Nermin Isic reflects on his journey as a first-gen student and the sacrifices his family made to get him here.
Texas Tech University and other institutions across the U.S. are observing First-Gen Week, a celebration of first-generation college students, Nov. 8-12. This story represents one of the many first-gen students at Texas Tech, a group that comprises 25% of the university's enrollment.
Nermin Isic is a first-gen student at Texas Tech University. He is earning a Bachelor of Science in chemistry with hopes to later earn his doctorate. Isic takes pride in being a first-gen student but is even prouder of his parents for what they sacrificed to get him here.
Isic's family is from Bosnia, formerly Yugoslavia, and was living there when the Yugoslav Wars broke out in the 1990s. Often described as Europe's deadliest conflict since World War II, the wars had mass casualties not only in battle but also due to genocide and ethnic cleansing.
“My dad wanted to stay and volunteer as a freedom fighter,” Isic said. “But my mom wanted to flee the country. My dad told her to take my older sister and go, but she refused to leave without him.”
His mother's stubbornness eventually won out, and both his parents and older sister fled to Slovenia, and then to Germany where Isic was born in 1995. In 2000, the family came to the U.S. and settled in Chicago, where Isic was raised and attended school.
“Luckily, I was at an age where it was fairly easy to pick up the English language,” Isic said. “Going to public school and making friends helped me assimilate pretty well. My father and mother were both truck drivers, which meant we didn't see them much. They were always on the road, so my older sister pretty much raised me. My dad had worked in construction back in Bosnia and my mother was a stay-at-home parent. But to provide for us in the U.S., they both had to work.
“Our parents really encouraged us to pursue higher education. They wanted us to have the American Dream.”
For Isic, that meant coming to Texas Tech.
“After years in the Midwest, I was tired of the cold weather and wanted to move somewhere warmer for college,” Isic said. “I was looking to study chemical engineering and applied to quite a few schools in Texas. Ultimately, I chose Texas Tech because it had everything I was looking for. I was impressed with the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering and the overall environment of the campus.”
Even though Isic completed some community college before coming to Texas Tech, the transition to a large university was daunting, especially as a first-gen student.
“I felt left in the dark,” Isic said. “Our parents worked hard to provide for us, but helping with the college application process was not something they could provide. The requirements for enrollment were very confusing to me. Once I got to campus, I remember that scheduling my classes felt really overwhelming. I was handed a course catalog and thought, ‘How do I know what classes to take?'”
Thankfully, Isic discovered the McNair Scholars Program. The program is part of the Division of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Texas Tech and prepares first-gen, low-income and historically underrepresented students for graduate studies.
“The McNair Scholars Program has opened so many doors for me,” Isic said. “The staff has helped me with things like graduate school applications, research feedback and even personal questions I've had about things like banking, registration or tuition.”
Isic changed his major to chemistry not long after starting at Texas Tech, and the McNair team helped him navigate that change as well. They were even involved when Isic got married this semester.
“Balancing my last few semesters of college, applying to graduate school and getting married has been a lot,” Isic said. “The McNair team took some of the weight off my shoulders.
“Being a part of the McNair and first-gen community at Texas Tech has been awesome. We're all in the same boat as first-gen students, and it's nice to be around people who are pursuing the same things and have the same mentality. Plus, we all hold each other accountable to our goals.”
Isic has an introverted personality and admitted that putting himself out there to find a likeminded community was a challenge at first.
“At times, it's been hard to integrate,” Isic said. “But this group has been wonderful. I encourage other first-gen students to find their community as well. It can be hard, but you have to put yourself out there. It's worth it.”
McNair is just one of many programs that exists to support first-gen students at Texas Tech. Other programs and services include AVID First Year Experience, Mentor Tech, First Generation Transition & Mentoring Programs (FGTMP) and TRIO Student Support Services.
“The McNair team assists students in completing an undergraduate research project and compiling a competitive graduate school application,” said Jon Crider, director of the McNair Scholars Program at Texas Tech.
“We help provide information and opportunities for students who often get lost in the shuffle or lack the resources needed for graduate school. Our goal is to help a more diverse population of students enter graduate school and experience success.”
Isic joined the McNair Scholars Program because graduate and post-graduate work has always been one of his goals.
“My older sister went to medical school, and I would like to earn my doctorate in chemistry,” Isic said. “This is our way of honoring the sacrifice our parents have made to get us here.”
But Isic recognizes no two first-gen students are alike and is passionate about everyone pursuing their own dreams.
“We each have something to offer, no matter our background,” Isic said. “At times I felt I was at a disadvantage because I was a first-gen student, but now I see it's just something that makes me unique. Every first-gen student should see their uniqueness as an advantage.”
For Isic, it has given him more ambition and drive.
“My parents now own their own business they built from the ground up,” Isic said. “When I look at all they've done and all that my sister is doing, I want to be a part of adding to that legacy.”