Updated as of 11:08 p.m. on May 22 to include additional photos.

When Gisselle Garcia-Jose was a freshman in high school, she did not believe she would be able to attend college. Now, as a first-generation, graduating senior and student keynote speaker at the first-generation stole ceremony, she said she is filled with gratitude for those who supported her and hopes to inspire others to achieve their dreams.

“To be the first one when traveling across the stage to grab that diploma, it's not really a personal achievement,” Garcia-Jose said during her speech. “It is a communal triumph and a beacon of hope for those who follow.”

Ethan Wu | Elon News Network

Amy Allocco (left) stoles senior Nadia Lawyer (right) on May 22 in McKinnon Hall at the First-Generation Stole Ceremony.

During the ceremony on May 22, 36 first-generation, graduating seniors were recognized and presented with stoles by Elon mentors or friends. This event recognized students who are the first in their family to obtain a higher degree.

Being the first in your family to apply for and attend college can be a daunting task, Travella Free, executive director for the Center for Access and Success, said during the event. This event served to recognize both graduating seniors and the people who have supported them through their Elon journey.

“These Trailblazers may not have family members who can help them navigate the college experience, but they have gained some co-navigators over time,” Free said during the event. “First generation students are hardworking, resilient, proactive, resourceful, creative — among many characteristics. And today we celebrate your success, hard work and the sacrifices you and your support systems have made.”

As a former first-generation college student, Barb Carlton, associate director of facilities and event services for student life at James Madison University, said she understands what it is like to feel out of place. 

Up until earlier this semester, Carlton worked for Elon as the assistant director of the Moseley Student Center. In her speech, she encouraged students to ask for help when needed and to be brave enough to speak up when feeling lost.

Though Carlton said she had a lot of logistical questions after beginning college, she also said she faced a lot of self-doubt.

“Why if people find out that I'm not smart enough?” Carlton said during her speech. “Do I belong?”

Carlton closed by encouraging students to believe in themselves, and as a Kansas native, took inspiration from the Wizard of Oz to share her closing advice.

“You've always had the power my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself,” Carlton said during her speech.