First. It’s a powerful word. Most people strive to be first, whether it means finishing first in an athletic competition or just being first in line for a hot new movie. In some cases, though, being first can come with challenges, as it involves navigating through uncharted territory.

Clemson student Robert Locke — a first-generation college student — knows the challenges that can come with being first.

“Coming to Clemson, I can tell you there’s a significant difference between being a student whose parents went to college versus being a student whose parents never went to college,” he said. “First of all, my parents didn’t know how to help me with anything. It was basically learn it yourself or fall behind, and that’s what I had to do.”

Locke didn’t have to face these challenges alone, thanks to Clemson’s FIRST-Generation Success Program. The program provides support for first-generation students through study halls and tutoring, workshops, career development opportunities, social activities and mentoring.

“Luckily, there was the FIRST program, and I had a mentor who was able to guide me along the way, or else I can say that I would have been lost,” he said. “The FIRST program really helped me figure things out.”

Locke said his mentor, who was an upperclassman in the program, helped him with everything from buying books to financial aid paperwork. Now that he’s a senior, Locke is able to mentor younger students in much the same way.

Alumna Crystal Green now works as a pharmacist; she is pictured here as a student working in a Clemson University lab.

Alumna Crystal Green now works as a pharmacist; she is pictured here as a student working in a Clemson lab.

Alumna Crystal Green, who graduated from Clemson in 2007 with a degree in microbiology, served as a mentor in the program when it was getting started. Being a mentor was just as valuable for her as having a mentor would have been, said Green.

“Coming from a single-parent household, I didn’t know anything about being a college student. I didn’t know anyone in this area; I didn’t have a support system,” she said. “FIRST became my support system, and I still keep in touch with many of the people I met through FIRST.”

After graduating from Clemson, Green attended pharmacy school at the Medical University of South Carolina and is now a pharmacist for Rite Aid. She thinks all first-generation students should take advantage of the resources FIRST has to offer.

“FIRST provides so many opportunities. As a freshman, it’s hard to meet people because everyone comes from so many different areas and backgrounds. Joining the program and getting to know some people can really open up some doors,” she said.

Alumni can also serve as mentors for the program, and Clemson’s new Alumni Association president, Danny Gregg, has recently gotten involved as a FIRST mentor. Gregg was the first in his family to attend college when he graduated from Clemson in 1971.

Gregg said being a first-generation student in the late 1960s was different than it is today.

“It’s more unusual now than it was in 1967. When I was in school, I didn’t know who was a ‘first’ …. I guess there were a whole lot of ‘firsts’ in 1967, all showing up at the same time,” he said.

Gregg met with several students from FIRST over the summer, entering freshmen who had an opportunity to connect with one another before the semester started.

Clemson University Alumni Association president Danny Gregg, a mentor for the FIRST Program

Clemson Alumni Association president Danny Gregg, a mentor for the FIRST Program

“The impression I get is that some of the kids in the FIRST program now are financially having a little more difficult time … but I think they’re a lot like me,” said Gregg. “They’re just first. By coincidence, nobody in their family has ever been to college.”

Locke is one of those students who has faced challenges paying for his education. A life-long University of South Carolina fan, Locke never thought he’d end up a Tiger. He fell in love with Clemson after taking a campus tour and learning about Clemson’s engineering programs. His parents always encouraged him to go to college, but they simply couldn’t afford Clemson’s tuition without scholarships. And because he was from Kings Mountain, North Carolina, he had to worry about the added cost of out-of-state tuition.

“When I got my acceptance letter, it came without any scholarship offers,” said Locke. “My dad could see that I was crushed because I saw that my dream school was not going to happen, so he tapped into his 401(k) to pay my tuition.”

Locke, who now receives help from two scholarships, is on track to graduate in May 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Through a combined bachelor’s/master’s program, he will finish his master’s in civil engineering a year later. He is currently completing a co-op job at Infrastructure Engineering in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He said his involvement in FIRST gave him a leg up when applying for the co-op.

“The FIRST Program has been the biggest stepping stone on my resume,” he said.

Locke said he would love to see more alumni get involved with supporting FIRST.

“FIRST is a program worth investing in. It’s investing in the future,” he said. “First-generation college students are one of the minorities that no one ever thinks about, and it’s one of the groups that needs the most help. These are students who are brilliant, smart, who just maybe didn’t receive scholarships or just didn’t have the support at home to follow their dreams … without help, those students are not going to be able to go anywhere; they’re not going to be able to better society.

“If it wasn’t for the FIRST program, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”

To learn more about the FIRST program and how you can help, visit