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


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Every fall, high school seniors finalize their plans for the future. For some, the prospect of a higher education is certain; for others, attending a four-year institution is nothing more than a pipe dream. Students who would be the first in their families to earn a bachelor's degree are often dissuaded from ever applying to a four-year institution.

The great equalizer, it would seem, would continue to be the domain of the few.

For most, if not all first-generation (or "1G") students, a college education is a rare opportunity. A bachelor's degree would open doors, allowing them to choose a different career path than what is expected. But an investment in higher education a costly gamble for anyone, one that by no means guarantees future success. Fearing the accrual of debt and the statistical likelihood of never attaining a diploma, many never choose to enroll. But not all.

Since its inception as Brown's Schoolhouse in 1838, Duke University has seen many first-generation students matriculate. Dedicated, disciplined, and undeterred, first-generation students not only became the first in their families to attain a bachelor's degree, but thrived throughout their undergraduate careers and as alumni. They left behind a legacy of distinction in Durham and beyond, and their success encouraged future high school seniors, unsure of what else may be out there for them, to look towards the future and take that leap of faith for themselves.

This exhibit chronicles the unique experiences of first-generation undergraduates at Duke, and in doing so, preserves the stories of a group that have been largely unrecognized for much of the University's history. Despite their contributions to the University and beyond, the stories of first-generation undergraduates at Duke have been largely absent from the University Archives. This exhibit arose out of a desire to fill this troubling lacuna, promote a better understanding of the first-generation experience, and celebrate the legacy of all first-generation undergraduates at Duke University.