“I’m Still Making It”

First-Generation Student Ray Ackey Dives in and Thrives in Uncharted Waters

Approximately 42% of Coker’s student body consists of first-generation students, those who are the first in their family to graduate from a four-year college or university. Coker College junior Raymond Ackey, Jr. (better known as Ray to his friends) is one of our 42%.

Sheer persistence on Coker’s part convinced the Bowdon, Georgia, native to come for a campus tour, but, at the time, it wasn’t enough to persuade him to come to school here. Going to college out of state is a big decision, a big move, and can mean big changes.

“We came my senior year for a tour,” Ray remembers. “Being that I was so used to back home and I was still in high school, when I came here initially, I didn’t really want to come. But I always did think the campus was very beautiful. So I came for another tour because I really loved the campus and the people who were giving the tour...so that’s when I was like, yeah, I really do want to go here...And now I’m here in my third year. I’m still making it.”

Many of the challenges of being a first-generation student stem from being the first in the family to navigate the college experience, including the application process. “It was hard because no one from my family went to college before,” remembers Ray. “Some of my teachers from high school, one teacher in particular, really helped me with my applications and she made sure I met scholarship deadlines....My mom [made] sure I turned in all the documents for financial aid and my dad was very supportive in terms of my being comfortable with my decision to go away to college...It was a hard process, but we got it.”

When Ray started, he was an English education major, but decided to change to psychology and sociology his sophomore year. “I was originally an English ed major because I wanted to work with students, but I changed my major my sophomore year to psychology because I felt I could still help students, just in a different area,” says Ray.

The fact that Coker is in South Carolina turned out to be a plus for Ray––it’s close enough to home, but not too close. In fact, Ray highly recommends that other first-generation students consider going to college outside of their hometown. He’s learned from experience that moving outside of your comfort zone has a snowball effect that leads to other unprecedented adventures and experiences. “If you could, go to college away from home,” he advises. “You’re able to experience a lot in college, but you get more by living on campus. So definitely take that chance. Because once you take that chance, you’ll be willing to take more chances, try new things, experience different people, different cultures, different areas.”

"Once you take that chance, you’ll be willing to take more chances, try new things, experience different people, different cultures, different areas.”

For Ray, one of the biggest obstacles was adjusting to the faster pace of college. “In my high school, everything seemed slow compared to college,” he says. “I had to get used to it very fast because I was here by myself.”

Another challenge was overcoming the insecurity he felt speaking up in class and asking for help. “I didn’t really have to ask for a lot of help in high school,” says Ray. “I didn’t know that, here, the professors are really willing to help you because I came from from a high school where some teachers didn’t actually help. They would just be like, ‘well, either don’t do it or just ask your neighbor.’ So [if there was] an assignment for class that I was having difficulty with, I didn’t ask professors.”

There is a pervasive myth that hinders a lot of first-generation students from asking for help––I’m a college student so I should be able to do this all on my own. Not true. Whether you’re a first generation student or come from a family full of college graduates, asking for help is not a sign that you’re not doing something correctly; it’s a sign that you’re taking charge of your own success story.

Towards the end of Ray’s freshman year, he started warming up to the idea of asking for help. “It started to get to where there were a lot of assignments where I just needed help...a couple of tests I could have done better on if I’d asked for help, so I felt the need to better myself by taking the chance and asking professors for help,” says Ray. “Even in class, they kept stating, ‘if you need help, see me during my office hours.’ In high school, we didn’t have office hours so I didn’t know if that was legit.”

Ray definitely got more comfortable speaking up and speaking out. He says, “I like being involved...I feel more comfortable talking in classes, talking in leadership type positions, and I feel more confident in my work.”

Before getting up the courage to ask for help, Ray wasn’t nearly as confident. But once he started making connections and fostering relationships, he realized there’s power in perseverance. “Once I started getting more comfortable and more aware that I have the ability to do what I can and what I want to do to help my career...I definitely feel like Coker helped me with that,” says Ray. “One thing I do know about Coker is they really push leadership with student-run organizations and...my leadership skills have increased more.”

Through various leadership positions and academic achievements, Ray’s confidence continues to grow. “The first thing I remember that I felt like was a real achievement was being part of the commissioner program that they have here,” Ray says. “When I applied and got that position, I was excited...I’m also president of the Residence Hall Association here and that’s a way for students to share their opinion and let their voice be heard for their living situations....I’m also an RA, resident assistant, at the Governor’s School of Science and Mathematics (GSSM).”

Ray also enjoys writing and dancing. “I’m part of the Venomous dance club here,” he says. “I like to express myself in writing and I feel like I express myself from dancing....I really enjoy that.” He plans to go to graduate school to get his master’s in student affairs, and would prefer to stay in South Carolina.

“When I first got accepted here, that’s where it all started,” says Ray. “Even now, whenever I go home or I’m on the phone or when [my dad’s] around people, he’s always boosting me up...He’s very proud. And my mom’s always proud. They always talk about how independent I’ve become. I still depend on them for some things, but I feel like I’ve grown a lot. And that’s something I don’t realize...because I’m constantly going and I’m constantly doing things, which I like, but I don’t really take a lot of time to look back on what I've done and how far I've come. By my parents constantly doing that and my sisters and my friends, that just helps [me] know how far I’ve come and am supported. They wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Ray feels like Coker was definitely the right place for him. He says, “I really like how Coker wants people to succeed. Even though people may see sometimes all the work and all the other things you have to do, like financial aid and all that tedious stuff, and I think, in the end, it’s very beneficial to come into a school that’s small because you do get that one-on-one with professors that you may need or want.”

"I think, in the end, it’s very beneficial to come into a school that’s small because you do get that one-on-one with professors that you may need or want.”

Coker’s smaller student body (1200+) and easier access to professors and opportunities are pluses for Ray. He says, “You get to know everyone on campus and with a lot of people taking the same courses, you can get the help you need...And also, just a lot of networks come out of Coker...and it helps students get involved in the community while also getting the network that they may need for their major or their career.”

Ray is a big believer in taking chances, especially those chances that could lead to a successful college career. “I definitely say take your chances in going and ask for help,” says Ray. “Definitely ask for help, whether [from] your high school teachers, your family and friends, sisters and brothers...a lot of people are willing to help, especially in the process of going to college...it’s encouraging for people to go to college––people see it as a chance to find [out] who you are and what you want to do in life. You will never be able to truly do what you want unless you take that chance.”

"You will never be able to truly do what you want unless you take that chance.”


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