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UA Little Rock Faculty and Staff Share First-Generation College Success Experiences

November is First-Generation College Student Celebration Month! UA Little Rock is celebrating some of the university’s great faculty and staff who are also first-generation college graduates and finding out their secret to success after becoming the first person in their family to graduate college.

Dr. Lakeisha Falls

Dr. Lakeisha Falls, assistant professor of nursing at UA Little Rock, is a first-generation college student who was always determined to complete her goals of earning a college degree and becoming a professor.

“My biggest obstacles were finances and mentorship,” Falls recalled. “My family didn’t have the money to send me to college. I had to learn a lot of things on my own or from others. I had friends that helped me with applying for financial aid and scholarships. I applied for scholarships when I met the qualifications and that helped me with securing funding for school.”

Falls went on to earn an associate degree and bachelor’s degree in nursing and a bachelor’s degree in biology from UA Little Rock and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from UAMS.

“I always knew that I wanted to be a professor,” Falls said. “I remember taking a speech course in my first semester of college. One of my first speeches was about my long-term goal of becoming a professor. At the time, I thought it was going to be a biology professor, but life happened, and I fell in love with nursing. I love being an educator because it allows me to give back, and I love to see the growth in my students. Nothing is more meaningful than having students contact me to let me know how I made an impact.”

Dr. John Hall

Dr. John Hall, associate professor of finance who is starting his 26th year at UA Little Rock, first earned an associate degree in business at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, a junior college in his hometown of Tifton, Georgia. After transferring to Florida State University, Hall realized he didn’t fit in as well as some of the other college students.

“I did not think about being a first-generation student at the time, as I did not know that was something to consider,” Hall said. “I did recognize that the world many other students around me, especially at FSU, understood and moved through was not one I knew anything about. The larger social world of a big university was completely foreign to me. The big campus traditions – sports, homecoming, and other things – were not things I had experienced attending growing up because those were not part of my parents’ lives. In the summer of my junior year, I met the department chair in finance and his mentorship was crucial to the rest of my college days and my future.”

Hall went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in finance and a Master of Business Administration from Florida State University before earning a doctorate degree at Indiana University. He credits the mentorship of his undergraduate department chair for guiding him to a career in academia.

“The fact that being a university professor can be a career choice was not on my radar at all until I benefited from incredible guidance from the FSU Finance department chair,” Hall said. “He saw something in how I looked at my courses and what I thought I wanted and aimed me to graduate school and away from all the banks and others hiring my fellow students. When I became clear about being able to do graduate school and be in the university world as a career, it seemed like a fulfillment of not just what I wanted to do, but who I wanted to be. My goal, beyond any research or recognition, is to use the intelligence, knowledge, and skills I have to make the world I live in better than it was.”

Dr. Heidi Skurat Harris

Dr. Heidi Skurat Harris, associate professor of rhetoric and writing and graduate coordinator, was a first-generation college graduate when she earned her bachelor’s degree in English from the College of the Ozarks.

“In undergrad, I was lucky that one of the former English teachers at my high school had moved to the college level, and she took me under her wing from the beginning,” Harris said. “She was also a first-generation student, and she was able to help me navigate college. I was a residential student and really loved my college experience. I took advantage of every travel opportunity I could take and was able to do music performances throughout my time at College of the Ozarks.”

She later went on to earn a master’s degree in writing from Missouri State University as well as a master’s degree and Ph.D. in English, both from Ball State University.

“The option to be a college professor didn’t even exist in my world until I was a senior in college,” Harris said. “When Dr. Carman, my supervisor in the university writing center, told me I should be a college professor, I thought he was kidding. After 25 years, I still find it fascinating that anyone would ever let me teach. But I have taught at six different schools and in every modality. I have taught everyone from developmental to doctoral students. Had I not listened to Dr. Carman, who knows where I would be now.”

Christian O’Neal

Christian O’Neal, vice chancellor for university advancement, became a first-generation college graduate of UA Little Rock in 2001, when the former Student Government Association president earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

“As a first-generation college student, I know the life-changing impact of earning my UA Little Rock degree,” O’Neal said. “After seeing how a college education impacted me, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to help others achieve the same.”

O’Neal is leading the university’s recently publicly launched Centennial Campaign, which has a goal of raising $250 million by the university’s 100-year anniversary in 2027. The funds will be used for programs that will help UA Little Rock students succeed like scholarships, living and learning environment upgrades, and student success programs.

“Watching students walk across the stage at graduation to earn their degree is incredibly fulfilling,” O’Neal said. “There is something special about knowing that our team may have played a small role in helping them achieve their goals.”