Trying to navigate without a map can be what it feels like for a first-generation student who decides to pursue higher education. In support of those students who are the first in their families to attend college, Oregon Institute of Technology (Oregon Tech) participated in a nationwide event, First-Generation College Celebration, virtually on Nov. 12.

The event was sponsored by the Tech Opportunities Program (TOP) and Student Involvement & Belonging (SIB). First-generation college students are those whose parent(s)/legal guardian(s) have not completed a bachelor's degree, so they are first in their families to attend a four-year college/university. Being first-generation is a very proud accomplishment for students and their families.

Brianna Schwenk, TOP Student Support Services academic specialist, organized the event and is excited to celebrate the first-generation students and connect them with resources that help them succeed. An estimated 32 percent of Oregon Tech students are first-generation students.

“Being a first-generation college student can be the absolute driving force behind the dedication and grit that many students have today,” Schwenk said. “Facing obstacles is often the case in the life of a first-generation student, as they struggle with the unfamiliar territory and an overall lack of guidance from their family. The ‘why’ becomes much bigger as a first-gen student—it means change for the future and a significant achievement to the family. Obtaining a degree can bring peace to students by knowing they will one day have stability, be unburdened financially, and change the future of their family. Getting to play a role in this journey with students is a true blessing. I am proud to be part of an institution that is committed to supporting, encouraging and celebrating the many milestones of its first-generation students.”

Oregon Tech’s TOP powers the potential of first-generation, low-income, and students with disabilities who demonstrate academic need. The dedicated staff provide services and support in the following areas:

  • Study skills, decision making and academic coaching
  • Academic, career and financial planning as well as supplemental tutoring
  • Peer mentoring and networking with other students, staff and faculty
  • College success classes, faculty-led sessions and workshops
  • Assistance with applying for financial aid, scholarships and grants
  • Community building, cultural events and a sense of belonging.


TOP is a federally funded Student Support Services-TRIO program that has supported Oregon Tech students since 2001. With a staff of three full-time employees and one-part time staff member, the program annually serves 160 students.


Brianna Schwenk and Amanda Cota
Brianna Schwenk and Amanda Cota

A first-generation student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Biology-Health Sciences from Oregon Tech, Amanda Cota spoke during the event about the impact TOP made on her educational journey.

“If it weren't for the TOP/TRiO program I would not have the confidence necessary to be a successful student,” Amanda said. “I am a first-generation college student and I feel that all the unknowns and hardships thrust upon us college students would be too overwhelming and discouraging to face on my own; but thanks to TOP/TRiO I don't have to face it alone. I have my support system and safety net of advisers, peer mentors and friends here to guide me all the way to graduation and beyond.”

The keynote speaker for this year’s event was Oregon Tech’s associate vice president of Human Resources, Maureen De Armond. “As a first-generation student myself, I don’t feel very far removed from our Oregon Tech students who are forging new territory,” she shared. “At the same time, I recognize that the experiences of first-generation students are as varied as the individuals themselves. Some may have supportive friends and family, some may be going it alone. I also recognize that the support and services available to first generation students today are vastly superior to what was available when I was going to school in the early 1990s. Oregon Tech’s TOP, for example, is a wonderful resource. We know that it can have a very significant impact on student success generally and a lasting impact on the individual students who receive its services.” Maureen is excited to participate in this event for the first time. She joined Oregon Tech in 2019 and serves as chief human resource officer, Title IX coordinator, and affirmative action officer. She is one of the first members of her extended family to earn a college degree and the only (known) one to earn a law degree.

In 2017, the Council for Opportunity in Education, in partnership with the Center for First-generation Student Success, celebrated the inaugural First-Generation College Celebration Nov. 8 with an event on Capitol Hill. The 2020 celebration brings together college and university campuses around the nation in recognition of their first-generation students, staff and faculty.

To learn more about the First-Generation College Celebration, visit