Author: Kacey Hengesbach


Every Notre Dame Class is outstanding in its own way. My class, the class of 2018, was no exception. With 1 in 5 students being the child of an alumni or having a sibling that attended Notre Dame and 2 in 5 being part of the top 1 percent of their high school class, I will be the first to admit that I was intimidated. In addition, three in 10 are international or minority students with rich culture and life experiences that I, a girl from a village in rural Michigan, can’t begin to understand. I didn’t know how I could possibly be part of such a class, a class with some of the best and the brightest that our country, even the world, had to offer. With students coming to study here from all over the place, with exciting lives and extensive travel experience I felt that I could never fit in. Why?

I am a first generation college student.

I am part of the 9 percent.

On this campus, only 1 in 10 people can say the same.

To the other 9 out of that same 10, this fact may seem extremely insignificant. But if you’re the 1 in that 10, you might understand. So, this one is for you.

Life Board

Being first generation is a challenge that no one ever prepares you for and no one ever really talks about. Growing up, I never knew what college actually was except that if you picked the “Start College” option on the Life game board, you ended up with significantly more debt than if you just skipped that route and went straight to a career.

As I got into middle school, I learned that most of my friend’s older siblings graduated and went to college. To my knowledge, my parents had never determined that college would be where I wound up after I graduated. Neither of them went to college, but they had secured jobs to provide for our family, so I had never given much thought to going to college myself. At that point in time, all I really knew about college was that it was usually very expensive and that I would be paying for it myself so I didn't know if it was ever going to be an option for me. 

I began to actually picture myself going to college as I attended my cousins’ graduation parties. I learned that many of them planned to complete four year degrees, most of them enrolling in the local community college for a few years before transferring to a university in order to save money. I also learned at those parties that if you did really well academically or athletically in high school you would often receive scholarships to colleges. I didn’t really understand what a scholarship was but since my relatives seemed to think that my cousins that had received them were going somewhere with their lives, I decided to try to also strive for academic excellence in order to hopefully receive scholarships. When I learned what a scholarship actually was, I knew that I had to do really well in school so that college could be an option for me as well.

As senior year of high school grew closer, I had more and more questions about post-grad plans. I had not a single idea of where I wanted to go or what it actually meant to go to college. I didn’t understand what the different degree types were, how you applied, how to pick a college to go to or what happened when you actually got to the college you picked. When I brought college up with my parents, they encouraged me to find the cheapest program regardless of its credentials but never had many answers to my questions about schools I was interested in. Thankfully, my high school had a great counselor and classes for students which answered these questions in terms of local schools and community colleges. I began to research places that had good business schools because I had decided that I wanted to go into business. The more I looked, the more I learned and as I read student profiles I would get a feel for the school. If I was really interested in a place, I would go on a visit so I could first-hand experience what campus was like. My parents aided in my search once they realized what I wanted from a school, and ultimately it was my mom that brought me to Notre Dame for my first visit the summer before my senior year where I fell in love.

When I decided that I wanted to attend Notre Dame, I was pretty much on my own again to get myself applied and enrolled. I filled out the Common App without much help, Googling things when I had questions. After I was accepted, I also learned how to fill out the FAFSA and the College Board profile that Notre Dame requires by myself, calling the Office of Financial Aid and consulting my parents for information when necessary because I knew that without some sort of financial aid, attending Notre Dame wouldn’t be possible for me. 

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My point in writing all of this is to tell you that you’re not alone in your struggle and you can beat the odds and succeed. If you’re first generation, low-income, and clueless - I have been there too and I'm attending my dream school. You can do it and you can fit in here. You can find yourself not only an amazing school but a second home, a second family, and meet some incredibly talented people. You'll have the opportunity to change your world and expand your knowledge beyond what you could ever have imagined. You can study with some groundbreaking professors and travel to places you never dreamed of seeing.

Yes, you’ll have challenges, probably more than the average student, but my favorite part about Notre Dame is how much help they’ve given me. Throughout the application process, I was in constant contact with my region’s admissions counselor regarding questions. After being accepted, I leaned heavily on him to answer my questions about enrolling and applying for financial aid. Now, in my third year, I still lean heavily on many members of the administration to answer my questions about navigating through the complexities that each new year brings and they have been nothing but helpful.

My advice to you, my fellow First Gen students, is the following: Don’t let yourself be intimidated by the thought of attending school here. Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and try. Although there will be trials, the triumphs will be that much greater because you’ve worked so hard to get to them. Notre Dame is a place for anyone who wants to be here, and regardless of who your family is and what your background is like they will make sure that you will never walk alone.