First generation student overcomes obstacles

Photo courtesy Zhomontee Watson

Gabriel Guardado

Meeting deadlines, creating projects and finals can be overwhelming for college students, but senior Zhomontee Watson faced more obstacles than most.

Watson is a first-generation student. She was not able to seek college advice from her parents, instead she navigated campus and organizations on her own.

“Everything was a struggle,” Watson said. “I didn’t really know what to apply for or what FASFA was. But Upward Bound took us step by step through the process.”

Like many first generation students, Watson had the support of Upward Bound, a government funded program designed for low-income families and first-generation students to help them navigate through the college process.

“They (Upward Bound) really helped me with the college application process, filling out scholarships, and my grandma was there for support as well,” Watson said.

Watson also found guidance from Project Achieve, a program that supports undergraduate students at UNO who have disabilities, qualify as first-generation students or come from low-income families.

Project Achieve advisor and English specialist Connie Sorensen-Birk has helped Watson and other first-generation students navigate college for many years.

“One of the big struggles I see many first-generation students face is the intimidation factor of college,” said Sorensen-Birk.

Watson said figuring out college was challenging, but Project Achieve helped her stay focused. However, one unexpected challenge almost caused her to dropout.

“One of my parents passed away,” Watson said. “Trying to stay in focus and stay in school and not drop out because of all the responsibilities that I gained after that was a struggle. But I worked it out.”

Now Watson is in her final year of college. With the support from her family, friends as well as programs like the Susan Buffett Scholarship and Project Achieve, Watson is on her way to walking across the stage in May.

“The first-generation students who come to college like Watson are generally highly motivated,” said Sorensen-Birk. “They know this is an opportunity and they’re going to make the most out of it.”

Watson will graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology. She plans on going to graduate school and becoming a counselor. Throughout her time at UNO, she learned how to juggle school work, extracurricular activities, family and friends. She has one piece of advice for new students: ask for help.

“Find your resources, don’t wait till you’re struggling to the point where you want to give up,” Watson said. “Find someone,find a teacher, there’s always someone who knows something. Don’t be afraid to ask anyone for help… we’re all struggling.”