Skip to content

EdNC. Essential education news. Important stories. Your voice.

The simple question ‘why not?’ helped this first-generation student follow her college dreams

Voiced by Amazon Polly

Attending early college changed the trajectory of first-generation college graduate Pam Gonzalez’s educational career. From not knowing if a postsecondary education was possible to graduating from her top choice of university, Gonzalez achieved her dreams through the support of her friends, teachers, and community. Now, she’s helping other students achieve their goals right back where it all started for her at Greene Early College High School. 

Established in 2006, Greene Early College High School formed from a collaboration between Lenoir Community College and Greene County Schools. Like other early colleges, the high school gives students the opportunity to earn college credits and a degree at an accelerated pace. Students can earn their high school diploma, certificates, or an associate degree in arts or sciences all while in high school. Gonzalez is now the college liaison for the school.

“My parents didn’t understand much about education. My mom had a second-grade education, and my dad made it to sixth grade,” said Gonzalez. 

Gonzalez’s parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico before she was born. They had limited knowledge of the education system here. Gonzalez found camaraderie and support in the Latino community in Greene County. Together, students helped each other navigate unknowns and plan for their futures.

“It was kind of a journey where me and my classmates were learning with each other,” Gonzalez said. “There’s a high population of Latinos here in Greene County. Their parents didn’t have much knowledge about education either, so it was kind of us figuring it out together.”

Pam Gonzalez (left) with Greene Early College High School graduates from Lenoir Community College. Courtesy of Greene Early College High School

Gonzalez was excited to attend the early college in Greene County. At the time, she didn’t know what an associate degree was, but she did know that attending the school would help her further her goals in education. When she started at the early college, her goal was to get her high school diploma. Shortly thereafter, Gonzalez realized she could aspire to more.

“I had always heard of ECU being from Greene County, but I would tell myself, ‘Pam cannot make it into ECU.’ ECU was the top, and my brain was like, ‘You will not make it into East Carolina University,’” she said.

Gonzalez’s heart was set on attending a four-year college or university, but she wasn’t sure where that dream would be possible. Being a first-generation student surrounded by many other first-generation students, she didn’t see many people that looked like her attending four-year universities. 

“I never knew of anyone that looked like me that made it to ECU,” she said. 

She knew one Latina peer who was also a first-generation student who got into Barton College, a private liberal arts school in Wilson County, so Gonzalez decided that Barton would be her new goal. She wasn’t even going to apply to East Carolina University until a conversation with an instructor at Lenoir Community College led her to change her mind.

“He asked me, ‘Have you ever thought about East Carolina?’ I was like, ‘Yes, but I don’t think I’ll make it in,’ and he looked at me and he said, ‘Why not?’ I had never really asked myself why not?” said Gonzalez. “When I got the acceptance letter, it blew my mind.”

Gonzalez went on to study social work at ECU and graduated in 2016. She continued living at home and commuted to campus while attending ECU, which allowed her to stay connected to her local community and observe the differences between her school environment and home environment. 

“The experience at ECU was amazing,” Gonzalez said, “I got to know individuals that were different from me, more diverse, and I felt like I had entered a new world. I felt like I was in this bubble in Greene County and even just going to Greenville, like driving every single day to class, I would go in between these two spaces that were totally different.”

Taking social work classes, Gonzalez learned to view the world through different perspectives — micro (the individual level), mezzo (the group level), and macro (the community level). This inspired her to reflect on herself and her upbringing, as well as those of her classmates. 

“I learned so much and that there was more than just Greene County. As a social worker, you’re usually trained or taught to look at the bigger picture. So that’s really when I started looking at the bigger picture in regards to learning myself. ‘Okay, where do I come from?’ And then, ‘Where do my classmates come from?’” said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez became interested in school social work while earning her bachelor’s degree and decided to pursue it as a career. She knew she wanted to go work for the public school system after earning her degree. Before returning to her alma mater, she worked for Wayne County Schools. This past April marked her two-year anniversary working for Greene Early College High School.

When asked why she chose to stay and work in her home county, Gonzalez shared her vision of having a positive impact on the place that shaped her.

“I want to give back to the community that gave to me.”

Pam Gonzalez, college liaison for Greene Early College High School
Alli Lindenberg

Alli Lindenberg is an executive fellow for EducationNC.