A first-generation college student: Dara Little

First-generation students will have a sense of place and a place to go for resources at NIU this fall.

The new “I’m a First-Generation College Student” program will bring together first-generation students, faculty, staff and recent alumni with Welcome Events from 4 to 6 p.m. Sept. 4 and from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 5 at Founders Memorial Library.

Enjoy food, music and giveaways and hear stories about the personal experiences of those who were the first in their families to attend four-year colleges. Learn about the resources available here, including the Breaking Barriers bi-weekly support group for first-generation college students, the Mentoring Valuable Peers program, future career events, supportive and accessible NIU policies, financial aid and scholarship information and more.

“First-generation student identity is important to us at NIU,'” said Kelly Smith, director of First- and Second-Year Experience at NIU. “We just want to make sure students are accessing all the resources available to them.”

Are you a first-generation faculty or staff member? Drop in to a Welcome Event and take home a laminated “I am a first gen college graduate” door decoration to put in your office. Let first-generation college students know they’re not alone and support is available.

To help launch the program, we’re telling just some of the many first-generation stories here at NIU.

Dara Little

Dara Little

“You’re not college material.”

The words of a high school counselor years ago stick with Dara Little today. They both stung and inspired her to prove that counselor wrong.

“You get the label, and it stays with you,” said Little, the assistant vice president for Research and Sponsored Programs at NIU.

The first in her family to graduate from a four-year university, Little went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in urban and regional studies in 1998 from what was then Mankato State University (now Minnesota State University, Mankato) and a master of public administration in 2013 from Northern Illinois University. She’s also a Certified Research Administrator.

She wants to be there for first-generation students at NIU, to let them know, “They can do it.”

“Don’t allow a bump in the road to detour your plans. Put in the hard work and ask for help when you need it,” she said. “The rewards on the other side are so much sweeter when you’ve had to work hard to achieve them.”

Little grew up in a supportive home in a small rural farming town in southern Minnesota. Her father owned school buses and was involved in the school district and local city council. Her mother worked as a business manager at a dentist’s office.

Her mother never went to college, while her father attended Mankato State on the GI Bill after serving in Vietnam, but fell short of earning his bachelor’s degree.

Little said she wasn’t considered “one of the smart ones” in high school, where counselors tended to promote college for only a few students back then.

Her best friend convinced her to apply to Mankato State after high school. To get by, Little took out student loans, went home regularly for laundry and meals, and worked for a group home caring for adults with disabilities.

Passing the general education requirements wasn’t easy, especially when it came to algebra, but a professor–ironically named Dr. Miracle–helped get her through.

“Getting through the class might have been the first time in my life when I felt like I pushed myself through something that was incredibly mentally difficult and succeeded,” she said. “I also learned then the importance of talking to the professor and being up front with people when something is a challenge. Had I talked to the professor earlier in the semester, she could have helped me avoid retaking the class.”

Once Little started taking classes related to her major, she knew she belonged. Support from her parents and fellow students and later her bosses helped her earn her degrees and certification.

She knows how tough college can be, especially for first-generation students, but she also knows the rewards it brings.

“College opens so many doors and exposes you to experiences and knowledge that you wouldn’t likely get otherwise,” she said. “It’s an investment in yourself, and the degree and knowledge you gain is something that nobody can ever take away from you.”

Her advice to first-generation students?

“Everything is temporary, and persistence is key,” she said. “If and when you struggle, reach out for help and advocate for yourself, but take responsibility to push yourself through. Nobody else can do the work for you.”

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