First to Soar Event Celebrates First-Generation Day

Michael Spence's keynote presentation was both interactive and motivational during Nov. 7's First to Soar Celebration.

Galloway, N.J. – There are three things that students should be focused on during their higher education journey – themselves, their circle and the finish line waiting for them once they earn their degree – according to Michael Spence, first-generation college graduate and keynote speaker at the First to Soar Celebration on Nov. 7

“For all of us in here, we're going down the path that no one in our family has ever gone down, and sometimes, it's probably one of the hardest things to go through,” Spence told the audience of first-generation students at Stockton. “See, it's easy to walk in someone else's footprints, but how about walking footprints that were never laid out for you? How do I make this journey that I got sent out to do and that I wanted people before me to do? I’m here to tell you that that pressure could either burst pipes or turn into diamonds, but it’s all about what you’re made of. I’m here to tell you that this journey here is not here to burst your pipes but to help make you a diamond.”

Spence, an Essex County native who graduated from Montclair State University and Liberty University, shared his journey with attendees, including stories sitting in the principal’s office with his mother, which led to him taking high school more seriously, to the first time he held his eldest son in his arms and promising him that he would make it his mission to always be there for him despite being “a kid himself.” He accomplished that mission, as evidenced by that same son telling him years later that he wanted to graduate college just like he did. 


As a part of his interactive presentation, Spence asked students to try to visualize themselves in the future after graduating and asked them, “Who’s waiting for you at the finish line?”

“There's going to be a young lady that's going to question who she is or even why she's living, and she’s going to come across your path, and she doesn’t want to hear my story – she wants to hear from you. And that's going to be the thing that's going to change her life. There's some young man who doesn't know how to be a man, and he doesn't care about me – he's waiting on you. And your words to them mean nothing unless you finish,” Spence said in his closing remarks.

Ian Bouie, director of Academic Achievement Programs, introduced Spence, saying that they met at Montclair State and that Spence’s ability to capture an audience was what drove him to invite the motivational speaker to the second annual celebration. In addition to Spence, students got a chance to enjoy dinner by Chartwells, meet executive board members of student organization First Ospreys and watch a video of their peers discussing their experience of being first-generation students at Stockton University.

Christopher Catching, vice president for Student Affairs, said almost half of the current student population identifies as first-generation.

“From its onset, Stockton has been an institution that has served historically underrepresented students, including first gen, military-affiliated students and veterans and our EOF (Educational Opportunity Fund) students,” Catching said. “This is a huge community of students – it is roughly close to 4,000 students that identify as first gen. Not only that but there are faculty and staff and others here who are also first-gen, myself included. At every level, Stockton celebrates the experience and supports first-generation college students.”

To close the event, members of First Ospreys gave students T-shirts, new “First to Soar” pins and advice. 

A photo of First to Soar pins
Students walked away from the celebration feeling inspired and with arms full of giveaways, including "First to Soar" pins and t-shirts. 

“I would like to remind everyone here on Stockton's campus that your first-gen celebration or community does not just end here tonight. It is forever standing. We have an amazing first-gen community here, and I just hope that you guys feel comforted and know that we're here for you as an e-board,” Bianca Teixeira, president of the club, said.

“Don't be afraid to ask for help and ask questions,” Priya Parikh, vice president, said.

“There will always be someone at Stockton who can point you in the right direction,” Nicole Brown, treasurer for the club, said.

“One piece of advice that I would give to you all is just to use your resources and make the most of your experience here because you'll never be in this place again or in this moment right here,” Jayne Seitz, secretary, said. “Make the most of it and make sure that you're utilizing all the resources that are available to you here at college.”

“A piece of advice that I would give to a first-generation student would be to make connections and talk to people that you normally wouldn't talk to,” first-year student and public relations chair for First Ospreys Laura Leonel said. “You never know where that could take you.” 

Jayne Seitz, Tamara Farrow and Priya Parikh of First Ospreys getting ready to pin other first-gen students for the ceremony.
Jayne Seitz, Tamara Farrow and Priya Parikh of First Ospreys getting ready to pin other first-gen students for the ceremony. Photo by Eliza Hunt. 

Galloway, N.J. — Students at the Nov. 9 National First-Generation Week Reception learned just how large of a community they have at Stockton University when Christopher Catching, vice president of Student Affairs, shared that around 50% of the students here identify as first-generation students.

“Being first-generation is part of the DNA here,” Catching said. “This institution was founded in 1969 and officially opened in 1971, and it’s always served first-generation and post-traditional students. Based on this year’s numbers, about 4,700 students identify as first-gen.”

First-generation students are students whose parents or immediate families don’t currently hold a four-year college/university degree. This can impact one’s college experience, as explained by Priya Parikh, a student and treasurer for First Ospreys.

– Story by Loukaia Taylor

– Photos by Lizzie Nealis