(VIDEO) One Red Raider shares her story in celebration of First-Generation College Celebration Day.
First-generation college students do a lot on their own.
They often figure out applications, paperwork and financial aid by themselves. Their tenacity and independence are part of why they're successful.
Kalaya Hicks, a computer engineering major at Texas Tech University, would argue the continued success of a first-gen student takes a village. On this year's First-Generation College Celebration Day, the senior shares her story and the characters who helped her along her path.
Hicks and her two siblings were raised by their mother.
“My father went straight into the military after high school,” Hicks said. “Not long after I was born, he and my mother separated. Neither of them had college degrees.”
Hicks' mother fought to get as much education as she could receive, though. Eventually, she earned an associates degree but had to pay her way by working two or three jobs at a time just to keep food on the table and continue attending classes.
At certain points during her childhood, Hicks and her siblings lived with their grandparents so they could make ends meet. While the support of their grandparents helped, the family still struggled with food insecurity and necessities other families take for granted.
“I remember my mom making sure we were well-fed and dressed to put our best foot forward, and oftentimes that meant she went without,” Hicks said. “My mother is one of the strongest people I know.”
Hicks' mother had the perseverance to see things through with her children. With two students now at Texas Tech and the other in the Air Force, her early sacrifices have begun to pay off.
Hicks started at Texas Tech in the fall of 2019, pursuing computer engineering with two minors: one in Asian studies and another in mathematics. But that doesn't come close to encompassing all her interests.
In high school, Hicks took part in a leadership academy, led multiple student organizations and played flute, bass clarinet and oboe in the band. She's also had a longtime interest in fashion design.
“My mom got me a sketchbook to practice in when I was a teenager,” Hicks said. “I've also seen engineering and fashion as two disciplines that complement one another. Maybe one day I'll start a company that brings those two passions together.”
One of Hicks' inspirations is artist and engineer Mattaniah Aytenfsyu. The young professional has more than 100,000 followers on social media where she shares her UX engineering inventions.
Hicks believes there are thousands of untapped ideas when it comes to collaborating in cross-disciplinary fields. So much so that she created a whole body of undergraduate research to promote further collaboration.
McNair Scholars Program
As a first-gen student, Hicks knew she was eligible for quite a bit of funding. She applied for assistance through Financial Aid & Scholarships, but Hicks recognized early that valuable support was not just monetary.
In her second year at Texas Tech, she got the opportunity to work on research in one of the engineering labs but longed to do research of her own. The lab she was in was researching non-contact vital signs for electrocardiograms.
While the research was certainly relevant and useful, it wasn't the path Hicks saw herself going down long-term.
“Over the past few years, I've observed how poor engineers' soft skills can be,” she said. “It's not that I don't want to solve problems in the lab, but to do the collaboration I hope to do, I'll need to share my ideas and get people excited, which isn't always something that comes naturally to engineers.”
Hicks decided she would conduct her own research on engineering soft skills by looking at four categories: conflict resolution, presentation, creativity and writing. She recognizes that while professional firms are beginning to value these skills in recruits, they often don't open the conversation up at the college level, where most of their future employees will come from. Hicks hopes to bridge this communication gap and ensure both sides get what they want.
Hicks began looking for opportunities on campus to work on her research and prepare her for graduate studies.
“I knew I wanted to pursue a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) Master's of Business Administration (MBA) or doctoral degree,” she said. “If you think applying for college is challenging for a first-gen student, then you can imagine how intimidating graduate school can seem.”
Hicks noted that the McNair Scholars Program answered a lot of her questions and addressed some of the concerns she had.
“I knew I wanted to pursue graduate work, I just had no idea how to go about it,” she said.
That's where the McNair Scholars Program offered Hicks real value. McNair Scholars receive one-on-one guidance through a federally funded program, as they prepare for graduate work. Participants are either first-gen students with financial need or members of a group that is historically underrepresented in graduate education.
