Tina McCoy Hearn: Growing up First-Gen in the Rural Midwest

By Tina McCoy Hearn, director for social impact, ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning

As students across the nation head back to the classroom, we are celebrating First-Generation students. A First-Generation College Student is defined as a student whose parents didn’t attend college; or is the first person in their immediate family to attend college; or neither parent has at least one year of college. This month, we are sharing stories from ACT colleagues who are First-Generation College Students.

Tina McCoy Hearn

What was your motivation for going to college and earning a degree?

One thought: “There’s got to be more to life than this.” Coming from a small farm community, daily life was focused on subsistence and survival. Aspirations to attain something beyond or different from that experience were not encouraged. In hindsight, I see this as one of the major challenges of multi-generational poverty and its numbing, fragmenting effect on families and communities. I was lucky. As an emancipated teen, I was in a position to find my way, and, with the guidance of some incredible teachers, was given opportunities to participate in activities that engaged my mind and curiosity.

What was the biggest challenge you faced as a first-generation college student?

When you’re the first, you are pushing up against and through family and community cultural barriers. In doing so, my actions introduced an uncertainly that my family and community viewed as negatively affecting the status quo. There was a tremendous pressure for me to accept life as it was, to unquestioningly leave things the way they were. As a girl, I was told not to get too big for my britches and stop using dollar words when the nickel ones would do just fine.

What advice would you give to a first-generation college student today?

To borrow from Nike: Just Do It!  Be true to yourself, give yourself permission to go after your dreams, ask and keep asking questions, see your fears for what they are and don’t let them derail you, and–most importantly–look beyond your current surroundings to seek out a new tribe who will accept and uplift you as you create the life you want to live. And, be ready for the loveliest surprise that comes from being open to change: knowing that dreams will change as new doors open into worlds you never knew existed.

What was your largest worry during that time?

There were two huge worries I carried throughout my higher ed journey and still exist for many of today’s students:  “Will I be able to financially support myself for another semester” and “Will I find a good-paying job when I graduate?” The struggle was real, especially with naysayers who saw my efforts to go to college as a waste of money, time, and effort. However, my scrappy childhood gave me the moxie to be resourceful, the ability to do hard work, and to value every cent earned.   

Tina is a graduate of Kirkwood Community College (legal secretary program) as well as the University of Iowa. During her attendance at UI, she was an honors student, making the dean’s list, and working near-full time. That led to achieving a B.A. in English, emphasis in Secondary Education in three years. Two days after her last UI final, in 1985, Tina joined ACT and began her career with this incredible organization.