Helen Egwu never planned on going to college. It had never seemed like an option.
In the spring of her senior year of high school, Helen’s life changed drastically. Her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer. Her family came together to support her mother, who died in May. As the family was grieving, Helen felt isolated and alone.
“I didn’t have anyone to really push me, because my family was so focused on my mother who was dying,” she said. “So, one day, I just made the decision to go to college. Because I was like, ‘you know what? I don’t want to be home.’ And that was all it was about.”
Two months before the start of the fall semester, Helen applied to Central Michigan University.
“When I came to campus, my orientation campus leader was so nice,” Helen said. “Everyone was so happy. I said, ‘This is the kind of environment that I need to be in right now.’”
When she moved to campus, though, her grief came with her. Helen spent her first week of classes in bed, crying and missing her mom. Her resident assistant said she should talk with an advisor.
Lori Driessnack was listing the resources she normally gives to first-generation students who come to meet with her. However, she could tell Helen wasn’t listening. So Lori stopped and asked what was going on.
Helen broke down and cried, letting the emotions that had been overwhelming her for a week alone flow to a perfect stranger.
“Lori was like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t know you, and I’m not your mother, and I could never be your mother’,” Helen recalled, “‘but I have children, and my heart cannot allow me to watch you cry and not do something about it.’”
A single hug from Lori changed Helen’s world. From that moment on, she knew she had an ally on campus. Lori was also a first-generation student, and she takes pride in helping other first-generation students navigate school.
But Helen got more than an ally that day. She gained a new family member.
“Lori would always celebrate those small victories, like when I became an inclusion assistant,” Helen said. “She got me a cake and a card and really went all out for me. My family? I didn’t even tell them, but I told her. And just to see her celebrate that meant so much to me.”
Because of the connection Helen and Lori made, Helen decided to continue on to grad school and help other students like herself. She now leads diversity training for folks on campus through her graduate assistantship in the Office for Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
“I’m studying higher education because of Lori and just realizing that I want to have the same impact on students that she was able to have on me,” she said. “She could never take the place of my mom, but she took on that motherly role. She did that for me, and I want to do that for others.”