Breaking the Cycle

First-generation college students are getting a boost from Coca-Cola

Breaking the Cycle

Outside the classroom, Reed is learning sign language through “Hear My Hands,” the American Sign Language Club at UGA.

Photo by: Paul Efland

Tiffany Reed had her share of struggles growing up.  Her parents divorced when she was 4, leaving her without a father in the home. For a while, her mom worked a 2 p.m. to midnight shift at the Georgia World Congress Center—which meant she wasn’t there when Reed and her older brother Michael got home from school, had dinner and went to bed.

When her class at Mount Zion High School in Clayton County went on field trips to the Georgia Aquarium and Six Flags, Reed stayed behind, sure her family couldn’t afford such frivolity.

She even passed up a chance at the state high school accounting championship after winning her school’s competition. The $100 cost of the trip was again more than she thought the family could afford.  “My teachers asked, ‘Why didn’t you go?’ ” she recalls.  “I said I just didn’t want to go.”

When it came time for college, Reed knew she wanted to attend UGA. She assumed she’d take out loans and work part time to pay the difference between the Hope Scholarship and federal grants or resign herself to living at home and commuting to a local college.

Then a letter arrived in the mail. It was from the Coca-Cola Foundation, and it said Reed had been selected to receive a scholarship for first generation college students—those who are the first in their immediate family to attend college. The $5,000-a-year award would easily cover the gap between her Hope Scholarship and the Pell Grant.

“I just needed a boost,” Reed says. “Coca-Cola was more than a boost. It was like a vault up for me. I knew I wanted to be here. I never thought something like this would happen.”

Now in her second year, Reed is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work. She has a 3.65 GPA, well over the 3.0 required to keep Hope and the Coca-Cola awards.

UGA is one of 400 colleges and universities across the country selected by the Coca-Cola Foundation for its First Generation Scholarship program, which began in 1993.

Since then the foundation has awarded more than $19 million in scholarships to more than 1,000 students.

Students don’t apply for the grant. Recipients are selected from a group of admitted students who have indicated on application materials that they are the first in their families to go to college.

Coke began the program in 1993 after hearing college presidents voice concerns that their student bodies were not diverse—racially, ethnically, demographically or socioeconomically, says Ingrid Saunders Jones, Coca-Cola’s senior vice president for global community connections and chair of the Coca-Cola Foundation.

“There were too many instances where they were having to turn students away (because of funding) or could not retain them because they were focused on surviving and working and couldn’t maintain full class loads,” she says. “These young people are highly motivated. Many of them realize that their going to college is a transformative moment in their family’s history.”

The program is especially significant at UGA, which offers little need-based aid. The lottery-funded Hope Scholarship, which covers tuition, some fees and provides a book stipend, is based on merit, as are the Ramsey and Foundation Fellow awards, the university’s highest honors.

Students in the lowest economic class are eligible for federal Pell Grants, which provides a maximum of $5,350 a year. But Hope and Pell do not cover the full cost of attending UGA. Many students have to take out loans or work to make up the difference.

“UGA is underfunded when it comes to need-based scholarships,” says Jere Morehead, vice president for instruction and incoming provost. “This program provides substantial scholarships to students who have demonstrated financial need. It supports a group of students who otherwise may not go to college.”

The Coca-Cola funding covers 48 students—12 entering freshmen each fall from 2007 to 2010. Each student gets $5,000 a year as long as they maintain a 2.8 GPA their freshman year and a 3.0 in subsequent years. In addition, the students receive special permission to register for classes early and are grouped together for a seminar during their freshman year. They also may adopt an emeritus faculty member as a mentor.

Sylvia Hutchinson, professor emeritus of higher education and reading, organizes the 20 mentors, mostly retired faculty still living in the Athens community, who volunteer their time to help the first-generation students navigate the university system. She also serves as a mentor to some of the students.

“I tell them to think of me as their academic grandmother,” Hutchinson says. “I give them all my cell phone number. I take mine out to eat, to gymnastics meets and to baseball games.”

It was Hutchinson who connected junior Ricky Patel, who plans to go to dental school after completing his bachelor’s degree in microbiology, with Athens dentist Dr. Benjamin Patrick. Patel shadows Patrick at his practice, observing his work and his relationships with patients.

