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When was the last time you did something that scared you? When you embraced fear and let it empower you?  

For many first-generation students, this is every step of their college experience.  

They are the first in their family to pursue a four-year degree. The first to navigate the complex college admissions process, the first to meet with advisors and visit campuses, the first to find a roommate and leave home, the first to step into uncharted territory.  

They are no strangers to uncertainty. And for 60 first-generation University of Kentucky students, this summer was another opportunity to expand their horizons on a program that many called “life changing.”  

Explore First: Careers, Cultures and Connections  

The subject line said, “Exclusive First-Gen Student Opportunity — Head Abroad in 2023!” Some students couldn’t believe the opportunity, thinking it might be too good to be true. One student even thought it was a spam email until dedicated staff convinced him that it was real, and it was for him.  

Explore First: Careers, Cultures and Connections (Explore First), an education abroad opportunity developed by UK’s International Center and the Office for Student Success, is an integrated global learning experience with curricular and co-curricular elements. It is focused on career readiness with meaningful connections between academic attainment and post-graduation success. The experience is designed and implemented intentionally to equip and empower first-generation students who have made the bold decision to study abroad.  

The Explore First program expands access to education abroad opportunities. During the program’s launch in summer 2023, four cohorts of 15 first-generation students embarked on a three-week education abroad program to either London, England, or Dublin, Ireland, with little cost to the student. Students developed transferable skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, adaptability, independence and self-efficacy. Students completed and earned credit hours through a course that enhanced their career readiness skills.  

Niamh Larson, executive director of education abroad and exchanges, understands the powerful connection between studying abroad and student success. “We want them to be world ready. To be globally aware citizens who will contribute to the Commonwealth of Kentucky and to the larger world,” she said. “For many of these students, they are undecided in their majors or career paths right now. This gives them the chance to see different industries and types of professional opportunities, both at the graduate and employment level, which can help them decide their path.”  

Students were also exposed to work culture and career settings in large companies and firms. Employer partners included Alltech, Compass Group, LinkedIn, Gray Construction and Diageo, among others.  

When asked why students should go across the ocean to network and learn interview skills, Kirsten Turner, vice president for student success, explained, “We are a global world, and we're global citizens. Stretching oneself to understand how you can navigate and have those kinds of conversations in a different setting is important and has applicability back at home.” 

The site visits went beyond exposure to office and work life. Students had the opportunity to sit down with leadership from multi-billion-dollar companies and hear their personal stories.  

They asked questions like, “What was your journey to get here?” “How do you overcome imposter syndrome?” “What does success mean to you?”  

And as students sat in board rooms with c-suite executives, they were surprised to hear familiar stories — first-generation students who were scared, but determined, to take the first step.  

Reflecting on this experience, Turner said, “Our students could see themselves in those executives, and they started asking pretty specific questions about their journeys.” She continued, “It’s a spillover effect, it's not just impacting the individual that's going on the program, but it's impacting the community from which they come.” 

“I want something more.”  

Ashton Martin, class of 2026, stood on the terrace of London’s iconic Somerset House. With the River Thames to his right and the impressive, 18th-century Neoclassical complex to his left, Martin reflected on his journey more than 4,000 miles away from his home in Breckenridge County, Kentucky. 

“Since I'm first generation, I wasn't really pushed to go to college. It was just kind of like, stay home, join the workforce. But I want something more.” 

Part of that “something more” was taking the opportunity to study abroad. Martin recalled bonding with his peers and staff leaders during the cohort meetings leading up to the program. They prepared for “the opportunity of a lifetime” and navigated a kaleidoscope of feelings underscored by a shared history of “firsts.” By the end of those preliminary meetings, the students were ready to conquer even more firsts, but this time they’d do them together.  

In company meetings, students discovered that career journeys are hardly linear. Martin explained, “You can start in one career, and you may end up somewhere totally different. And it's really nice to see how, as undergraduates, we can just progress through our career in ways that we never saw possible.”  

