Navigating uncharted territories: My journey as a first-generation graduate student

By Graduate Ambassador Manessa Riser, a Ph.D. student in translational neuroscience

As I sit here, surrounded by books and research papers, I can't help but reflect on the winding path that led me to this moment. The daunting journey into the realm of higher education has been a rollercoaster, marked by uncharted territories, unexpected challenges, and moments of triumph that resonate far beyond my personal aspirations. Being the first in my family to pursue a graduate degree is more than just an academic pursuit; it's a narrative of breaking barriers, defying expectations, and carving out a path for those who will follow in my footsteps.

Growing up, the concept of graduate school was unfamiliar. No one in my family had ventured into this realm before, and the idea of pursuing an advanced degree felt like setting sail on an ocean with no compass. Questions flooded my mind: How do I apply? How do I pay? Will I fit into academia? Am I even good enough?

The early days were a whirlwind of confusion and uncertainty. Navigating through applications, deciphering academic jargon, and understanding the nuances of the graduate school landscape felt like learning a new language. The lack of familial guidance meant seeking advice from professors and fellow students, piecing together a roadmap to this unknown territory. Through the challenges, there were mentors like Tanja Jovanovic, Ph.D., and Seth Norrholm, Ph.D., who became beacons of guidance.

But among these challenges, there's an undeniable sense of purpose. Every hurdle surmounted feels like a victory and a testament to my resilience and unyielding pursuit of knowledge. I am carving a path, not just for my own aspirations but for the dreams of my family.

A shared victory

Group photo of my Detroit Trauma Project team.

The feeling of walking across the stage to receive my bachelor's degree was a triumph that reverberated through my family's history. And now, as I embark on this graduate school journey in the translational neuroscience program at Wayne State University, each milestone carries profound significance. From being a graduate student at the Detroit Trauma Project investigating the effects of trauma in youth to becoming an IMSD/T32 scholar and Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute trainee this year. Here at WSU, I am a part of communities dedicated to enriching students’ experiences and maximizing our development.

Being a first-generation graduate student means carrying the torch of possibility. It means inspiring future generations to dream bigger, to aspire higher, and to believe that education knows no boundaries. It's about thriving in an environment where the odds might seem stacked against you but where determination fuels the journey forward.

My road ahead as a first-generation graduate student may be challenging, but it's illuminated by the hope of creating a legacy of education and opportunity for my family. And with each step, I carry the pride, hopes, and dreams of those who have cheered me on from the sidelines, reminding me that my journey is not mine alone—it's a shared victory that I’m grateful to have WSU a part of!

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