Charlotte Sanders is currently a Teaching Associate and the Field Lead for the Northwest Leaders in Behavioral Health Program (NLBHP) at the UW School of Social Work – she shares with us her experience as a first-gen student, in both her undergraduate and graduate programs.

When I was a student at Toppenish Sr. High School on the Yakama Nation Reservation, I didn’t have any idea as to what I would be doing after high school.  It wasn’t even a conversation I had with my mom, who was a single parent raising my brother and I on the modest income received with only a high school equivalency education.  

My mom and my abuelita had always encouraged me to go to school and get an education, but that was as far as the conversation went, considering no one else in my entire family had ever graduated from college.  There were older cousins who had attempted to go but dropped out within the first year, for reasons I later came to understand.

It was my high school guidance counselor, Mrs. Diaz, who saw something in me. No matter how much I tried to avoid the overwhelming conversations about college, she persisted.   Mrs. Diaz pushed me to apply for leadership opportunities, scholarships, colleges and universities within the local area. If it had not been for her support, I don’t know if I would be at the UW today.

My college journey began at Yakima Valley Community College, where I received an AA degree. It continued at Central Washington University where I received my BA degree in Psychology, and finally at the University of Washington where I earned my MSW.  There were countless times that I wanted to quit, especially when it came to the financial burden of going to school and not knowing about the resources available to me.  Navigating the foreign system of higher education is difficult when you don’t have others in your life who have made the journey and can lend their knowledge to help guide you through yours.

In addition to the isolation of being “the only one” going to college, there was also the loneliness of being shy and an introvert.  My saving grace were the caring and supportive staff (not faculty) I had met through work study, and other students who I could identify with on some level, especially other students of color who were also first-gen. Now that I am faculty at the SSW, it’s one of my goals to reach out to other first-gen students (and graduates) in hopes that I can be a support, and encourage them along this difficult and rewarding journey.

#CelebrateFirstGen: A National Celebration

The University of Washington proudly supports the experience of first-generation students on all three campuses. UW Bothell, Seattle and Tacoma campuses come together to join colleges and universities from across the nation each year to participate in the annual November 8th National First-Generation College Celebration. We invite all members of our community to celebrate and elevate the success and presence of students, faculty and staff who are the first in their families to attend college. The UW School of Social Work is a proud home to many #UWFirstGen scholars, #UWFirstGenGrads, and passionate changemakers who value social justice, promote equity, and ignite social change. Every day #UWFirstGen students, faculty and staff make impactful contributions to our university community. #CelebrateFirstGen #BeTheFirst


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