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Dionna Dennis, a nursing student, is set to graduate this spring. Along with being a first generation student, she was also a track and field athlete who plans on attending medical school.

In the Fall semester of 2017, University of Memphis senior Dionna Dennis enrolled at the UofM, jumpstarting her freshman semester with optimism about the future ahead of her. Now, as she prepares to graduate, Dennis gave a glimpse of her successes and challenges throughout her collegiate journey as a first-generation student. 

“Not only am I a first-generation student, but I am also a product of a single parent household,” Dennis said. “One of my biggest challenges was juggling bills on my own, helping my mom and sisters, being a D1 athlete on the track team, while also managing to be a pre-med student. School wise, it was very challenging being a first-gen student. I had to figure everything out on my own with little to no guidance. It left room for so many errors.” 

Over 30% of students at the UofM are first-generation students. Like Dennis, they each struggle in different ways as they attempt to navigate through college. With no one to look to for guidance, it can place psychological hardships on these students. Students with parents who attended a four-year college have the advantage of a support system that can assist them through many of the obstacles they may face. 

“In the semester of fall 2020, I had to make the decision to step down as a hurdler for the UofM’s track team. It was an extremely emotional decision. Track was more than just a sport to me. It was more than teammates, traveling or gear. Track was my out, and it has been for all of my life,” said Dennis. “When COVID hit, it shifted everything. It was my senior year, with one more semester to go. I wanted to finish my last year with track, but it was finally time to let it go. I am a premed student, and the most important test of my life was coming up, and it required my 

undivided attention. All of my coaches and friends were very supportive. Tiger track and field will forever be in my heart.” 

As students, we each have our own ways to cope with some of the challenges that come along with being in college. For Dennis, she utilized her love for track as a stress reliever to let go. 

“During my collegiate career I would say one thing that I am proud of is my perseverance. My personal life was not easy. If you were to hear my story, you would be shocked that I haven’t given up yet. I persevered through anything life and college had to throw at me, and I am proud of that. Now I am a pre-med, majoring in sociology and minoring in Spanish and chemistry, Tigers track and fixed alumni, upcoming graduate with a 3.3 GPA applying for medical school this summer. Now that is something to be proud of,” she said. 

Through major sacrifices Dennis was able to overcome each of her personal and collegiate obstacles as she ran full speed ahead towards her goals, without looking back. 

“To say my daughter pushed through despite obstacles would be an understatement,” said Kanesha Dennis, Dionna Dennis’ mother. “The things we have endured together would typically steer most people her age into giving up on their dreams. My daughter’s success in college not only shows resilience as a student but also as a young person who refuses to let anything or anyone stop her from accomplishing her goals. I feel proud as her mother; I feel anxiousness as her partner; and I feel a surreal feeling of God's will being done as someone who prays day and night for her success. We are one step closer to her dream.”

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