Students participate in the program their last two years of college, attending workshops that culminate in an eight-week summer research program, which simulates graduate-level work. McNair Scholars also receive hands-on support with the graduate application process through a series of workshops that focus on the GRE, writing personal statements, curriculum vitae and how to pick faculty advisers.
“The McNair Scholars Program was what I was looking for,” Hicks said. “Over the last year and a half, it has empowered me to conduct my own research, explore graduate school options and most importantly, develop friendships with those on a similar path.”
It Takes a Village
One realization Hicks had after joining McNair was that no one gets anywhere alone. In addition to friendships she's gained through McNair, she also has developed professional relationships that she believes will last for years to come.
“One of my favorite parts of the program is the life coaching,” Hicks said. “It's been nice to have that resource. Not only do they help you academically, but they're someone who checks in with you overall, and that's important.”
But Hicks' community is broader than the McNair program alone. There are many people at Texas Tech who have contributed to her success. One of those is Derek Johnston, a lecturer in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering.
“Johnston was the first engineering professor I had at Texas Tech,” Hicks said. “More importantly, he is the reason I didn't quit.”
While Hicks had access to leadership training in high school, she had no STEM programs available. With limited exposure to engineering prior to college, Hicks doubted she belonged when she started at Texas Tech. Other students came into the first year of college with knowledge about circuits and coding; Hicks struggled and felt left behind.
“I was so down on myself that I wasn't where these other students were at academically,” Hicks said. “I wasn't doing as well on projects, so I considered quitting engineering.”
But a conversation with Johnston helped Hicks stay the course.
“I told him I was thinking of leaving engineering,” she recalled, “and he said, ‘You came to college to learn; of course you don't know everything right now.'”
“It was because of him that I'll graduate with an engineering degree,” Hicks said.
Dallas is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Texas Tech and was the mentor who introduced Hicks to the Innovation Hub at Research Park.
“I was accepted into the Tech Intrapreneurship Program (TIP) and was awarded a scholarship that allowed me to further partner my research of engineering with entrepreneurship,” Hicks said.
After receiving the scholarship, Hicks attended her first Red Raider Startup.
“Dallas got us involved in the Innovation Hub and I loved it,” she said. “I didn't pitch an idea myself but got to watch teams compete. I learned a lot and was excited there was a place like that on campus.”
Mitchell is a professor of entrepreneurship in the Jerry S. Rawls College of Business and the Jean Austin Bagley Regents Chair. He also is Hicks' primary mentor.
“I want to continue my research on engineering soft skills,” Hicks said. “Eventually, I want to start an organization that teaches underrepresented groups about engineering. That will require expertise in both engineering and entrepreneurship.”
Mitchell has agreed to continue mentoring Hicks should she stay on at Texas Tech.
The support Hicks has found at Texas Tech has her seriously considering staying.
“I have a few schools on my list,” Hicks said. “But the relationships I've already formed at Texas Tech are a reason to seriously consider continuing my studies here.”
Finding Your Village
Hicks' first piece of advice to other first-gen students is to find their community within a community.
“Texas Tech is a huge place,” she said. “But there are hundreds of clubs, organizations and programs that can provide you with a sense of support and belonging.”
She also emphasizes not falling into the trap of comparing yourself to other students.
“No one learns the same way or at the same pace,” she said.
During her first year at Texas Tech, not only did she struggle to keep up with classmates who had had exposure to engineering earlier on in life, but she struggled to keep up with classes as things moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was hard not to compare her progress or her grades with those around her.
“Instead of getting down on myself about not having an A in a class, I would find those who were doing well and see what I could learn from them,” Hicks said. “That's part of finding your community, too: making sure there are people smarter than you in it.”
Most of all, Hicks wants other first-gen students to know that most of the battle is in the mind.
“Being the first one to do something is hard, but giving up is harder in the long run,” she said. “There are so many people at Texas Tech who believe you can succeed. You owe it to yourself to believe that too.”