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Falling into the right crowd

CMU experiences make lasting impression on first-generation student

Contact: Heather Smith

​Jennifer Peacock intentionally has her hands full this summer.

It's how the Central Michigan University senior from Clare, Michigan, lives, and she is committed to making college easier for others who one day will share first-generation student experiences similar to hers.

When Peacock isn't analyzing first-generation student interviews for her research project with educational leadership professor Frim Ampaw, she is updating an electronic handbook for Alternative Breaks participants as part of her internship at the Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center.

"Advice I received from a friend is 'Be intentional with people and be intentional with your actions,' and I really have internalized that," she said. "I always try to be intentional with my actions because I don't know what my actions might mean for somebody else. That is definitely something I learned here at CMU."

Peacock is proud she is a first-generation student, which led to her being named a McNair Scholar at CMU. McNair is a national program that prepares scholars for doctoral studies through research and other scholarly activities.

Peacock describes the McNair program as her "gateway" into academic research. The research requirement connected her to Ampaw, who agreed to serve as Peacock's McNair mentor. Ampaw already was conducting research into the factors that lead first-generation students to apply for and stay in college, and Peacock is working with her to conduct and analyze more research. Initial findings show that first-generation students need more social and emotional support.

MLK Peace March-embed.jpg"I saw a lot of different pieces of myself in the students we interviewed, and you could tell which ones met the right people when they got to college," Peacock said. "Having more data-driven research will help to show that colleges need to support these students in a different way. We are first-gen, but we don't want to be alone."

The topic hits close to home for Peacock, who was the first member of her family to attend college. Life at CMU was very difficult for Peacock at first. She even seriously thought about dropping out a few times.

"I just couldn't find my place. I didn't know if I was smart enough for college, and I didn't know how to be a college student," Peacock said. "And then I fell into a group of girls who were doing Alternative Breaks my sophomore year."

Alternative Breaks shift college career into high gear

Four months later, she joined her friends for a diversity-related alternative break in Immokalee, Florida. This sparked a chain reaction, and Peacock since has completed five other Alternative Breaks — including serving as a site leader — and this academic year she will serve as the Alternative Breaks student co-coordinator.

CMU students annually travel to more than 20 states. Through the program, they have saved endangered baby sea turtles, built homes, served veterans, documented shipwreck artifacts and more. Break Away even has ranked CMU as high as third in the nation for the number of Alternative Breaks trips taken and fourth in the nation for the number of participants.

"Alternative Breaks changed my entire life," she said. "My college career literally went from 0 to 100, just like that. When it clicked, it clicked."

These experiences gave Peacock some clarity for her academic studies. She also found that a major in cultural and global studies was the right fit for her interests in pursuing a doctoral degree related to public policy.

Her summer academic internship at the Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center focuses on expanding the Alternative Breaks training manual she co-authored last summer for site leaders to include information for all participants.

"My college experience in one word is 'grateful.' I'm just so grateful for the people I've met and the communities I've been able to work with," she said. "I met the right people who took an interest in me and saw something in me. I fell into the right crowd, and that really made my college experience. For that, I am so grateful."

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