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10 Famous First Generation Graduates

Being a First Generation student is hard. But with hard work and persistence, it pays off.

Every First Generation student has gone through the motions of insecurity, anxiety and faced many stigmas throughout their journey of pursuing education or a big-time career. Without anyone with post-secondary experience that may be close to you, it’s intimidating to go through these life stages without any guidance. However, in hopes of inspiring other First Generation students out there, here is a list I have compiled of famous First Generations in the world who have walked in your shoes and have overcome their challenges in what it takes to make a difference in the world.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton was born in Hope, Arkansas and was the 42nd President of the United States. Clinton’s birth name was William Jefferson Blythe III. His father passed away 3 months before his birth on August 19th, 1946. This left his mother, Virginia Kelley, who helped her parents to run a family grocery store. Clinton graduated from Georgetown University in 1968 with a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service. Then, he received a Rhodes Scholarship to the University of Oxford but did not complete it due to the commencement of the Vietnam War. He also received an offer to study at Yale Law School following his graduation, but did not attend until 1973, and earned his Juris Doctor (J.D.). He was the first in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Viola Davis

An American award-winning actress and producer. Born in St. Matthews, South Carolina, Davis grew up in a poor family and struggled to provide meals for her and her siblings. Her father was a horse trainer and her mother was a maid, factory worker and homemaker. She began to act in her high school days and earned scholarships to Rhode Island College and Julliard. After high school, she attended Julliard where she later graduated in 1988 majoring in theatre.

Walt Disney

The creator of all things magical for the majority of our childhoods. Born in Chicago, Illinois, Disney took up drawing when he was young and became a commercial illustrator at 18. He and his brother would deliver newspapers before and after school. Disney was failing school due to the exhaustion of working early hours and late nights. Disney created the Disney Brother Studio in the early 1920s in California with his brother Roy. Later, in 1966, he passed away from lung cancer as he was a heavy smoker. However, his legacy continues to live on for generations in our hearts through the creation of his films and amusement parks that live on today.

Albert Einstein

World-renowned physicist and Nobel Prize winner for Theoretical Physics in 1922, Einstein became highly accredited for the development of theory of relativity. He lived in Germany and earned his teaching degree from the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (formerly, Swiss Federal Polytechnic) University in Zurich, Switzerland. Einstein’s father, who ran an electrical equipment company, did not have a college education. 

Samuel L. Jackson

American actor and film producer, Jackson has starred in the films Pulp Fiction (1994) and Star Wars: The Clones (2008) among many others. He was raised by his mother, who was a factory worker in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His father was distant from his family in Kansas City, Missouri and struggled with alcoholism and later died. Jackson planned to major in marine biology but then went to Morehouse College in Atlanta where he graduated with his Bachelor of Arts in Drama in 1972. However, after joining an acting group on campus, he decided to pursue acting instead and went on to take part in multiple plays and films.

Larry King

King was a journalist and TV show host of Larry King Live on CNN. A household name across the globe as a merited tv and radio host of the talk show for 25 years. His birth name is Lawrence Leibel Harvey Zeiger but I don’t think that would have been as catchy as “Larry King”. Born in Brooklyn, New York, King had no interest in school after his father passed away from a heart attack at the age of 44. King’s father was a restaurant owner and his mother was a garment worker, both of whom did not pursue a post-secondary education. However, later on, he received an honourary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Bradley University in Illinois along with ones from George Washington University and the Columbia School of Medicine.

Michelle LaVaughn Obama

The First African-American First Lady. She was born in Chicago, Illinois, where her father worked for a water department and her mother was a full-time homemaker. Obama attended Princeton University and graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in 1985. Afterwards, she attended Harvard Law school and earned her Juris Doctorate (J.D.) degree in 1988. Both her parents have never pursued post-secondary education.

Howard Schultz

The former CEO of Starbucks from 1986 to 2000. Schultz grew up in a housing project in Brooklyn, New York. His father was an ex-U.S. Army soldier and truck driver. Schultz attended Northern Michigan University on a football scholarship. He funded his university education with the help of government aid and part-time employment. Later, in 1975, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree, majoring in Communications. He was ranked the 660th richest person in America in Forbes 2017 with a net worth of 3 billion dollars.

 Margaret Hilda Thatcher

In 1979, Thatcher became Britain’s first female Prime Minister, and was known as the “Iron Lady” as she was a tough and outspoken politician like the former leader of Britain’s Conservative Party from 1979 to 1990. Thatcher grew up in Grantham, Lincolnshire. Her father was the owner of tobacconists and a grocery shop. She earned a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, a women’s college, in 1947 where she graduated with a bachelor’s in Chemistry. She was more proud to have become the first Prime Minister with a science degree than to becoming the first woman and kept the preservation of the women’s college.

Oprah Gail Winfrey

Oprah is an American talk-show host, actress, producer, television network owner and philanthropist who grew up in poverty in Kosciusko, Mississippi. Her mother, Vernita Lee (1935-2018) raised her as a teenaged, single mom working as a housemaid. Who Oprah calls her biological father, Vernon Winfrey, worked as a coal miner, then barber, and later city councilman who had served in the Armed Forces. Oprah was an honours student throughout high school and was known for her public speaking skills. Although Oprah was a rebellious teen who stole money from her mother’s purse, she grew up to be a successful talk-show host of The Oprah Winfrey Show. With her performance at an oratory contest at her high school, she earned a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, historically a college attended by African-Americans and majored in Communications.

With many other famous First Generations that may not have been included in this list, I hope that these people inspire you throughout your educational journey or to landing the career of your dreams. It’s not easy being the first but it is definitely the most rewarding!

Nataly Manychanh

Laurier Brantford '22

3rd year BA Digital Media and Journalism '22 First Generation student. Amateur writer. Self-proclaimed comedian. Well-known procrastinator.
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