Navigating the First-Generation Journey as an Achieve Atlanta Scholar


Kaniya Freeman speaking with Achieve Atlanta board members and philanthropic partners during Achieve Atlanta’s spring community breakfast on March 19

As I write this, a surge of emotions swirls inside me. As a graduate of Atlanta Public Schools, I am proud to have received a strong education that equipped me with the skills and knowledge needed to pursue my dreams of experiencing a private college education. I’m grateful for the community I fostered at Midtown High School, which pushed me to pursue higher education and apply for scholarships like the Achieve Atlanta Scholarship.

Being a first-generation college student presented many unique challenges and victories—from dealing with a stressful transition to college and unlearning poor study habits to having the opportunity to speak before Oglethorpe University’s Board of Trustees. It’s safe to say my journey is filled with moments of both uncertainty and resilience.

A high school graduation photo of Kaniya (Midtown High School, Class of 2021)

I often found myself venturing into uncharted territory. Although my parents were supportive, they lacked firsthand experience in navigating the complexities of higher education. They instilled in me the value of education, but beyond that, I was on my own to figure things out. My peers effortlessly navigated the intricacies of financial aid forms, tests, and readings. Yet, I found myself grappling with unfamiliar terms and procedures.

Nonetheless, my journey became easier at Oglethorpe University. When talking to my admissions counselor, I learned that Oglethorpe University is an Achieve Atlanta partner, meaning I would receive my scholarship and join a cohort of Atlanta Public Schools students with similar backgrounds upon my arrival. Thus, I embarked on a transformative journey that has shaped my academic pursuits and those of my peers. Financial burdens and academic/social adjustments made it hard to push through. However, advisors, peer mentors, and college coaches helped alleviate the stressors of being a first-generation student. Connecting with similar Scholars empowered me to embrace my identity and make a difference in my respective communities. I began not only advocating for the voices of Black students but also the voices of first-generation students across campus.

Kaniya with Dr. Kathryn McClymond, president of Oglethorpe University, during Achieve Atlanta’s spring community breakfast

At Oglethorpe University, about 40% of the student body are first-generation college students. Earlier this year, I was invited to speak on two panels about the first-generation experience at Oglethorpe’s annual Liberal Arts and Sciences Symposium. During the first panel discussion about students’ campus initiatives, I shared how I am supporting other first-generation students on campus through the First-Generation Student Support Programs Office. The next day, I was part of a critical dialogue connecting the first-gen experience to Black intellectual writers.

Kaniya speaking during an event at Oglethorpe University in November 2023

My advisor, mentor, and a few of my Scholar peers attended those panel discussions to support me. At that moment, I realized that the Achieve Atlanta Scholarship is more than just a financial boost; it validates my potential and is a testament to the power of opportunity. For many first-generation students, accessing higher education can seem like an insurmountable obstacle due to financial constraints. However, this scholarship has opened doors I once thought were closed. It has provided me with the resources needed to pursue my dreams. It has demonstrated that hard work and perseverance can indeed pay off—all while building a community where students can find a sense of belonging in an otherwise unfamiliar environment. 

One of the most rewarding aspects of being a Scholar is the community that comes with it. Through networking events, mentorship programs, and peer support groups, I’ve connected with fellow Scholars and first-generation students who share similar experiences and aspirations. These connections have been invaluable in navigating the difficulties of college life. I’ve found support when I needed it most—especially when I have allowed myself to relish in pity for my circumstances or when facing higher education’s hidden curriculum for first-generation students. My mentor and advisor have helped me recognize my successes in adversity, like speaking at Oglethorpe events, meeting the Mayor of Atlanta numerous times, or being a leader in my cohort, where we celebrate the success of all.

Kaniya with Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens at the mayor’s inaugural youth town hall on April 2

Being a first-generation college student is not without its trials, but it is also a source of strength and resilience. With determination, perseverance, and the support of my Achieve Atlanta community, soon I will be Kaniya Freeman, the first in my family to graduate from college. I will be Kaniya Freeman, Ph.D in African American Studies. I will be Kaniya Freeman, founder and owner of Ruth’s Byrd marketing firm. Most importantly I, Kaniya Freeman, believe I can achieve my goals and pave the way for future Scholars. 

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