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The very first generation






Editor's Note: My family story illustrates what the First Generation Scholarship Program seeks to accomplish. It starts with my father, who, after World War II, became the first in his family to attend college when he enrolled in classes instead of taking a factory job where his father worked.


Married with two children, my dad earned a master’s degree that led to a job in California. On the drive West, he said to my mother, “Now, it’s your turn.” I was in junior high when my mom became the first in her family to graduate from college and I was just out of high school when my dad went back to school and earned his doctorate in education.


Since then, I graduated from college, both my children graduated from college and they’re now talking to their children about going to college. That’s three generations of university graduates with a fourth on the way, all started by one person breaking a pattern and becoming the first in the family to go to college.Our family has a new pattern. The First Generation Scholarship Program at UNF helps other families do the same, and that’s why I donate to it.

Kevin Ellis learned early in life that education would be the key to his future. He was 4 years old when collapsed lungs took his father’s life, 6 when cancer claimed his mother’s. That’s when Ellis and two older sisters went to live with their grandparents, a hard-working couple who had already raised seven children of their own.

Ellis’ grandfather, Daniel Harris, lost his father at age 12 and dropped out of high school to take a job to provide for the family. He became a control operator at a Jacksonville cement company before a series of strokes kept him from working. Ellis’ grandmother, Lottie Harris, finished high school and worked as a secretary at an area college.

“My grandparents said they didn’t have the opportunities that we could have,” Ellis said. “Obviously, because times had changed there was more funding, more scholarships, more grants, so the things that were around us made me realize that if you really want to be able to do something you need to pursue an education to better yourself.”

Today, Ellis, 24, is making plans to graduate from UNF in December with a double major in economics and finance. His immediate goal is to have his grandparents attend his graduation. Long-term, he plans to build a successful consulting and real estate business by 2028.

Thea Tani grew up in a single-parent household. Her parents divorced when she was 3 and her father, who had a high school education and worked in construction, died when she was 10. Her mother finished high school and made a career in sales. The youngest of six children, Tani always knew she would go to college. She just didn’t know how.

“My mom told me, ‘Honey, if you’re going to try to go to college, you need to get a scholarship because there’s no way I can pay for it,’” said Tani, who completed her undergraduate studies at UNF in December.

Today, Tani, 28, is enrolled in UNF’s physical therapy doctoral program and planning a career in orthopedics that she hopes will include arthritis research.

Tani and Ellis were among the 308 UNF students who received financial assistance last year through the First Generation Scholarship Program. This fall, about 300 UNF students qualified for First Generation scholarships.

The First Generation Scholarship Program is an initiative in which the state matches dollar-for-dollar private donations for scholarships to students whose parents do not have college degrees. Last year, about 600 people donated $338,333 to UNF’s program in amounts ranging from $25 to $25,000. The average contribution was $100.

On average, UNF students receive about $2,500 a year for tuition. Many first-generation students like Ellis also qualify for other scholarships that help supplement their educational expenses. The program does not include funding for graduate students.

Ellis grew up in a rough area of Jacksonville but managed to avoid the drugs, gangs and trouble prevalent there. He knew by middle school he wanted to go to college and turned the negatives in his world into positive reinforcement for his goal. He did well in high school and then began his college career at Florida Community College at Jacksonville, where he completed an associate of arts degree before transferring to UNF.

Ellis works as a baggage handler at Jacksonville International Airport in addition to concentrating on his studies. He helps out at his grandparents’ house, where he still lives. He will finish school with just one outstanding student loan, thanks to the First Generation scholarship and Pell grants. He said the First Generation scholarship enabled him to complete a double major.

Ellis’ grandmother expressed pride in what her grandson has accomplished. She said she was surprised by his ambition because no one in earlier generations had gone to college and hopes his success will inspire her other “grands” to follow suit. One of Ellis’ sisters has earned a college degree.

“I think it means an improvement for my family,” Lottie Harris said. “After he does it, maybe it will be initiative for the rest of them to do the same thing. At least they would try, I hope.”    

Tani started her college career as a Bright Futures Scholar at a community college in Ocala then transferred to Florida State University, where she majored in psychology. She wasn’t passionate about her studies however, and dropped out after about eight months. She followed her brother to California, took up residence in Los Angeles and spent the next two years working as a waitress.

She returned to Florida to care for a sister suffering from a debilitating case of rheumatoid arthritis. Her sister died in 2005 of a stroke at age 34. Tani took her death hard. But the tragedy led Tani to make in important decision: to return to school, dedicated to studying health science. No longer eligible for the Bright Futures Scholarship, she enrolled at UNF, where she graduated summa cum laude in December 2008 with help from the First Generation Scholarship Program.

“I feel like I’ve been given a second chance,” Tani said. The donors “definitely helped me achieve my goals”

Tani’s mother, Lori Tani, said she’s very proud of her daughter. “I thought she did very well. I’m very proud.”

She said seeing her youngest daughter go off to college was an awesome thing because none of her other children had gone that route out of high school, though one daughter, Jill, eventually went to college on the GI Bill and earned a degree after serving in the military. Recently inspired by Tani’s journey at UNF, Jill is considering returning to college in pursuit of a master’s degree.

“I think it’s important for young people today to start their lives off with a degree,” Tani’s mother said. “I think that if they want to do something with their lives and make good, it’s very important that they go to school.”

Ahead of Tani is the tough task of holding down a part-time job for the next three years and taking out loans to help her get through graduate school.

“It’s scary, but I’m not stopping to think about the finances,” she said. “I’m doing it. There’s no way that would stop me.”

As for the First Generation scholarship that helped her get through undergraduate school, Tani said she hopes to financially contribute to the program one day.

“I plan on giving big time,” she said. “It changes people’s lives for the better. It gave me hope.”