From first-generation college student to department chair

Professor Thomas J. Holmes
Professor Thomas J. Holmes

Throughout the week of November 8-12, the University of Minnesota joins other colleges across the U.S. in celebrating First Gen Week. Roughly 1 in 4 students at the University are the first in their families to attend college. Professor Tom Holmes, chair of the Department of Economics, shares his path and advice for students.

Tell us about your college experience.

I am the first person in my family to go to college. Both my parents would have loved to have gone, but they did not have the opportunity. When I started college, I never considered the possibility of going on to get a Ph.D. in economics and pursuing a career as a college professor. I would not have done this without the close interactions I had with my professors, including time working as a research assistant, that opened up the idea to me.

What advice would you give to first-generation students today?

I strongly encourage students to interact with their professors!  Talk to them after class and in office hours. This is good advice for all students, but particularly for first-generation college students, who may not have as much inside information about how colleges work and what opportunities there are out there. (Like maybe becoming an economics professor…) 

Any final thoughts?

An epilogue about college and my parents: After my mother retired, she enrolled in college and ended up graduating with honors with a degree in English. And while my father didn’t register, he went to classes with her and was her study buddy. Since my mother graduated almost 30 years after I did, I think I should still count as first generation! And to my fellow first-generation college students: I hope you encourage your family members that it is never too late to learn!

Read an interview with Sagal Khalif, a first-generation student majoring in Economics.

Are you a first generation student or alumnus? Share your First Gen Story and advice!


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