Every year in late April, the Department of Communication Studies, with support from the College of Liberal Arts, has hosted a first-generation celebration for communication studies majors. Whether graduating in a few short weeks, or several years from earning a degree, all first-generation majors are invited. The event aims to help students build connections with their peers, department faculty, especially those who also identify as first generation, and first-generation alumni.  
Prior to the pandemic, the celebration took place in the Gregory Allicar Museum of Art, housed inside the University Center of the Arts. The event featured food, beverages, and the opportunity to mingle and connect with faculty and our alumni guests of honor. Alumni also shared their experience as a first-generation student with attendees, offering encouragement and insight on staying focused and motivated as a student – and as they adjust to life after graduation. 
headshots of students and alumni participating in first generation conversationsOnce the spring semester moved to fully remote learning by late March 2020, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Associate Professor Elizabeth Williams worked with the Undergraduate Committee to re-imagine the experience as a virtual event. Their primary objective was to find a way for first-generation students and alumni to make a meaningful connection.  
Instead of trying to recreate a gathering in a virtual space – especially since this way of connecting was so new to everyone – the committee envisioned a more intimate opportunity: a first-generation conversation. Williams invited all first-generation majors to apply for the opportunity to participate in a virtual conversation with a first-generation alumni. Five students were chosen from a pool of 19 and paired with an alumni for a virtual conversation moderated by Williams, who is also first generation. Students also received a small stipend to help with their studies. 
Participants included Josett Valdez (’01) and Xochitl Ramirez (’20), Stephanie McCay (’06) and Julie Aprill (’20), Dean Griess (’01) and Megan Robertson (’21), Nate Shugrue (’14) and Mia Coats (’21), and Janae Brown (’19) and Yulissa Chavez (’22). Conversations were recorded and made available for online playback 
While not our annual festive gathering, these conversations were immensely valuable for those involved. They were fun to moderate—some brought me to tears and others left me laughing out loud. I hope other students take the time to listen to the conversations as hearing about others’ experiences is a great way to grow and learn. 
Time to Celebrate – Virtually 
With a year of virtual meetings under everyone’s belt, Williams and the Undergraduate Committee felt confident that first-generation students, alumni, and faculty would all appreciate gathering online for the spring 2021 edition. Senior Instructor Mark Saunders (M.A., ‘05) and Alumni and Communication Coordinator Carol Busch joined Williams in planning the event for late April.  
The duo created a program that would include both large group conversations for introductions and general comments, and breakout room opportunities for smaller group chats and special topic Q&A sessions. With CLA support, Williams and Saunders were able to encourage student participation by offering dinner that would be delivered to directly to them.  
New in 2021, the communication studies first-generation celebration expanded to include first generation graduate students.  
“We thought it would be a great opportunity for our undergrad students to meet and talk with older first-generation students pursuing an advanced degree, in part to see what’s possible, but also as a mentoring opportunity for grad students from both the M.A. and the Ph.D. Programs,” Williams said.  

Connecting virtually. The department’s first generation community gathers for the spring 2021 First Generation Celebration.

The department invited a handful of first-generation conversation alumni participants to join the 2021 celebration so they could have the opportunity to engage with more students. COVID-era comm studies graduates were also invited to participate. Their involvement in the department’s virtual alumni panel series had demonstrated a strong need for students to hear how recent grads had negotiated a challenging job market during an unprecedented time.  
The final guests included two alumni nearly two decades apart: Dean Griess (‘01), managing director of learning delivery and design with Charles Schwab, and Mahalia Henschel (‘20), communications specialist for the Town of Wellington. 
On April 28, 2020, more than 30 first-generation B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. students, faculty and alumni gathered to celebrate the near end of an exceedingly challenging academic year.  
Following introductions from all attendees, the students and faculty split into six breakout rooms for small group brainstorms. They were charged with creating a handful of questions for alumni to answer. After reconvening, Griess and Henschel shared their first-generation experiences and perspectives.  
“I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to finally be on a Zoom call with people who understand the value of nonverbal communication!” Griess said to the group as he reflected on a year of working virtually. “It is amazing how the skills taught within the communication discipline get overlooked especially in the virtual space.” 
Henschel, who graduated last May, was eager to talk about what she says no one shared with her: how to transition from the life of a student to the life of a full-time professional employee.  
The program ended with a new set of breakout rooms featuring different special topics, including   graduate school, school to work transitions, and leveraging the communication studies degree within an ever-changing job market.  
“This is one of my favorite events of the year,” says Department of Communication Studies Chair Greg Dickinson. “I am so impressed with the care and compassion our alumni bring to helping students see possibilities for themselves in the future, whether at CSU or out in the world.”