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These eight VCU students are the first in their family to graduate from college. Here’s how they did it.

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From left: First-generation graduates Sophia Booker, Jaren Butts, Ricardo Rodriguez, Brandon Watts and Tammie Goode. (Photo credit: Kevin Morley, University Relations)

They each have a story: Jeff Petraco earned his first degree 42 years ago and now finds himself in cap and gown again, at the beginning of a new career. Brandon Watts was raised in a home without internet and now aspires to start a data science company. Candace Moore had to put her education on hold twice and cashed out her 401(k) to pay for school. On Saturday, she will graduate with two degrees.

They come from different places and have different dreams. But they also share something in common: They are the first in their family to graduate from college. VCU News sat down with eight students in the weeks leading to commencement to discuss the moments that mattered on the way to their degrees.

Tammie Goode plans to fasten her baby shoes to her graduation mortarboard. "Red velcro shoes, smaller than a smartphone," she said. "When I was little and my parents and I would go somewhere, I would get so excited that I would usually put the shoes on backwards or on the wrong foot." (Photo credit: Kevin Morley)
Tammie Goode plans to fasten her baby shoes to her graduation mortarboard. "Red velcro shoes, smaller than a smartphone," she said. "When I was little and my parents and I would go somewhere, I would get so excited that I would usually put the shoes on backwards or on the wrong foot." (Photo credit: Kevin Morley)

Tammie Goode, School of Business, Roanoke, Virginia

Goode was working at Best Buy when she found out she had been accepted to Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I was in the break room and I got a call from my mom,” Goode said. “She said, ‘We got a giant package from VCU. Do you want me to open it?’ And I said, ‘Yes. Open it. Let’s see what happens.’ She said I got in and I started crying. I could cry right now.”

Her eyes water as she recounts the story. Then the tears come. 

“It’s hard to describe, being the first,” she said. “I get goosebumps when I think about it. My parents didn’t go to college and they’ve worked really hard to financially put me through school. They made it happen.” 

She laughs. 

“You know, I had a lot of emotional things happen at Best Buy,” she said. “That’s where I found out I didn’t get into U.Va., and I remember crying in the bathroom and calling my mom. And then about a month later crying again because I got into VCU.”

She said, ‘We got a giant package from VCU. Do you want me to open it?’ And I said, ‘Yes. Open it. Let’s see what happens.’ She said I got in and I started crying. I could cry right now.

Goode has packed a lot into her time on the Monroe Park Campus. She worked with artist-in-residence Noah Scalin on his textile portrait of Maggie Walker and volunteered as an ambassador for the business school, giving tours to prospective students. In October 2016 she traveled to Qatar as part of VCU’s leadership exchange program

“That’s my top moment,” Goode said. “It gave me this different perspective on being a culturally competent person, not only in the workplace but in my personal life.” 

She will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in marketing with a focus in product and brand management — a field she pursued after taking an integrated marketing communications class taught by KK Harris, an adjunct professor. Goode will work as a brand analyst for Altria after she graduates. She hopes to one day continue her education, possibly at the Brandcenter

Commencement is going to bring a tidal wave of emotion, she said. 

“Since I was little I remember my dad saying not ‘if’ but ‘when’ I go to college,” Goode said. “[That] made all the difference in the world. I started looking at colleges in the eighth grade because it was something that, in my mind, was never a question. 

“This day isn’t just about me; it’s about my family. Celebrating with them, hearing my name when I walk across the stage at my business school graduation, it’s going to be great.”

Brandon Watts' advice for first-generation students? Make connections. "Especially with people at college," he said. "You have the emotional support at home but they can't tell you what classes to take or what books you should buy. Make connections with professors and other students. They've gone through this before." (Photo credit: Kevin Morley)
Brandon Watts' advice for first-generation students? Make connections. "Especially with people at college," he said. "You have the emotional support at home but they can't tell you what classes to take or what books you should buy. Make connections with professors and other students. They've gone through this before." (Photo credit: Kevin Morley)

Brandon Watts, College of Engineering, Prince George, Virginia

Watts grew up in a home without internet. He nearly didn’t go to college — “I was looking at going into the military for a few years to pay for school,” he said. And he nearly didn’t go to VCU, only applying the day before the deadline at his mother’s insistence. 

