Belinda Ballew

Belinda BallewHometown: Strasburg, VA

Student Success Coordinator
Office of Student Success
238 I.G. Greer
ballewbm@appstate.edu

I am in charge of the Mapworks early alert system and assist with Academic Progress Reports, Early Attendance Alerts, Academic Success Workshops, Academic Coaching and other Office of Student Success initiatives.

Education

  • Undergraduate Institution: James Madison University
  • Undergraduate Major: Psychology
  • Master's Institution: James Madison University
  • Master's Major: Counseling Psychology

Reflections on Being a First-Generation College Student

Education was not a priority in my family. When I announced that I was going to college I was told that "all that fancy book learnin's gonna [mess] you up." For me, it was a hard road to higher education but I found a way and so can you.

I recall my first day at the community college very clearly. I had read in the paper that registration was taking place that day. I knew that meant I was supposed to go pick my classes but I didn't know how to do that, if there would be anyone to help, where to go to register, how much paperwork would be involved, how much money I would need to register, or whether I would even be allowed to attend college. I didn't know what the requirements were for entering college.

I drove to community college and sat in the parking lot for a long time, watching others file in and leave. I surmised what door to enter and about how long it should take to register. Still, I sat in my car for another half hour trying to work up the nerve to walk into the college. I'd never been to a college before and the idea of interacting with educated people intimidated me. I was raised to think that girls got married early, worked in the local factory, and had babies. This was a serious step away from the expectations my family had for me. I worried I would fail. After gathering some courage, I took a shaky walk up to the door and entered the small community college in Virginia. I was relieved to find two ladies just inside the door who directed me to complete an application to the college and then signed me up for classes. I turned, wanting to exit quickly as I felt like I might be sick. I was so hurried that I dashed into a glass wall immediately next to the door. I was deeply embarrassed and ashamed. I worried the ladies who had helped me would tell everyone what I'd done and that they would know what a fool I'd been. I half ran back to my car where I tried to calm down and settle my stomach. I remember giving in to the tears and thinking maybe my parents were right and education wasn't for me.

Now that I was signed up for classes, I worried a great deal about whether I'd be able to succeed in college. With a family who thought me "too big for your britches" I received more discouragement than encouragement. They told me they were waiting for me to fail and they'd laugh when I did. This sparked something inside me. I'm not sure whether it was anger, resentment, fear, or determination but it drove me to try my hardest to be successful.

My first course in college was an Intro to Psychology class. I loved that course and felt especially at home when the instructor told us he'd come from a family like mine. He had grown up poor and education had not been a priority in his home either. He was a PhD! I just knew if he could do it, I had a chance! I fell in love with Psychology in that class and decided then that Psychology would be my major (thought I didn't know what a major was just yet.)

So much of college life intimidated me. There was a lot I didn't know. I was confused by the FAFSA. I didn't know how I was supposed to address my instructors, what a syllabus was, how to read a schedule of courses, or how to use the schedule to register for the next semester of classes. I didn't know how to choose classes or what a college catalogue was. I thought I was considered to be less of a student because I hadn't taken the SAT and wondered if that limited the classes I could take. I was so ignorant of the process and full of self-doubt that I nearly quit on several occasions. But, this Psychology class kept drawing me back. I wanted to learn. I was enjoying learning and I didn't want to stop.

My next couple of years at community college were truly amazing. I was learning so much! I often had to look up words the professor and others used but I was excited to expand my vocabulary too! I was in community college for nearly 4 years because I had to work full-time and also work part-time at the community college in order to be able to afford tuition. Financial aid was helpful during my final two years. Because need outweighed pride, I finally asked someone to help me fill out the FAFSA.

I never meant to continue my education beyond my Associate's degree but an instructor encouraged me to apply to a university. I applied to the only University that was within driving distance and was more than prepared to not be admitted. I had already accepted a second job because I was so convinced that the University wouldn't want me. I rationalized that people like me didn't get Bachelor degrees. This was way out of my league. However, to my absolute amazement, I received a letter indicating I had been accepted. I cried. I cried because I was grateful. I cried because I was scared, I cried because I was first in my family, and I cried because I never thought I'd make it that far. But I had to go. If they said I could, then I would.

University life was different from community college but I got the hang of it. As a non-traditional student, I didn't always fit in but I never really had much time to socialize anyway, as I was working full-time and keeping a class load of 12 hours. I graduated with a 4.0 but was still not sure of myself.

With the same trepidation as when I applied to the University, I applied to Graduate school. Once again, I was admitted. I earned two graduate degrees before I left James Madison University. My family still doesn't value education and thinks my time was wasted but I know better. Without a doubt, my son will attend college and I'll make sure he is supported. I haven't yet decided whether I want to earn a Ph.D. but, this time, I'm pretty sure I'll be admitted when I apply to Graduate school.