would you most like to be and what would you most like to do at the end of your life?

My dream is to graduate from college with a B.S in Computer Science and a minor in Mathematics, then travel for about a year. I'd then like to find a job in Computer Science, get the white picket fence package, retire, and travel some more.

Many of the C.S student that I know who are graduating are going straight into the C.S field or going onto graduate school. I am still debating on what direction of C.S I want to go in. My roommate is convinced I'll end up being a teacher because it's "perfect" for my personality and skills. So as of right now, I'm going to let the "arc of [my] life" go where it will.

At the end of my life, I want to be able to look back, nod my head with a little smile on my face that says, "I'm happy with how my life went and the difference I've made." I don't want to be some super hero who fixed all the problems in the world, but I do want to be someone who makes their family proud.

Jessie represents the strength, character, and fortitude of students who struggle to find family support, direction, or a framework of what to do and how to do it. From charting her own path, staying strong in her own capabilities, and gently propelling herself through every road block, she is a model for all of us, not just those students who are first-generation to college.