“When I got the [acceptance] letter, my mom was happy because she wanted me to stay close to home,” Watts said. “Luckily [coming here] was one of the best decisions I made.”

He enrolled as a mathematics major, and then took Theory of Computation during his sophomore year. It was his introduction to computer science, and Watts was hooked.

“I really started to enjoy it,” he said. “I had never programmed before I came to college. I never saw computer science as even something I was able to do. A lot of people in my major are like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been doing this since I was 12 years old,’ and went to technical schools, stuff like that. I never had that experience.”

He poured himself into his studies, making the dean’s list and carrying a 4.0 GPA into his junior year.

“It was extremely difficult — a lot of late nights studying,” Watts said, laughing. “It’s been a total shift from what I was doing in high school — how I was studying, how I was viewing education. When I was in high school, it was something you had to do. In college, it’s a choice. You’re choosing to wake up every morning to go to class. You’re choosing to make a better life for yourself.” 

That mindset, Watts said, began with his parents. His father earned his GED certificate. His mother took night classes to finish high school.

“They’ve always pushed education,” Watts said. “To see their reaction at graduation is going to be priceless.”

Watts completed a software developer internship last summer at CarMax and has an offer to return to the company after commencement. He hopes to eventually pursue an advanced degree and start a company in data science or machine learning. 

“I would have never thought I would go to college,” he said. “Now, not only can I be the first in my family to get a bachelor’s degree, I could be the first to get a master’s or Ph.D. I don’t know a single person, not in just my immediate family but in my lineage, that has a Ph.D.”

Candace Moore had to put her education on hold twice before returning to college in her 30s. "I looked at my differences as something that was going to impede me from progressing," she said. "It was actually the exact opposite. This life experience I've had shouldn't just be swept under the rug because it has taught me lessons." (Photo credit: Kevin Morley)
Candace Moore had to put her education on hold twice before returning to college in her 30s. "I looked at my differences as something that was going to impede me from progressing," she said. "It was actually the exact opposite. This life experience I've had shouldn't just be swept under the rug because it has taught me lessons." (Photo credit: Kevin Morley)

Candace Moore, College of Humanities and Sciences, Washington, D.C. 

Moore’s story has been covered before, but some details are worth repeating: She grew up with parents who were recovering from drug addiction. After graduating from Richmond’s Open High School in 2000, Moore enrolled at Long Island University-Brooklyn but had to leave after one semester because her loans did not cover her expenses. She returned to Richmond and enrolled at VCU in 2003, but then had to stop again, overwhelmed by the challenge of working full time, going to school and paying tuition.

“For a number of years, I was like, ‘Let me step back. Let me focus on work, because I need to survive,’” Moore told VCU’s Impact magazine last fall. 

She took a job as a makeup artist for M.A.C. cosmetics and eventually became an assistant manager. In 2013 she cashed out her 401(k) and returned to VCU. On Saturday, she will graduate with dual degrees in psychology and interdisciplinary science, a moment nearly two decades in the making.

“Ten years ago, if someone told me, ‘Candace, you’re going to graduate from VCU,’ I would have laughed,” Moore said. “No matter what happens from this point on, I have completed something that I never thought possible.

“And now I have something to look forward to. It’s opened a door to grad school, med school. There are so many options.”

Ten years ago, if someone told me, ‘Candace, you’re going to graduate from VCU,’ I would have laughed.

Many of those options are pointing Moore toward a career in research or medicine. She was selected last summer as a National Institutes of Health Undergraduate Scholarship Program scholar and will spend the next year as a paid NIH research trainee, analyzing how biomarkers correlate with prognosis after traumatic brain injury. Her general research interests include examining how genetic variability affects health outcomes.