Patel also considered teaching and spends an hour a week mentoring a third-grader at Gaines Elementary School.

“When they remember something at the end of the semester that you taught them at the beginning, it really feels good,” he says.

However, a mission trip to Central America last winter with a volunteer group of dentists cemented Patel’s commitment to dentistry as a career.

“Once you actually get to see something it lets you know if it’s something you want to do,” Patel says.

Like Reed, Patel knew he wanted to go to UGA but wasn’t sure how he would afford it. He also wondered whether he would fit in at such a large school and whether he would measure up to students from more affluent high schools, who came to UGA with many more college credits than he.

It wasn’t easy and he struggled as he tried to adjust to the rigor of college work. A poor grade in chemistry pushed his GPA below the acceptable level and he lost his Hope Scholarship eligibility after the fall of his freshman year.

“I never thought I’d lose Hope,” says Patel, who refocused, improved his grades and regained Hope the next semester. “If I did I would have worked harder, like I do now.”

Despite their academic accomplishments in high school, first-generation students are considered more at-risk of dropping out or failing than their peers whose parents or siblings have been to college. Advisers to the Coca-Cola scholars keep a close eye on their academic records and step in if it appears one is straying off course. Of the 36 scholars, four of them lost the award for failing to maintain the required GPA.

“This is a more unpredictable population,” Morehead says. “We’ve really layered a lot of mentorship and advice (available) for them.” In fact, UGA’s support system has so impressed Coca-Cola that Jones says the company is planning to use it as a model for other schools.

There are many success stories.

Cortney Ralston, a junior from Ellijay, is studying for the MCAT—Medical College Admission Test—which she plans to take in the spring. Also in the Honors program, Ralston has a 3.81 GPA, despite a course load that has included Honors biology and organic chemistry.

In addition to schoolwork, she has stayed busy since arriving in Athens as a freshman, immersing herself in the town-gown culture. The fall of her freshman year she played trumpet in the Redcoat Marching Band and still ended the semester with a 4.0 GPA. She was accepted into the Honors Program that spring semester.

“I was very focused,” she says.

Ralston also mentors children in a local elementary school about two hours a week and works as an undergraduate research assistant in a biochemistry lab. She applied for the lab position when she was a freshman. The job description specified that applicants must have lab experience. It was not until she got to the interview with Bill Lanzilotta, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, that she learned her freshman chemistry lab didn’t count.

He told her he typically didn’t hire freshman, adding “you’d better be a diamond in the rough,” Ralston says.

Two years later she is one of the experienced assistants in Lanzilotta’s lab and has found that her work there helps her better understand what she’s learning in class.

Like Reed and Patel, Ralston was raised in a home where the question wasn’t whether they would go to college, but where. Her father, a construction worker, and her mother, a clerical worker, didn’t go to college and knew that their daughter’s future demanded that opportunity.

When Ralston would complain about her school work, she says her parents would remind her, “You could always be out digging ditches.”

“I knew they couldn’t pay for it, that was never a question,” Ralston says. “They left it up to me. I applied for every scholarship under the sun.”

She’s passing that message on to her younger siblings, Joseph, 8, who says he wants to be a veterinarian, and her sister Faith, 9, who wants to be a lawyer.

“Every time I come home on the weekend, I remind them, You’re going to college,’ ” Ralston says.

Reed’s brother Michael refocused his life as she was preparing to move to Athens two years ago.  He joined the Army and entered boot camp just a week before she began her freshman year in Athens.

Her mother, who Reed calls her best friend, was suddenly alone in the house and got a dog for company.

Reed has settled into UGA, finding friends, learning sign language and practicing karate. A few weeks ago she and her mom drove to Fort Bragg to say goodbye to Michael before he left for Iraq.

“It’s significant to me that we (left home) at the same time,” she says, “The fact that we were doing it together, I really enjoyed that.”

Get More

For more on Coca-Cola’s education initiatives, including the first generation scholarship program go to

To contribute funding for need-based scholarships at UGA, contact Keith Oelke at 706-542-8179 or (JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)