Doing well in school, McKenzie Sauer said, she always expected to go to college, and her parents wanted her to go, too.

However, it was difficult for her at times because her parents didn’t have much experience with college-related things like financial aid or undergrad.

Sauer, graduate assistant for the Office of Greek Life, like other first-generation students, gathered Friday in the Student Center Terrace Lounge to celebrate being the first college-goers in their families.

“[I] didn’t really realize how impactful that would be on me or my family … as someone who didn’t really have parents who navigated that themselves,” she said.

With her bachelor’s degree in human services and communication, Sauer said she’s the first in her immediate family to go this far. Now, she’s pursuing her master’s degree in student affairs administration and higher education. 

She said it’s difficult going beyond what her family may understand, although they do support her. At Ball State, Sauer said, she’s surrounded by people who can relate better.

“We really lean on each other as a cohort, so I think that’s helpful for Ball State,” Sauer said.

McKenzie Sauer and Emily Sledd, graduate assistants for the Office of Greek Life, pick up T-shirts Nov. 8, 2019, at the "I Am First Generation Celebration" event in the Student Center Terrace Lounge. As a first-generation student, Sauer said she's got support from both her family and others at Ball State who could relate with her college experiences. Bailey Cline, DN

Sarah Schafer, sophomore music education major, also identifies as a first-generation student. While her mother did earn an associate's degree as a vet tech, Schafer said that’s as far as she could go. Her father is a farmer and firefighter at the University of Notre Dame. 

Due to a Notre Dame scholarship from her father’s 26-year-long firefighting career, that covers a large part of her college expenses. Schafer said attending university “was a little bit expected.” 

Ro-Anne Royer Engle, interim vice president for student affairs, said the formal definition of first-generation student includes only students whose families haven’t been to college. At Ball State, she said, they like to extend that definition.

“We want to recognize anybody who feels like they relate to the experience of being the first to do something with regards to education in your family,” Royer Engle said.

Approximately a third of all Ball State students, she said, are first-generation students.

At the event, Royer Engle said, Ball State hoped to celebrate this “milestone” with first-generation students, share some resources with them and learn how to better support the students.

Having an educated workforce and community, she said, will make Indiana more attractive to other people.

“It is critical because, as we know, an education, especially a college education, can truly make a difference — not only in a family unit under community, but a state,” Royer Engle said.

Contact Bailey Cline with comments at or on Twitter @BaileyCline.