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First Generation Graduates: Aleisha Jones, Instructor in Marketing

November 7, 2023

Aleisha Jones admits she was not sold on the “college track” when she graduated high school. A native of Owensboro, Kentucky, she wasn’t sure what path she wanted to take for her career, so she enrolled in Owensboro Community and Technical College (OCTC) as a start. After two years and a connection with an advisor, Jones realized a higher-education path was right for her.

Can you tell me about your non-traditional higher education path?

Because I really didn't know what I wanted to do, I figured I’d save some money by staying at home and attending OCTC. I had just gotten a job working as a medical receptionist for a family practice at the time, my first job right out of school, thought I would figure it out as I went along. I wasn't really sold on the whole “college experience,” actually going for a bachelor's degree, and thought being at a community college would be a good place to start. When I graduated, I took a gap year and came to USI in the fall of 2015 to finish my bachelor’s in two years. After that, I worked on getting my master’s in business administration. 

What changed your mind about going to college?

Originally, I was studying pre-law since I thought I wanted to go to law school. For me, it was a means to an end. By the end of my first semester at OCTC, I realized I was making a mistake—I didn’t want to continue on the path I was on, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. After being undeclared for a bit, I finally decided I wanted to be a business administration major. It was my mentor, my advisor, who pushed me. As a first-generation student, my parents didn’t understand where I was coming from and didn’t understand the value of pursuing a college education. My dad went into trades, and my mother has been self-employed for many years. It was difficult to go to them for advice about classes or if I was struggling.

My advisor became my mentor, he was there to cheer me on and be there for me. He told me to graduate, transfer to a university and stay on the business track. I’ve always enjoyed school and education, but never thought I would go this far.  

What was your biggest challenge, if you had any?

There were so many things that were difficult specifically between the transition of transferring from OCTC to USI. I made a very radical decision—I quit my very stable job, where I had just gotten a promotion and had full-time benefits. I got a job lined up at USI and found an apartment on campus. But I struggled quite a bit whenever I left Owensboro, mostly financially because I was paying for most of my own college aside from the scholarships I had.

It was also emotionally taxing. I was living in an apartment by myself. I didn't know anybody here, and I'm very introverted, painfully so, and it was difficult for me to find community.

One day, I called my mom and had a bit of a meltdown after underperforming on an exam. But my mom said just stay an academic year. Focus until Thanksgiving, give it one more semester, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to go back. And really, I just needed one more semester to adjust because things started to get better after that.

What was your fondest memory about college?

In the spring of 2016, I was given an assignment to go talk to a faculty member. At that point, I knew I wanted to go into higher education, but I was trying to figure out what discipline I wanted to be in. That’s when I first met Dr. Kevin Celuch, who was a part of the marketing faculty. He just retired this past spring.

I just asked him if I could buy him a cup of coffee and 20 minutes of his time to talk. He immediately agreed. And during that meeting on Valentine’s Day in 2016, he immediately asked me if I wanted to go to a conference with him since I was interested in higher ed. Probably my fondest memory of college is going to my first academic conference with Kevin; that was life-altering. Learning under his leadership provided me some of the best memories of college.

Kevin became an extended part of my family. I just got married in October 2023, and he was the officiant at my wedding. It’s crazy to see how much meeting him changed my experience in college; he broke me out and exposed me to more of the things I was interested in and needed.

What is a piece of advice you have for anyone looking to pursue college as a first-generation student?

The big thing is to seek out new experiences and opportunities, but don't be afraid to be told ‘no.’  The worst thing that someone is going tell you is no. So, if you're asking for an opportunity, if you're asking to meet with a faculty member, if you're essentially asking for a seat at the table, you're not going to have an opportunity if you don't put yourself out there. It’s a risk; all things are a risk, but not all risk has a high cost. If you get a no, just keep seeking the right opportunity. Eventually, a no is going to turn into a yes.

The other thing is finding your people. One of the many benefits of coming to college is that you meet people who have had different experiences, hold diverse viewpoints, and interests. Building your personal community is a strong way to forge genuine relationships with others.

I think the very last thing is to manage your expectations for how your family may respond. In other words, don't be offended if your family doesn’t understand your decision to attend college or the challenges you encounter. Over the years, I've had interactions with family who cannot relate to my experiences and question my decision to attend college and that’s okay. This is why it is important to have a trusted community that does understands your experiences and can also share things with them, including your victories along with the setbacks.

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