‘Making it’ as a first-generation college student

As an active student leader on campus, junior sociology major Meka Mosley is used to interacting with the community and talking about her UNI experience. It’s a normal part of her job, so she never expected it could lead to a personal revelation. But last year, while tabling at the annual I’ll Make Me a World in Iowa event in Des Moines, Mosley had a breakthrough after one student, when asked what she wanted to do with her future, told Mosley, “I want to be like you.”

“My initial reaction was, ‘No, you don’t! I don’t have it together,’” Mosley said with a laugh. “But then I had to stop and give myself a little credit … I think it was one of the first times that I realized I really was in [a position to be a] role mode, because I probably have similar background to them.”

Mosley’s background is filled with its fair share of struggle. She was raised by a single mother with six other girls. Her family moved frequently and struggled to stay afloat financially. While today, Mosley is able to appreciate the diversity of experience this gave her — all of the places she’s lived “shaped who I am,” she said — at the time, it made her question whether her life would follow a traditional trajectory of school and career.

Meka Mosley is a student leader at UNI.“I always knew that college was an option for people, but not me,” she said.

But between conversations with her high school counselor and favorite teacher (UNI alumnus Ryan Takatsuka), and a $500 scholarship, Mosley eventually realized that she could find her own path to success. She started applying to schools and going on campus visits, and when she finally toured UNI, she knew she had found a place where she could be successful. Her tour guide was friendly and helpful, and provided one-on-one attention to Mosley and her mother.

“Knowing I had so much support right from the jump, after the end of the tour, I was definitely like, ‘This is my number one choice,’” Mosley said.

Having that support made Mosley start challenging the doubts she had internalized. And today, Mosley has grown into an accomplished and passionate student leader who is helping empower other students through her work. Mosley is Vice President of UNI’s sociology club, has served on the exec board for UNI’s Black Student Union and is on the executive board of Ethnic Student Promoters (ESP). She also served as a Pathfinder for UNI’s jumpstart program, worked as a success coach and peer mentor for UNI’s Department of Student Success and Retention, and helped give campus tours herself as a member of summer orientation staff. And, as a sociology and anthropology double major, she’s learning how she can challenge negative societal messages on a bigger level.

“I think UNI has given me an opportunity to do what I love most, which is help people any way I can on a larger scale,” said Mosley. “I see the great work that other people have done in student affairs. I get to work closely with that field because of my involvement, so that makes me excited.”

Mosley’s involvement has also helped her build a strong support system, which includes Director of Student Success and Retention Kristin Woods and Orientation Coordinator Bailey Jimmison. Not only has their support helped Mosley find success in school, it’s also inspired a potential career path — Mosley’s planning to continue her education in graduate school and is leaning heavily towards continuing her work in the field.

“When I look at schools, I look at schools that have a great student affairs program,” she said. “It makes me excited that I can be a person that helps. I can be a Kristin Woods, I can be a Bailey Jimmison — people who have been a tremendous support for me.”

As a first-generation college student, she still struggles to feel like she belongs in the world of higher education, but the community she’s found at UNI helps her cope with those feelings — and through her involvement, she’s able to do the same for others. Often, students who are struggling look at student leaders as especially gifted students who don’t face the same struggles they do.

Mosley experienced this somewhat when she was first touring UNI. She had doubts about whether all the great things her tour guide was saying about UNI were really true when her campus tour guide was telling her about the resources available on campus for students who might need extra help.

“I was like, ‘Is he just saying this? Are they paying him to say this?’ not knowing that he is volunteering and he doesn’t get paid for it,” Mosley said. “After experiencing UNI, I believe everything he said. Sometimes [when I give tours], I find myself thinking, ‘I’m sure he said this to me and now I’m saying it back to someone else.’ But the thing about it is, I mean it, too. I mean it from my own experience.”

Not only did her UNI experience give her insight into the benefits of attending UNI, it gave her the experience to help students facing similar struggles, the same way her support system has helped her. And today, Mosley uses her UNI experience — including her struggles — to relate to students and inspire them to overcome their own struggles.

“I know what it’s like to not have any help. So my job as a success coach, I work with people who are on academic alert, coming from academic suspension, people on academic probation. Sometimes they think that I don’t understand and it’s like, ‘Oh no, I was on alert. I understand slightly what you’re going through,’” she said. “I love to share those struggle stories and the successes. The struggles are just as important so you can see that you made it.”