Notre Dame College First-Generation Students Empowered Through Public Speaking

Notre Dame College’s First Generation Center is providing unprecedented experience in public speaking by empowering those who are the first in their families to attend college to present at monthly meetings with mentors and other campus-wide events.

The First Generation or FirstGen Center at Notre Dame conducts “Mentor Meet-Ups” in which student members connect with corporate, community and campus advisors.  New to the program for a first full academic year: First generation students are nominated to be featured spotlight speakers at each of the assemblies. The FirstGen members are empowered to share their personal stories of resiliency before groups of as many as 100 or more and, in the process, are actively learning public speaking and presentation skills that will help them be successful throughout the College and their future careers.

At a recent Mentor Meet-Up, before faculty, staff, community members and others from the FirstGen Center, Antwon Pugh, a first-year first generation student at Notre Dame—and the spotlight speaker—explained how "one heated moment" almost derailed him from his dreams. He also shared how he overcame that and other obstacles and now has set his sights on a College degree and a career in public service.

“For so many reasons it is empowering for our FirstGen students to be provided the opportunity for public speaking,” said Laurel G. Kaiser, MSW, LISW-S, director of the center at Notre Dame. “Not only does it allow them to reframe their experiences in a way that is inspiring for themselves and for others, but they also are building skills, like confidence and poise, as well as resiliency. The ability to speak in public, which is a source of fear for many adults, takes a lot of courage.”

Student Spotlight Speakers

At the recent Mentor Meet-up, Pugh explained how, while a junior in high school, after losing a match to a heated rival during a wrestling tournament, he pushed the opponent. He said video of that “one heated moment” then went viral on social media.

He spoke to about 50 members from the FirstGen Center and in front of nearly 30 faculty, staff and corporate and community professionals attending the program in the Great Room of the College Administration Building.

“Actions you take, they shape you. People took that as a picture of me,” Pugh told the standing-room only crowd. “But those people don’t know me. They had a bad image, so I had to figure out who I was regardless of the words others were saying about me.”

Rather than ruminating on the negative, as many did in social media responses to the video, following the tournament, Pugh focused on his personal resiliency to rise above the adversity.

Pugh said he understands that “our choices make us,” but the greater lesson he learned at that juncture was that he can choose to let barriers—either by his own acts or circumstances beyond his control like being a first generation college student—“put down or uplift.”

He said he chose to “dig down, deep inside myself” and became self-motivated. He not only won that same wrestling tournament a year later as a senior but now is in his first-year of college at Notre Dame.

Stories of Personal Resiliency

During his presentation, Pugh also extrapolated how that same inner strength and spirit will help him now as the first in his family to pursue an undergraduate degree.

“Resiliency is staying on your path to your dreams and your goals,” he said.

While many have heard of Pugh, who also is a member of the Notre Dame wrestling team, only in relation to his sport, he said he is glad others now are becoming acquainted with him as a member of the FirstGen Center. He also is excited for more to know him as a criminal justice major with a political science minor.

“Regardless of being FirstGen or not, everyone has a goal. Everyone has a dream. Life means something to each person,” he said. “Somewhere, someway, we can help each other. We all have life trials and obstacles, but if we are always working to overcome, that shows resiliency. Once you are able to do that, to overcome, you are really able to grow and to make an impact.”

Pugh said he wants to make a difference by being the first in his family to earn a college degree, but he also wants to use his education to make the world a better place through a career in public service. He plans to become a law enforcement officer and, possibly, work as a public policy administrator.

“I want to have an impact on others. Today there is such a bad image about police officers, but they put their lives on the line. One day, I would like to be able to use my actions to stick up for all authority,” he said.

Public Speaking Experiences

In another opportunity to gain public speaking experience through the FirstGen Center and the College, Pugh spoke at the start of the College's Candelight Concert and was the only student presenter during Notre Dame’s campus Veterans Day ceremony, which was open to the public.

“We recognize that all our veterans have given something of themselves to this country, and some have given all, laying down their lives to defend the freedoms we hold so dear,” Pugh said during the event to a crowd of about 50 in the Administration Building foyer. “Let us never forget that we cannot rightfully celebrate the joy of our freedom without remembering the great price paid for that freedom.”

Kaiser said the opportunities Notre Dame provides students to speak publicly on campus not only allow them to gain skills that will help them be successful in college and career, but also will encourage them to become leaders in many aspects of their lives—just as Pugh is aspiring to do.

“At Notre Dame College, if we can provide a platform for students to take positives risks, like in public speaking, they can be more likely to take on management roles in the future,” she said. “If they don’t have the opportunity to speak up, to put their ideas out there in a way that can be validated, they may be less likely to be leaders later in life.”

In addition to gaining experience in public speaking during the Mentor Meet-Ups, first-year FirstGen members connect with mentors from the community and other leaders from campus, as well as spend time with FirstGen upperclass students who are also there to inspire them to persist through challenges.

Along with first-year student members of the center serving as spotlight speakers, the FirstGen Center expects to feature other Notre Dame students who are the first in their families to attend the College at monthly meetings during the spring 2018 semester. These upperclass students, who completed the FirstGen Center program on campus last year, now are serving as peer mentors and student leaders for current FirstGen Center members.

Kaiser said the evolution of the meetings to feature student speakers is a result of feedback from students who successfully completed the first-year program in previous years.

November 2017

About Notre Dame College

For almost a century, Notre Dame College has educated a diverse population in the liberal arts for personal, professional and global responsibility. Founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1922, the College has grown strategically to keep pace with the rapidly changing needs of students and the dramatic changes in higher education. But it has never lost sight of its emphasis on teaching students not only how to make a good living but also how to live a good life.

Today, the College offers bachelor’s degrees in 30 disciplines plus a variety of master's degrees, certification programs and continuing and professional development programs for adult learners on campus and online. Notre Dame College offers NCAA Division II intercollegiate athletic programs for men and women and is located in a picturesque residential neighborhood just 25 minutes from the heart of Cleveland. Hallmarks of the Notre Dame experience include stimulating academics, personalized attention of dedicated faculty and staff, and small class sizes.

Notre Dame College is located at 4545 College Road in South Euclid. For further information contact Brian Johnston, chief communications officer, at 216.373.5252 or



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