CINCINNATI — By the time Sydney King was 10 years old, she had lost both of her parents and was quickly dubbed by classmates as the “girl with no parents.”
But King said she wanted to be known for something else, something more.
"My aunt and I sat down and she told me, ‘What happened to you was terrible. It's not easy. And it's not going to be easy and it's difficult. But you can either sit here, waste your life away and mope and be sad … or you can take it and make it your motivation,’” King said, recalling the conversation after she moved in with her aunt and uncle when she was a teenager.
The words her aunt said to her stuck with her while she grew up and still resonates with her today.
Now, the 21-year-old third-year special education major at the University of Cincinnati who is on track to graduate in 2022, is using her adversities to reach her dream and determined to change the lives of others like her.
She is among 25% of students who are considered first-generation students, breaking the mold in their families’ educational trajectory, according to Jack Miner, UC’s vice provost for enrollment management.
And because it is a large segment of their student population, they cater to their needs as best they can, he said.
“(We) build services that are specific to that population. But second is to really think about how the services that we provide in influencing that population,” Miner said.
Services like specific programming, exclusive first-generation student housing, advisory and support services, financial aid, and career and community networking, for those students who may not have a strong family base, said Miner, who was a first-generation student himself when he earned his degree.
In 2008, UC created the Gen-1 program, focusing on successful transition into the university, retention and completing degrees.
Over the years, the program has grown exponentially.
Its success has been proven in the school’s graduation rate for first-generation students, currently standing at 76%, which is 65% greater than the national average for first-generation students, according to UC.
Nationally, 20% of first-generation college students earn their bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to 49% of continuing-generation students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Further data indicates that 27% of first-generation students in the United States are from households with an average income of $20,000 or less.
“First-generation students are very frequently coming from more diverse backgrounds. So, one of the things we've been able to do is ratchet up the resources, specifically the financial aid resources that we're dedicating towards the first-generation population and diverse population, (which) will also serve a really high population of first-generation students,” Miner said.
But this isn’t a new demographic for UC, he said.
“Arguably, (the) University of Cincinnati has been doing this for literally decades, and that's been a focus for us,” he said. "That ripple effect doesn't just influence that first-generation student’s children, but again, can influence the entire social network and our entire family.”
In fact, he said, first-generation graduates can have a trickle-down effect on the family’s next generation and build a stronger community and local economy as a whole.
“I think it's really at the root of what we do. We are ultimately here to serve and grow the Cincinnati community. Our success is the success of the economic development and the opportunities that this region has to be successful,” Miner said.
“A practical piece of that is, this region needs to have more individuals with credentials with college degrees, one that's going to provide a stronger workforce for the companies that are here. That's going to provide more innovation, more entrepreneurs, more people making discoveries and visions here in this region."
Miner continued: "But it's also going to be able to help the city of Cincinnati leverage what type of companies we attract to this region and they think having that population of students graduate with a degree is so important. So, while we’re a nationally ranked university, our core and our family is still the Cincinnati region."
As a Gen-1 student, King has experienced the welcoming arms of UC’s staff, who she said has helped her reach her goals.
“The Gen-1 program really saved me and gave me that option to be able to come to college,” King said. “Coming from someone who lost their family, I came to college and I created my own family.”
When she was 7 years old, her mother died from complications following a surgical procedure. Three years later, in 2010, she discovered her father, whom she watched struggle with addiction her whole life, dead in his bed.
With that searing image in her 10-year-old mind still fresh, she moved in with her grandmother.
In school, King said, she was labeled an orphan and “the girl with no parents.”
But she wanted to be known for something more.
"I don’t want to be known as that girl. I want to be known as something else. I want to be someone,” King vowed at a young age.
In 2014, another tragedy struck King.
The person who she relied on the most in life, the person who knew her the best and raised her the past four years, her grandmother, and the woman she deemed as her mother figure, died.
She then moved in with her aunt and uncle, who took in the 14-year-old as one of their own — a blessing in disguise, she called it.
Looking back, she said, it has taken her whole family and a village to get her here.
"I am worth it. (I will) make them and myself proud,” said King, who is a full-time student on the Dean’s List and works three jobs.
She is not unlike many of the school’s first-generation students who thrive in their studies, Miner said.
“I think a lot of people have the perception that when a first-generation student goes to college, they may not be as successful, may not graduate at the same rate as other students at University of Cincinnati,” Miner said. "We’re actually able to level that out, and in some cases, some of our first-generation students are even more successful than our general population."
King aims to be one of UC's success stories, beating the odds from her turbulent past.
"Everything I loved … They were all taken away from me,” she said. "But my education, well, that's something no one can ever take away. And that just makes you want to work harder for that because this is something I'm doing on my own.”
For King, being a first-generation student is the first step to a better life.
"Being a first-generation student, it means everything to me. And I think it's just the first step of the many things that I'm going to accomplish in life,” she said. “It means, obviously given my situation, that's horrible enough, but it means I persevered through it. I have the confidence. And I believe in myself to get a degree, to take the step that my parents never were able to take.”
The Gen-1 program, she said, has shown her that someone else sees her potential.
“Someone believes in me and is giving me a chance to show that I am worth it. That I can prove to them that I deserve an education, I deserve this scholarship, and I will make them proud. But also make myself proud,” King said.
These days, thanks to her family and UC’s Gen-1 program, she said, she is no longer that little "girl with no parents.”
Instead, she is a strong, independent college student who has persevered and hopes to help other little girls and boys with hardships.
She wants to show them that anything is possible if you work hard and rise above your circumstances.
"I want to be known as 'the girl that made something of herself,’” she said. "It's difficult. It's something I face every day. You wake up and it's like, 'Yep, I don't have a dad to walk me down the aisle when I get married.' My first heartbreak, I didn't have my mom to cry to. It wasn't easy. But I wasn't gonna sit there and just mope and be like, 'Oh, I feel so sorry for myself.' I just turned it into my motivation.”
"My biggest thing that I want to accomplish and just prove is that no matter if you have a disability, no matter your home situation, or what you're given, you have the control and the power to do what you want in life and to make your life the way you want it,” she said. "I doubted myself. I was scared. I wasn't really the best in school. I really didn't know what I wanted to do. But as I got older, I had people push me, believe in me, support me (and) want to support my dreams.”
She said her aunt and uncle gave her the wings she needed not only to fly but to thrive.
Now, she said she wants to motivate other kids to do the same.
In fact, upon graduation next spring, she hopes to enroll in the master’s program and teach while attending graduate school so she can become a school principal one day.
"I think it's going to help other kids just by looking at me as a role model. Seeing what you can go through ... Whatever adversities that you face, they don't define you. They're part of you, absolutely. But they will never define who you are,” she said.
"I'm going to be graduating from college with my bachelor's in May of 2022. I'm going to be a teacher. These are the things that define me. Those are the great things that define me, define my character. That's something that I want to be known for," King said.
And just as her aunt taught her, she wants to pass this message on to her students: "Just because something terrible happens to you or you're dealing with something or you face adversity, it doesn't stop you. It turns into your motivation (to) become better.”