ATU First Gen Institute: “Believe in Your Passions”

Issues to Action Winners ATU First Gen Institute 2021
Members of the winning team from the Arkansas Tech University First Generation Institute issues to action competition react after learning they have each won a $1,000 scholarship to ATU.

Twenty-six rising high school seniors from Arkansas and Oklahoma completed the 2021 Arkansas Tech University First Generation Institute on Thursday, June 10.

The two-day program concluded with keynote remarks by current ATU students Ahjaley Miller and Taylor Wilkerson.

Like the institute participants, Miller and Wilkerson are striving to become the first members of their families to graduate from college.

“School was really pushed on me because my parents knew I could do better,” said Miller, an Arkansas Tech sophomore from El Dorado. “ATU recognized me as a first generation student and convinced me that I could be something big. Now I am achieving all my goals and knocking down all those milestones.”

Wilkerson told the audience of high school students that her college journey began with uncertainty.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to major in, but my first semester I made the Dean’s List and I cried,” said Wilkerson, who lives in Texarkana and is a sophomore at ATU. “I’m a first generation student because I want to set the example for my siblings. If you feel like you don’t have support, call me. There are scholarships and ways to pay for it. It means a lot to be a first gen kid. Some of us just have a harder up-bringing. Believe in your passions.”

Specific goals of the ATU First Generation Institute include providing participants with the opportunity to interact with current ATU students, discover academic opportunities, gain a better understanding of life as a college student, learn about ways to finance their education and discover ways to get involved outside the classroom.

Dr. Brett Bruner, ATU dean of student engagement, said this year’s program focused on helping students understand how they can convert their goals into reality through the pursuit of higher education.

“Every year when I have the opportunity to work with this program and see the transformation that occurs in just a short 24 hours…the confidence that grows in these students and their ability to believe that they can do college with Arkansas Tech’s support…it’s just amazing,” said Bruner. “Students created a vision board that allowed them to express what they see as their hopes and futures. Today we engaged them in a career exploration experience so they can see what they can do with the major of their choice. It all comes full circle here.”

The participants in the 2021 program were Belinda Almarez of Springdale, Jealousy Campbell of Elkins, Jocelyn Castro of Hope, Laura Coleman of Brinkley, Makiya Cuningkin of Tulsa, Okla., Kayla Doris of Star City, Cha’Kayla Durden of El Dorado, Gage Gordon of Mena, Matthew Hamilton of Tulsa, Okla., Brianna Julian and Mckenzie Julian of Heber Springs, Victoria Kauffman of Russellville, Jaylia Knight of Grady, Makalia Kutchka of Benton, Avaa McGuigan of Dover, Kyra Meek of Russellville, Saurani Mills of Norman, Okla., Timberly Myers of Mena, Lainey Nye of Van Buren, Jayden Phillips of Wynne, Lance Phillips of Altus, Dorian Segura of Corning, Lily Sterling of Lincoln, Elaina Strickling of Hartman, Jazzy Trejo of Rogers and Lauren Wagner of Hensley.

Almaraz, Kauffman, McGuigan, Myers, Phillips, Phillips, Segura and Trejo combined to win an issues to action competition as part of the ATU First Generation Institute. Each member of the winning team received a $1,000 scholarship to Arkansas Tech in recognition of their achievement.

All 2021 ATU First Generation Institute participants received a $500 scholarship to Arkansas Tech for completing the program.

Current ATU students Tendai Chiutare of Harare, Zimbabwe, Meghan Finn of Fayetteville, Anna Grace Foreman of Mountain Home, Diana Gonzalez of Fort Smith, Wendy Lomeli of Dardanelle, Margarita Lopez of Siloam Springs, Lesly Mendez of Little Rock, Miller and Wilkerson served as facilitators for the institute this year.

The 2021 ATU First Generation Institute will continue with a session for students who wish to participate virtually June 16-17.

Learn more about the ATU First Generation at