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Tennessee Reconnect and Promise. Graduating high school seniors can attend tuition-free. Free tuition for adults.Tennessee Reconnect and Promise. Graduating high school seniors can attend tuition-free. Free tuition for adults.
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News: Read the winning entry from the 2023 "I'm First" essay contest

A man in a red shirt standing in front of a fence.

November 8, 2023

Congratulations to Troy Holt, winner of the 2023 First Generation College Student Essay Contest.

Each year, Roane State's Student Engagement Office holds the "I'm First" essay contest, asking students to speak to their experiences as the first person in their family to attend college. The winner is announced as part of the First Generation College Celebration Day.

You can read the full text of Troy's winning essay below. As always, thank you to everyone who entered the contest as well as the faculty members who volunteered their time to judge the entries.

"I’m First" Essay, by Troy Holt

I grew up in a rural community outside of Oakdale, Tennessee in the 1970’s. My dearest memories were playing with my five brothers and sisters in what seemed like paradise. I was the youngest of my siblings. My mother raised us by herself, and our nearest neighbor was a mile down the gravel road. Our home had no indoor plumbing and limited electricity, but It was home to me. The one thing I had plenty of was books, my mother was a voracious reader and passed that gift on to me. Anagram puzzle books were my favorite. The thousands of puzzles I worked on as a child helped me see different words within words. That gift would benefit me later in my career as a cryptographer in the Air Force. 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my mother struggled to make ends meet for us. Mom worked at the local hosiery mill, getting as many hours as she could to put food on the table. My oldest brother was a crack shot with a shotgun and would get plenty of squirrels for our table as well. My sisters could turn anything into a feast; they just knew how to make magic out of anything. My mother dropped out of high school in the tenth grade to marry my father and start a family. Working long hours and always struggling to make ends meet took a toll on my mother. Books became a luxury for my mother, but she made sure I still had them.

Soon enough, I learned the reality of being unprepared for education. My oldest brother quit school to join the Marines when I was eight. My oldest sister graduated and got married when I was ten. My remaining siblings quit school early and by the time I was eleven, I was the only one left in school. School was difficult for me, and that made me feel stupid and alone. No one at home could help me and my grades were terrible. The blessings of going to a small school were that the teachers knew me and loved me. My eighth-grade teacher gave me a chance to go to high school even though my grades were not up to advancement. In high school, my math teacher blessed me this time with what she called a “D minus minus” to help me pass the minimum standards for graduation. I believe that the reason I struggled so badly was because I couldn’t process things as fast as other students. When I left school for the day there was no one at home to help me reinforce what I had learned in class.

College for me was not an option but having a high school diploma opened a career in the Air Force, and for the first time in my life I felt smart. The puzzle books that my mother gave me as a child helped me recognize patterns in things. I tested very high in communication intelligence in my Air Force placement test. During my career in the Air Force, I had the honor of flying over forty missions in support of the United States. The service took me to countries where I was viewed as both a liberator and occupier. I have walked in the footsteps of kings and seen the birthplace of Shakespeare. Something was still missing for me; because I wanted to share my story to help the next person. The missing piece was college. 

Through Tennessee Reconnect I enrolled at Roane State in the fall of 2021. My placement scores were low in math, and I was placed in a learning support class called Statistical Principles. My first day of school was a disaster; I couldn’t access the computer, and my face was hot with embarrassment. My math teacher asked me, “are you sure you can do this?”. Of course I wasn’t, but I said yes. I used every resource that Roane State could offer; learning support, tutoring, extra credit, anything to pursue my education. The grades for my first semester were all A’s including a 101 in Statistics. The tears were flowing on my way home. I felt the gravity of it all in a torrent of emotion. I had arrived, the teachers from my past blessing me and propelling me. 

Being a first-generation college student at fifty-six is not the road most students take, but the journey has meant everything. Sometimes I still cannot fathom the incredible gift that college has been to me. Education brings understanding and healing, I can go back and comfort my younger self. I didn’t leave my family behind, I took them with me down the halls of Roane State. As a first-generation student it is my fervent hope to pass the torch to the next generation. Being a first-generation student is another way of saying “follow me” to my classmates, I know the struggle that they go through. My Statistical Principles professor is now a great friend to me and, like my past teachers, has shown me the way. College is the lamp that guides me. I love my fellow classmates, and I hope to help them find their way. My mother is still alive and hearing her say how proud she is never gets old. When I receive my diploma from Roane State, I will be on stage with prayers of thanks to Roane State and the educators that made this dream possible. 

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