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CCA Celebrates Its Many First-Generation Students Throughout Week of November 8

The students and faculty who spoke at the first-generation celebration panel event.

There’s something beautiful and inspiring about being the first person to do something. 

The first to run a sub-four-minute mile. The first to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The first to walk on the moon. The first to climb Mount Everest. There’s a first for, well, everything, isn’t there.

But perhaps there’s nothing more beautiful and inspiring than being the first person in a family to go to college. After all, college is where a person goes to better him/herself, where new and exciting knowledge is acquired, where dreams are born and grow, where new paths are forged, where “impossible” becomes “reality.”

What’s more beautiful and inspiring than that?

The majority (about 60%) of the Community College of Aurora’s students are first-generation students. And throughout the week of November 8, CCA celebrated them all with a series of events (November 8 is National First-Generation College Celebration Day, launched in 2017 by the Council for Opportunity in Education and the Center for First-Generation Student Success).

To warm up for National First-Generation College Celebration Day and the weekly festivities, a “pre-celebration” was held on Monday. Throughout the day, students could pick up first-generation-themed buttons and cupcakes in the lobby areas of both CCA’s CentreTech and Lowry campuses.

The next day, a seven-person panel featuring CCA alumni and employees—all the first in their families to attend and graduate from college—led an inspiring discussion about their experiences as first-generation students. The panelists talked about the fears they had going into college, the importance of getting involved as students, and the on-campus support systems they took advantage of to overcome their fears and succeed in college and beyond. 

On Wednesday, first-generation student Tamam Waritu, the week’s keynote speaker, talked about his experience going “from food stamps to Harvard.” The obstacles Waritu faced as a youngster were enormous: He was born in a tiny village in Ethiopia to a mother who never went to school and a father with just a fourth-grade-level education, he lived on food stamps in a public housing project, and he learned his first word of English at the age of 16. But, through hard work and perseverance, Waritu proved that those obstacles weren’t insurmountable. Today, he holds a master’s degree from Harvard University and has spoken at prestigious universities such as Princeton, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Stanford. “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish that matters,” Waritu says on his website.

To wrap up the weeklong celebration, an “I Am First” resource fair was held on Wednesday. Eight CCA departments—Financial Aid, the Library, Pathways Advising, Recruitment and Orientation, Student Life, Title V, TRIO Student Support Services, and TRIO Upward Bound—were represented at the resource fair. Representatives from the Arapahoe Early Childhood Council and Springboard Childcare were in attendance as well. Students who stopped by for the resource fair also had the opportunity to play cornhole and giant Jenga, pose for photos in a photo booth, and grab some popcorn from a popcorn bar. 

First-generation student Pamela Diaz, who will receive her Associate of Science Core degree from CCA in the spring of 2022, said she decided to go to college because she wants a better future for herself and her 3-year-old son.

“My parents migrated here from Mexico and have always wanted the best for me, and I think I can get that with education,” said Diaz, who wants to transfer to Metropolitan State University of Denver or the University of Colorado Denver upon graduating from CCA to study psychology. Eventually, she wants to pursue a career involving research.

Melkamu Alemu, Lead Academic Coach-TRiO SSS-ESL at CCA, talks about his experience as a first-generation student

Kyle Cruz, also a first-generation student, is pursuing an Associate of Arts in Business degree at CCA and on track to graduate at the conclusion of the fall 2022 semester. Diaz said his plan is to transfer from CCA to CU Denver, Colorado State University, or the University of Denver to study accounting or business management, complete pre-law courses, and then go to law school to learn what he needs to become a business or tax lawyer.

“I’ve come to learn just how important education is and how powerful knowledge is in our society,” Cruz said. “If only more people had the opportunity to go to college and be knowledgeable about the things that happen in our society, our society would be far greater and more peaceful than it currently is.”

What’s more beautiful and inspiring than that?

Caption: Melkamu Alemu, Lead Academic Coach-TRiO SSS-ESL at CCA, talks about his experience as a first-generation student

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