Arts & Sciences

Celebrating first-generation students: senior Elle Engelke shares her experience and advice 

National First-Generation College Celebration Week occurs every year around Nov. 8 to acknowledge and elevate first-generation college students and alumni identities and contributions. Nov. 8 was selected as National First-Generation College Celebration Day in honor of the signing of the Higher Education Act of 1965. The act was intended to create greater access to higher education for students from minority and low-income backgrounds.   

In addition to creating federal grants and loan programs to help students finance their education, HEA ushered in the Federal TRIO programs, necessary for postsecondary access, retention and completion for potential first-generation college students.  

First-generation students make up 22% (more than 1 in 5) of the undergraduate student population at Marquette University, which honors the founding mission of being committed to increasing access to a transformative Catholic, Jesuit education. 

In celebration of National First-Generation College Celebration Day, Marquette Today this week will feature several first-generation students at Marquette, who will share their experience and advice for future students. 

Meet Elle Engelke, a senior double majoring in international affairs with a concentration in political-military relations and political science. 

For Elle, there was never a question in her mind about whether she’d attend college. Growing up, her mom always told her she was going to be the first in her family to get a postsecondary education. During her high school years, when Elle thought about the future, she believed she’d have a career in the biological sciences; after a trek overseas, fate had other plans. 

“I went on a trip with my high school to study bird biology in Nanning, China,” Elle says. “After that, I realized international affairs and language study was the path I had to follow. Flash forward to now— I have not thought about changing my major once. I love what I do.” 

After applying to several colleges, Elle received her first acceptance letter from Marquette. When she saw the acceptance e-mail light up her inbox, tears of joy flooded her cheeks and a sigh of relief washed over her. She immediately called her mom to share the good news — she knew her path to Marquette was meant to be. 

“From the first day of classes and the first set of friends I made to today, I think that choosing Marquette is the best decision I’ve ever made,” Elle says. 

Despite all the certainty and excitement surrounding her college acceptance, she knew that being the first in her family to attend college was not going to be without challenges; it wasn’t, but it was doable.  

“There’s a ton of trial and error. It requires you to be a different kind of independent, but it is so worth it,” Elle says. I think the most difficult part of being a first-generation student is the logistical stuff: paying tuition, getting loans, applying for scholarships, finding internships, making connections to help you find a job post-graduation and even studying.” 

As a senior looking back, she found a way through all the twists and turns, and she credits her support system for her personal perseveration through colleges inevitable hills and valleys.  

“As a first-gen student there were a couple of times when I questioned if I belonged in a college setting, especially when I went home and the stories I knew and told were quite different. I’ve been lucky to have an amazing support system,” Elle recalls. “Being at Marquette I have never felt so supported by the people around me. I attribute most of my college career successes to my professors. My professors at Marquette truly cared about me as a human being and not just as a student. Through my classes, my professors, friends and the Marquette Powerlifting club that I love so much— I have been able to create my own community here.” 

Elle’s advice to other first-generation students: if there’s a will there’s a way.  

“Seek out a community and say ‘yes’ to absolutely everything that comes your way. You never know who you’ll meet and what those opportunities will teach you about yourself and your abilities as a new college student.” 

Marquette has many on-campus resources for student success. For resources specific to first-generation students, see the first-generation college students resource list