First-generation student pursues dream, degree following gap year

As the number of first-generation college students continues to grow in Arkansas, financial burdens can sometimes impair academic engagement once enrolled in school.

Perhaps that is why Shalondra Martin, 22, of Little Rock, was so overjoyed when she opened a letter from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Office of Private Scholarships and saw this one simple word: “Congratulations.”

Martin is the recipient of the ShalondraMartinC. Robert Sarver Memorial Scholarship, awarded to undergraduate students in any degree program with special consideration for academic potential and need, as well as public service.

She learned of the scholarship by attending a workshop offered by the UALR Office of Campus Life specifically geared toward non-traditional and first-generation students.

The scholarship means Martin will be financially secure, helping fulfill her dream of obtaining a four-year degree with little to no debt.

More importantly, it is helping fulfill the long-held wish of her single mother, to whom Martin referred as “the wisest and most altruistic person I know.”

Not only is Martin part of the growing trend of first-generation students to enroll at UALR, she is also part of a growing trend of college-age students in the U.S. who choose to take a “gap year” between high school and college.

Martin, a 2009 Hall High School graduate in the top 20 percent of her class, joined City Year following graduation. The non-profit national service organization of 17 to 24 year-old students serves high-need school districts across the country.

From early morning until midday for a full academic year, Martin tutored first-graders at Seventh Street Elementary School in North Little Rock. After several months, she saw her students progress from low reading levels to improving at least two reading levels.

“I was so proud, it was like they became my little kids for a while. This was a remarkable feeling,” she said. “Not only did their reading levels increase, but so did their confidence.”

In addition, Martin spent afternoons planning monthly community service projects for City Year corps members such as painting murals, building benches, and transforming a community garden.

The experience taught her leadership skills and garnered her friends from many backgrounds. The local community college where Martin recently earned her associate’s of science degree also provided a scholarship award for her year of service.

When considering where to transfer to complete her bachelor’s degree, Martin, who aspires to be a professional dancer and choreographer, said she chose UALR because of its outstanding dance program. She said she wants to use dance to teach workshops and reach diverse groups of people.

Martin started dancing with the praise dance team at her church as a seven-year old, and later joined a three-person mime group. She also enrolled in a local dance school where she acquired the discipline necessary for classical dance genres.

She even had the opportunity to work with legendary dancer and choreographer Bill Hastings during his jazz dance workshop through the THEA Foundation.

Martin said the scholarship not only enables an education in a field for which she clearly has passion, but also benefits her long-term career goals and the lives of the people she hopes to positively affect.

As for words of advice for others who are among the first in their family to attend college, Martin left parting words.

“Don’t give up,” she said. “A new generation starts with you. Apply for as many scholarships as you can. Stay consistent and don’t lose sight of your goal.”

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