First time for everything

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 9, 2003

After serving in the Air Force for 4 years, Chesapeake resident Kim Stephens married, had three children and did not work outside the home.

Then, she decided to break, not one, but two family traditions.

"Neither of my parents graduated from high school, so I was one step further than the generation before me," Stephens said. "I have now extended this into college, so I have broken another trend."

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Stephens, a student at Ohio University Southern, is not only a non-traditional college student, an undergraduate student entering college four years or longer after high school graduation, but is also in the first in her family to attend college.

According to the Educational Resources Information Center, a national educational information system, first-generation college students like Stephens are an increasingly significant force in higher education. Although few American colleges keep precise statistics on the number of those students enrolled, there is general agreement that those numbers are growing as a college degree becomes a prerequisite for more and more jobs.

Twenty-one-year-old Proctorville resident Justin Berry thought he was going to be climbing poles alongside his father, an AEP lineman. However, he decided he wanted a college degree and entered Marshall University after graduating from Symmes Valley High School in 2000.

First, he was as an education major because he wanted to make a difference in the lives of others as a teacher and a coach. Then, he realized he had a higher purpose.

"The main thing I want to do is work with God in medicine," Berry said.

He applied to the MU nursing program for this fall because he wanted to help people feel better -- spiritually as well as physically. Berry said he would like to enter the seminary after finishing the nursing program or finishing medical school.

Stephens became a middle childhood education major at Ohio University Southern. She wants to become a math or social studies teacher.

"This is an age group where you win them or lose them," she said. "It's important to make an impact during that time."

Many high school seniors are ready to break family tradition as well. One of them is 18-year-old Sara Werner at South Point High School.

"I want to try something new, something that no one in my family has done," she said.

Werner wants to be close to sports figures, particularly the University of Kentucky basketball team. She believes a career as a sports photographer will help her do this.

"It's my goal in life," she said.

Werner wants to attend the University of Kentucky, but may first attend Morehead State University or Ohio University Southern. If she attends MSU, she will have to move away from home.

"I'm kind of nervous, but it will be different and exciting," she said.

Making the decision to break family tradition is a huge step for these students. However, one challenge many of them face is dealing with applications, particularly ones for financial aid. They have no family members who know how to do it, making it even more challenging for them than most others.

"It was hectic, I'll tell you that," Berry said.

However, his mother works in the Marshall University Bursar's Office and she was able to find help with the paperwork, he said.

Stephens said handling the initial college paperwork was like "fishing around in the dark". However, representatives from OUS offered their assistance and were very helpful, she said.

Berry said his parents have enough income to disqualify him for certain types of financial aid, but they still do not have enough to completely get him through college.

He still lives with his parents and works 18-20 hours per week at West Virginia Electric doing deliveries and handling work orders while handling 13 hours of classes this semester. His supervisor and co-workers are understanding when he cannot work because he has to go to class or study.

"[My supervisor] asked me if I could make a delivery for him, but I had a class," he said. "He said, 'Don't worry about it.'"

Stephens does not have a job outside her home, but raising three children while going to class is challenging. At first, her decision to work outside the home was unsettling for her husband.

"It was hard for my husband because he was used to me being a housewife," she said. "But, he has been very supportive and sees this a positive for our family."

"It depends on what day of the week it is, but my children see that I am going to become a teacher like theirs."

"It would have been easier to get a job at Wal-Mart," Stephens continued. "But, I had different goals."

Her parents, she continued, are proud of her. As a parent herself, she hopes to provide an example and encouragement for her own children.

"They have seen me accomplish this task," she said. "They have seen me do this with three children in tow. I will encourage them to do this the traditional way, out of high school."

Werner, who will be a traditional student, said her father, an employee at AK Steel and her mother, a homemaker, are proud.

"They're really excited for me," she said. "They want to do anything they can to help me."

Berry's family has also been supportive, and his consideration of medical school has made them even prouder, he said.

He also0 has praise for the Symmes Valley school district, whose teachers are willing to help any student achieve any goal they may have, he said.

"Heck yeah, Symmes Valley teachers are the best you'll find," Berry said.

Taking a photography class has given Werner the opportunity to practice for her future occupation, and a college option course has also helped her prepare for what lies ahead, she said.

At Marshall University, Berry said he has excelled despite adversity, some of which is a result of his accent, a "Lawrence County and Wayne County, W.Va mix".

"I've been told my accent is cute, which really works with girls," Berry said. "But, some people laugh at me a good bit. Professors sometimes ask me to repeat things I say."

"It really doesn't bother me," he continued. "They sound just as crazy to me. I am who I am. I am trying to better myself with my education."

The teachers at Ohio University Southern have been very supportive, giving her the training she will need to become a good teacher, Stephens said.

"They point out ways to be creative and generate ideas," she said. "They show you how to take education one step further."

College may not be for everyone, Werner said, but if someone has the desire to go, they should at least try.

Stephens said more help is available for students who want to obtain higher education but have difficult circumstances. Society has a long way to go in helping students get help, but students have more help than they did years ago, she said.

"College has broadened my horizons," Berry said. "If it weren't for this, I may have been climbing poles or digging ditches. I now realize how much this will help my future and that I'm better off with a degree."