Yasmeen Ragab, Carmen Gutierrez, Johnna Jones, Jason Smith

First generation students face a litany of unique challenges, ranging from a paucity of knowledge about higher education to identity and development-based concerns such as the weight of family expectations, economic insecurity, feelings of inadequacy, and social class differences. More than a quarter of the History Department’s undergraduates  are first-generation students, and almost all of them face these pressures and challenges at some point during their time at Illinois. Rather than wilting in the face of adversity, the first-generation historians highlighted in this article have dedicated themselves to the sustained pursuit and accomplishment of academic excellence and are already leaving an indelible mark on the History and Illinois communities.

Junior Yasmeen Ragab’s family moved to Chicago from Egypt in the late 1980s. The youngest of four siblings and the only sister to three brothers, Yasmeen has been named to the Dean’s List in each of her semesters at Illinois. Although she entered Illinois as a Journalism major, Yasmeen switched to history in Fall 2018 because the history curriculum gave her more of an opportunity to follow her passions in studying the language, cultures, and politics of the modern Islamic world. Yasmeen has excelled not only in history courses, which ranged from surveys of colonial Latin America to advanced courses on the histories of modern Palestine and the Vietnam War, but also in intensive language study. During summer 2019, she participated in the rigorous Summer Institute for Languages of the Muslim World program held on the Illinois campus. Yasmeen’s superlative academic record and commitment to language study was handsomely (and justly) rewarded in the 2019-20 academic year when she became one of very few undergraduate recipients of the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship. FLAS funding will support Yasmeen as she continues her study of Arabic in Rabat, Morocco during the spring 2020 semester. Yasmeen intends to undertake an independent historical research project analyzing contemporary debates on gender roles and identities in the Islamic world while in Morocco and she is seriously considering graduate study in history and Arabic upon graduation.

Not merely content with attending history courses as a student, sophomore Jason Smith helped design a brand-new history course in fall 2019. As a member of the Undergraduate Studies Committee, Jason played a crucial role in developing HIST 199: Directed Undergraduate Research, a course which provides the student with hands-on experience in a collaborative historical research project alongside a faculty member or advanced graduate student. Jason’s feedback and recommendations were immensely valuable to the committee as it worked to structure the course which Jason is enthused to help pilot in its inaugural run in spring 2020; as Jason deadpanned, “I definitely want to enroll in 199, and I hope it’s not bad practice to do since I helped create it!”

Students travel from far and wide to attend the University of Illinois thanks to its reputation as a world-class research and teaching university. Junior Johnna Jones came to Illinois from Nolensville, Tennessee, a small town (population: 9,012) some twenty miles southeast of Nashville to pursue a major in Economics and to help cheer on the Fighting Illini as a member of the Illinettes Dance Team. A HOPE Scholarship recipient and National Collegiate Scholar, Johnna’s interest in history was awakened through a literature course on media depictions of the Holocaust she took in her first semester. Wanting to learn more about Jewish history, she enrolled – and subsequently exceled – in two Jewish history courses (HIST 269: Jewish History Since 1700 and 355: Soviet Jewish History) taught by Professor Eugene Avrutin the following year. Johnna’s final paper for Soviet Jewish History was recently awarded the Ronald Filler Prize for outstanding scholarship by the Jewish Studies department. Additionally, Johnna is deeply invested in studying the history of race relations in America and the role that race plays in the American justice system. Last summer, Johnna completed an internship at the Davidson County Juvenile Court which exposed her to “the problems arising from children unable to attend school” but also gave her the “opportunity to help relieve some of the issues with the court through implementing different programs which aid families in combatting their psychological, domestic, learning or other difficulties.” Johnna believes in the power of public institutions to better the conditions of citizens and hopes that “one day I can serve as a judge and continue to help people.”

Junior Carmen Gutierrez had always been interested in studying abroad but “never really considered it to be an option available to me, or students like me. I thought that by studying abroad I was putting myself in a position in which I had everything to lose; more specifically, I felt I would be losing my time and my money.” Time and money are valuable commodities for first-generation students and, for history majors on the secondary education track, time can sometimes feel very limited indeed. Luckily, with assistance from the history advising office, the Illinois Abroad and Global Exchange (IAGE) staff, and the Financial Aid Office, Carmen was able to locate a program that fit her curricular needs and scholarships which defrayed part of the cost. Although it took a lot of preparation on her end, Carmen “couldn’t be happier with my experiences abroad” in Pavia, Italy where she spent Spring of 2019. The LAS Humanities in Pavia program introduced Carmen not only to the architectural and artistic wonders of Italy but also to peer students from across the globe. While in Pavia, Carmen met “international and Erasmus students from neighboring countries, everywhere from Brazil, Germany, to Pakistan.”  Her time in Pavia helped Carmen “get a better world view on diplomatic and political relations due to our inter-connected past” and infected her with the travel bug – she can’t wait to go abroad again! In the meantime, she’ll have to content herself by living vicariously through fellow Illini traveling abroad in her new campus position as a peer advisor for IAGE. Carmen will undoubtedly spread her enthusiasm for travel and for discovering and appreciating foreign cultures to her own students when she begins student teaching, the capstone experience for history majors on the secondary education track, in spring 2021.