news-category: Student Success

Gardner-Webb Celebrates First-Generation College Students on Nov. 7

Display in Tucker Student Center Highlights Stories from Students, Faculty and Staff

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C.—Gardner-Webb University is highlighting and celebrating first-generation college students on Nov. 7 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the lobby of Tucker Student Center. A first-generation student is any student whose parents did not complete a four-year college or university degree, regardless of other family members’ level of education. According to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, over half of college students in the United States are considered first-generation.

Gardner-Webb’s celebration includes a display featuring some of the first-generation students, faculty and staff at Gardner-Webb. T-shirts, treats and first-gen decals will also be available. “First-generation college students—whether they realize it or not—are pioneers who embark through so many unknowns to ultimately achieve the reward of a college degree,” remarked Kara Alves, director of Success Initiatives and first-Year Experience. “It is exciting to celebrate our students that have this opportunity to carry the dreams of their family members and make the impossible, possible.”

Several campus offices are hosting the event, said Dr. Ryan Erck, executive director of the Division of Student Success. “I am grateful for my colleagues in other areas, such as Student Development, Enrollment Management, and Christian Life and Service, that helped set the vision for this event and chipped in their time and resources to see it come to fruition,” he noted. “It has been amazing to see the collaborative work involved in this.”

Erck continued, “First-generation students at Gardner-Webb deserve to be celebrated. They are paving the way for future generations, and we want to commend their persistence in simply being enrolled as a student on our campus, and we want to support their journey all the way through graduation.”

Lesley Villarose, vice president of Student Development, added, “Supporting and celebrating first-generation college students isn’t just an act of inclusion; it’s an investment in a brighter, more diverse future for the Gardner-Webb community. These students bring unique perspectives, tenacity, and resilience to our campuses.”

One of the students featured in the display is Mindy Brown, a first-generation student majoring in elementary education. When she shares her campus experiences with her parents, they appreciate the life skills she’s learning along with her academic studies. “Not only are my parents included in witnessing the impact of college on me, but they also get to see how college will help me gain independence and offer me opportunities that were not made available to them,” she observed.

One of the faculty members who shared her story is Dr. Shea Stuart, professor of English. She said her family went from the cotton fields to the cotton mills and didn’t finish high school, but they still strived to learn. Stuart remarked that college introduced her to new worlds of learning. “I am proud of being a first-generation college student and thankful to my family and professors who saw a thinker and writer in a shy and inquisitive kid,” she affirmed.

May 2023 graduate, Blake Elizalde, is now employed at Gardner-Webb as a career coach. He also shares his story as a first-generation college student. Elizalde engaged in a variety of campus activities and as a senior served as Student Body President. “Being a first-generation student at Gardner-Webb University means that I can be someone that my two little brothers can look up to,” he stated. “Gardner-Webb provided a safe space to grow and learn in a multitude of ways.”

First-generation students can find support and resources to navigate college through The Division of Student Success.

Gardner-Webb University is North Carolina’s recognized leader in private, Christian higher education. A Carnegie-Classified Doctoral/Professional University, GWU is home to nine colleges and schools, more than 80 undergraduate and graduate majors, and a world-class faculty. Located on a beautiful 225-acre campus in Boiling Springs, N.C., Gardner-Webb prepares graduates to impact their chosen professions, equips them with the skills to advance the frontiers of knowledge, and inspires them to make a positive and lasting difference in the lives of others. Ignite your future at

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