Hallie Rice, class of 2024, found that same comfort from site visits as she prepares to graduate. “Learning about people's journeys up the ladder has been a really enlightening experience and kind of relaxing,” she said. “I don't know where I'm going necessarily but knowing that most other people don't know where they're going, but that they finally end up in a place that suits them and somewhere that they're happy, makes me feel reassured.” 

Beyond the site visits, Explore First students had the opportunity to learn from remarkable UK staff members who helped them build their foundation for lives of meaning and purpose. From creating appealing and representative LinkedIn profiles, to mastering a confident handshake, to gaining interpersonal skills for outstanding interviews, students returned to Kentucky equipped with lifelong tools for success. 

And, of course, when they weren’t in class or visiting major companies, they were exploring their new home.  

Sue Roberts, associate provost for internationalization, witnessed the transformative power of the inaugural Explore First program. “I have been so impressed by seeing how much they have learned while being here and how open they are to taking in all the opportunities they have. From traveling, to meeting with employers to making friends, I believe it has been a very multifaceted experience,” she said. “I can tell it’s helping them grow in confidence and will help them succeed as students. They have a better sense of what awaits them after graduation and all the possibilities there are for these amazing students.” 

“I’m the first, not the last.” 

For most of the students, this was their first time abroad; some had never been on a plane before or traveled outside of Kentucky. In fact, many were the first in their family to take the leap abroad. This can be anxiety inducing not only for the students, but also for their family members who may have preferred to keep them close by. But much like their college decision, Explore First students understood the profound opportunities that global travel offers and the necessary growth that accompanies daring decisions.  

As Autumn King, a current junior, sat on a bench at Trinity College Dublin, she considered the impact of her decisions on her family. About going to college, she said, “I’m able to say I’m the first in my family to do this. I’m the first, not the last, because my sister is getting ready to go to school.”  

And when she reflected on her Explore First program to Dublin, flanked by impressive stone buildings and the occasional sign written in Gaelic, King said the experience was a reminder. A reminder that, “I'm going to go to all these different places. I’m going to do all these amazing things. I just have to allow myself the time to breathe and to let it happen.” 

“I feel capable of doing things now that I could not have dreamed of doing just a couple weeks ago.” 

This fall, 60 first-generation UK students returned to campus with a global pep in their step. They embarked on a new semester with greater confidence after navigating London’s overwhelming tube system, which supports more than eight million people. They are less afraid of taking chances after exploring a foreign country by themselves or with just a couple of friends, even crossing the border into Scotland. They are more open to new experiences, people and perspectives after finding commonality in the unknown. 

In their final survey, one student summed up the power of this experience. “The program has quite literally changed the trajectory of my life in so many ways. I feel capable of doing things now that I could not have dreamed of doing just a couple weeks ago.”  

Education Abroad Fall Fair 2023 

Want to explore your options for the journey of a lifetime? Education Abroad and Exchanges (EA) is hosting a fair in Barker Plaza outside of the Gatton Student Center on Wednesday, Sept. 13, from 2-5 p.m. UK faculty, EA staff and peer ambassadors will be on-site to answer your study abroad questions and help you determine which EA program is the best fit for you.  

During the fair, one lucky student will be randomly drawn every hour to "spin the wheel" for a chance to win a full EA summer program scholarship to an amazing destination! Stick around to learn more about EA, and enjoy food, fun and of course, snag a free EA T-shirt while you wait to see if you're selected to spin. RSVP for the fair here:

UK’s Office for Student Success offers many resources for students as they navigate college life and plan what happens after graduation.  

First-Generation Student Services supports first-generation students (neither parent or guardian has a four-year degree) at UK from recruitment to graduation through research-based programs, resources, best practices and campuswide advocacy about the needs of students who are the first in their families to go to college. You can learn more here

The Stuckert Career Center provides comprehensive career development programming, resources and services for UK students and new graduates. You can learn more here

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