Aquillah Roberson is a self-starter with an inexhaustible determination she’s relied on to help her get to Georgia State and become the first in her family to attend college. In fact, she’s part of a driven cohort of students—4,000 and growing—on campus made up of first-generation college students.

Aquillah is the founder and president of The First-Generation Society, a new organization at Georgia State aimed at providing a supportive network for students. This society isn’t just for those students who are the first in their families to enter higher education; it’s also for independent students and students whose parents may not be able to understand the new reality of the increasing financial burden facing college students today and how that impacts their college experience.

“It’s important to build connections while you’re a student because these connections will help you get started after graduation,” she explains.

“Maximizing all the opportunities at Georgia State helps enable first-generation students’ upward mobility.”

From Palmetto to the ATL

Aquillah, now a junior majoring in international economics and modern languages with a concentration in French and a minor in planning and economic development, knew she wanted to attend college. She grew up in Palmetto, Ga.—a town of about 4,000 located southeast of Atlanta, and graduated from Langston Hughes High School.

thumbnail

“I applied to so many schools and I wanted to go out of state… But, reality hit and I realized staying in state would be more affordable,” says Roberson.

Even though she applied to several other colleges in the metro-Atlanta area, including several private colleges and universities, financial factors helped cement her decision to enroll at Georgia State. Aquillah was selected for the Coca-Cola First-Generation Scholarship, which provides a $5,000 award for incoming full-time, first-generation students that is renewable for four years.

Rallying Her Family and Building A Supportive Network

Her self-starter attitude and drive to find resources also influenced how she handled her parents’ involvement with her college application process. Roberson says her mom always knew she would go to college, but it was still difficult to get the support she needed once the time came to fill out forms. While her mother was initially reluctant to fill out the FAFSA, for example, Aquillah kept track of deadlines and persevered until her mother completed it.

“It took a while, but luckily, because I knew the FAFSA had to be done in January, I pushed and pushed her until she sat down and filled it out in front of me,” she explains.

She says other first-generation students she knew from high school also had similar experiences with their parents as they navigated the multitude of forms involved in the college application process. But Roberson found support from other groups outside of her family, including her high school counselors — who encouraged her to meet with college counselors who came for college fairs, including those from Georgia State.

“One thing I learned in high school is that if you do well freshman year, it’s so hard to knock a good GPA down rather than having to build one up. So, I really concentrated on building a good GPA my freshmen year at Georgia State.”

Aquillah came to two campus tours of Georgia State, once in the fall and once in the spring of her senior year of high school. Even though she didn’t have her parents to accompany her, she didn’t let that stop her. She came alone, having taken time off from work, and drove herself to campus for both tours as well as for New Student Orientation (Incept).

“To this day, I don’t think my mom really knows what this experience has been like for me; she knows I go here every fall, spring and sometimes summer, but I don’t think she really knows what this is like,” she reflects.

But this may change. Aquillah has become an inspiration for her younger siblings who may decide to attend college as a result of their sister’s trailblazing influence. After enrolling in Georgia State’s Honors College, she thought she would be overwhelmed with the number of ways to get involved and feel pressure to maintain good grades.

Opportunities Extend Beyond Campus

Last year, she lived at home and commuted to campus to save money for a Maymester study abroad experience this past spring in South Africa. This trip was led by Dr. Glen Ross from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies and focused on social injustice in South Africa.

“I’m the first one in my family to travel overseas and get a passport. The whole experience was so surreal. It felt like an out-of-body experience,” she reflects. “I took so many pictures, but I don’t think they can really capture what I saw and experienced. It was my opportunity to experience a totally different part of the world.”

Speaking about what she gained through her study abroad experience, Aquillah explains how it gave her an expanded perspective.

“The more perspective I gain, the more help I can be to the world,” she said.

Advice for the Next Generation of Panthers

Aquillah advises new students to be forward thinking and to pace themselves.

“Really think about where you want to be… You don’t want to go to a place because it has nice amenities; you need to really think about what you need from your college or university,” she says. “Also, pace yourself. Know what you’re able to take on. Don’t burn yourself out. College is a marathon, not a race.”