Prof Recalls Her First-Generation College Experience
Every time they came home from the grocery store, Jami Berry’s parents dropped their pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters into a bucket of change, which doubled as a teaching tool when she played math games with her mother.
Berry, an assistant professor in the College of Education, remembers the example her parents set for her at a young age. They encouraged her academic progress by playing games that reinforced key skills and keeping a stack of books at home. They also showed her the importance of hard work and dedication to their professions.
“My mom was a homemaker and my dad worked at the local ALCOA factory,” she said. “He worked there for 36 years and didn’t miss a day until he got sick.”
Though he was diagnosed with cancer and died when she was in high school, Berry’s father had always encouraged her to attend college – something he and his wife hadn’t had the opportunity to do – and to apply for one of the four-year scholarships the factory offered each year.
She applied for and earned one of the two scholarships, which helped fund her bachelor’s degree. To this day, she remembers walking into her first college class and how it was exciting and intimidating at the same time.
She has some advice for incoming students, especially for those who are the first in their families to attend college:
- Set high goals for yourself and create a plan to reach those goals. “If I could do one thing differently during my first semester of college,” she said, “it would be to develop strong study habits from day one. Something as simple as breaking big assignments into smaller, more manageable pieces in the beginning can save you lots of time in the end.”
- Remember to ask for help when you hit bumps in the road. “There were times when I was struggling and wanted to hang it up,” she said. “It’s not always going to be easy, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
- Lean on your classmates for support, and be open to friendships with people from different backgrounds. “I am still in contact with many of my classmates from my freshman year in college. While we were all in the same program, our backgrounds were very diverse. By opening our lives to each other, our college experience was much richer, and our program of study was more manageable because we were in it together.”
- Find mentors to guide you through your academic program and beyond. Berry had the support of her high school and college band directors, the principals at the schools where she worked, and key people in her academic program at Georgia State. “If I didn’t have these people and many others,” she said, “my story could have turned out very differently. I would encourage students to build relationships with the people around them and reach out to them for support.”
- Find a way to give back. “Being the first in your family to attend college is a reward for your hard work thus far,” Berry said. “As you begin this next chapter, find a way to pay it forward. This may be through volunteering, mentoring others, or something else, but giving back will help you continue to build on the foundation that brought you to this exciting moment. Enjoy the ride.”
Berry credits her upbringing and the mentors she found throughout her career for her success in college and beyond.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in music education from Morehead State (Ky.) University, where her high school band director had taken a job and was one of her mentors through college.
After graduation, she became a music teacher first in Clayton County and then Henry County, where she was chairperson of the school leadership team, established a school-wide awards and recognition program and was named Teacher of the Year for the 1996–97 school year.
Her commitment to her students and schools didn’t go unnoticed. Her principal at Henry County’s Oakland Elementary School encouraged her to become a school administrator, which she did after working toward a master’s degree in administration and supervision at Georgia State University.
“As a music teacher, you get to work with students in all grade levels and with teachers to reinforce core subjects,” she said. “Becoming an administrator was a way to do that same kind of work on a larger scale.”
Berry continued her education, earning a doctorate in in administration and supervision from Georgia State, where she is on the faculty in the Educational Leadership program. Now, she mentors students and teaches the next generation of educators.
This article is part of Generation Georgia State, a series that highlights the academic, personal and career accomplishments of Georgia State University students, alumni, faculty and staff who are the first in their families to attend college.