Student Voices: The Challenge of Being a First-Generation College Student

International Women’s Day is a celebration of female accomplishment and a call to action for gender equality worldwide. This years’ theme #BalanceforBetter is about recognising women’s value in society and the importance of creating balance in the world around us for the good of all. For this years’ celebrations, we’re highlighting some of the trailblazing women - past and present - that have paved the way forward for young women and impacted positively upon our institute in their own unique way. As we celebrate this years’ event, let us remember that empowered women, empower us all.

For many first-generation college students, the realm of third level can be uniquely challenging, particularly if they don’t have a mentor who can guide them through the complexities of college life. This was the case for Jessica O’Brien, a final-year accounting student from Arklow, Co. Wicklow. While her own road to third level education wasn’t linear, she hopes her story will show other young women that it’s not the road you start on that matters, but your attitude and commitment to bettering yourself, and your unwillingness to give up.

This is the 6th year Jessica has spent in a third level setting, having previously attended two other colleges and undertaken four courses in areas like software and computer games development, and office administration. At 17, she enrolled in a computer games development course in Carlow, but soon dropped out after suffering health complications. While she had enjoyed her course, she didn’t see herself working as a games developer and wondered what else she could turn her hand to. “I was always extremely good with numbers but wasn’t sure how to put it into practice in the real world,” she said.

While still in Carlow, Jessica met her now partner who is originally from Athlone. His mother was incredibly influential in Jessica’s life and encouraged her to consider undertaking an accounting degree a little further afield. She applied for Athlone Institute of Technology and several other colleges but wasn’t accepted to any. “I was absolutely gutted when I didn’t get a first round or a second round offer and utterly perplexed,” she said. “I had the points, I had the subjects – I thought to myself: what’s going on here?”

A chance encounter with a lecturer in Athlone Institute of Technology changed Jessica’s life forever. He explained to her that despite having more than enough points for the accounting degree, she didn’t meet the criteria and would never be accepted through the typical admissions process. Instead, he recommended that she enroll in the accounting technician course – a two-year level 6 programme designed to provide an alternative access route into a third level degree.

“Leaving Certificate is not the be all, end all and that there are “many ways to skin a cat”. I enrolled in a two-year Accounting Technician programme which I successfully completed before advancing into the second year of the Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Accounting . Accounting is a challenging field, but the lecturers here are extremely supportive and helpful. They’re on the journey with the students which makes it hard not to feel encouraged!” she said.

Jessica’s father runs an extremely successful taxi business while her mother minds children. “My parents came of age at a time when most jobs didn’t require a degree, now you practically need a postgraduate qualification to compete in the jobs market,” she explained. “Back then working a minimum wage got you by, nowadays two people working on that wage can barely afford to live. I’m not striving to be wealthy, but I would love to be comfortable – to be able to take a holiday once a year and not have to live pay cheque to pay cheque.”

While Jessica’s parents were incredibly supportive of her educational aspirations, having not been through the process themselves, they advised Jessica to speak to a guidance councillor to see what her options were and to help her apply for funding mechanisms like SUSI. “I had so many questions about where to go and who to talk to about this course and that course and while they couldn’t help me with those things, they tried to facilitate me as best as they could,” she explained. “ I’m extremely lucky to have such supportive parents; they were there for every college information evening and I remember the morning I left for college, my mam and dad packed the car and drove down with me for the big send off. They were so excited for me to enrol - my mam joked that she wanted to move down here with me!”

For Jessica, education is a tool of social mobility, a means of getting to where she needs to go so that she can carve out a better life for herself and her family. “It’s the one great equalizer,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter where you start but education will take you wherever you need to go. It opens doors.”

After graduation, Jessica aspires to do a master’s but not yet, she says, she’s going to go and see some of the world first.

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