A Leap of Faith: Documenting the First-Generation Undergraduate Experience

Early history of first-generation students at Duke

Class of 1912

The class of 1912 on the steps of the library.

The institution now known as Duke University has been awarding degrees since the 1852-53 academic year.1 The history of first-generation undergraduates at Duke is unique in comparison to other underrepresented groups in that there is no particular point in the University's history where first-generation students were officially granted admission. First-generation students have likely attended Duke University since its inception as Brown's Schoolhouse in 1838. The majority of Duke's early graduates in the late 19th-century were the first in their families to pursue a formal education; therefore, first-generation undergraduate status was quite common for a number of years.2 However, it is difficult to pinpoint who exactly was a first-generation student during these years, perhaps because first-generation status was so common that few saw this status as significant enough to mention. Therefore, little credible early documentation of first-generation status exists in the University Archives, rendering the few accounts that exist exceptionally valuable.


Edwin L. Jones

Edwin L. Jones, a Charlotte native and member of the Class of 1912, was one such student. Jones was the recipient of the Orator's Medal of the Hesperian Literary Society and mailed a copy of the Chronicle article covering the award to his parents. His father's reply expresses a universal sentiment on the value of a college education.

"My Dear Son, I cant tell you how glad I was to know that you had won the metal[.] now you can see that God has give you a delivery of voice. it does my heart good to see that you are taking advantage of a opertunity that I diden have[.] I wanted Education when I was a boy. but I diden have the chance to get some. I am glad that you have made good at college[.] I have worked hard every sence I have ben a little boy. but I dont mind working hard as I have to get you through College[.] As I rid the a count in your little paper of you winning the metal, it repaid me for all that I have spent on your schooling[.] I & mama do want to get up for your gratuation but I dont see how both of us will get to go as the children is so small to leave by themselves. Good by, Your Papa."

Edwin L. Jones made the most of his opportunity to attend college. The listing of affiliations under his senior portrait in the Chanticleer reveal a graduate of many talents and unparalleled ambition which would propel him for the rest of his life. Jones' marriage to Annabel Lambeth marks the beginning of generations of Duke graduates from the Jones' family, each of whom would be remembered for their varied service and support to their alma mater.3


1. William E. King, If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1997), 67

2. King, 68

3. This section is largely reprinted from the article Glory Days, itself reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King.

Early history of first-generation students at Duke