The starts and stops that marked her college career, she said, helped her discover an inner strength. Moore has enjoyed the little moments — the study groups, the trips to Jimmy John’s with classmates. A few years ago, she was nominated for an academic achievement award and invited to a ceremony at the Stuart C. Siegel Center. Moore’s mother, who died in 2015, was at that event.

“That was extremely meaningful,” Moore said. “I look at that experience and think, she got to see me graduate, in a sense. She was my cheerleader. She traveled down here just for that event. That’s something I will never forget.”

Moore said her graduation from college is a miracle.

“It’s a dream come true,” she said. “It’s miraculous, glorious, victorious, like I’m at the Olympics, standing on the podium. That’s how it feels.” 

Commencement will be an emotional event for Melody Mandigo, who pushed to go to college despite facing financial constraint and doubt from friends in her hometown. "I think it's just being able to prove to people that you can do it," she said. "It means a lot. It's a feeling you can't describe, almost like you beat the impossible." (Photo credit: Kevin Morley)
Commencement will be an emotional event for Melody Mandigo, who pushed to go to college despite facing financial constraint and doubt from friends in her hometown. "I think it's just being able to prove to people that you can do it," she said. "It means a lot. It's a feeling you can't describe, almost like you beat the impossible." (Photo credit: Kevin Morley)

Melody Mandigo, Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, College of Humanities and Sciences, Newport News, Virginia 

Like Watts, Mandigo considered the military as a path to pay for college. And like Watts, her future changed after a conversation with her mom. 

“I was going with the recruiter to take my physical, and my mom called me and said I got accepted to VCU and Longwood and Radford — they all came in at the same time,” Mandigo said. “And I looked at [the recruiter] and said, ‘I think I’m going to wait. I’m sorry, can we reschedule this?’” 

A week later, she received financial aid information from VCU. She later received a scholarship. Mandigo, the third of four children in her family, had always been determined to go to college. Suddenly, it was happening.

“All my friends around me growing up, I was like, ‘I’m going to college, I’m going to college,’ and they wouldn’t believe me,” she said. “And then it all happened at the same time. It was just crazy. My life would have been so different had I gone with the recruiter. I probably would not have gone to VCU because there was no base around here.” 

I looked at [the recruiter] and said, ‘I think I’m going to wait. I’m sorry, can we reschedule this?’

Mandigo enrolled as a pre-med student, with a minor in business. She initially wanted to be a physician’s assistant. But though she enjoyed the subject matter, she was drawn to public relations and switched majors at the beginning of her junior year. Mandigo completed an internship last fall with the Virginia Department of Health, assisting with a communications audit and creating informational wellness videos. She recently accepted a job with TEKsystems, an IT recruiting and consulting company in Glen Allen.

She wants to build a career that blends her interests in communications, business and health.

“My niche would be anything related to medicine, maybe for a hospital or anything with health science,” she said. “A lot of people think PR and they want to do beauty, or sports or entertainment. Everyone thinks I’m crazy. I don’t know, I like it.”

Her advice to future students — especially first-generation Hispanic women: keep pushing and don’t give up.

“I didn’t grow up in a really good neighborhood and I knew the only way out was to study,” Mandigo said. “I applied to 100 scholarships and got two. One was $1,500, and I used it to buy my MacBook, and the other was a renewal for $10,000 a year. 

“I want people to know that they shouldn’t sell themselves short. They can do this.”

Jeff Petraco spent 31 years working in public health and social services. Now he is ready to begin a new career in nursing, one that will feature teaching, research and practice. "Having a clinical perspective allows me weave things together," he said. (Photo credit: Kevin Morley)
Jeff Petraco spent 31 years working in public health and social services. Now he is ready to begin a new career in nursing, one that will feature teaching, research and practice. "Having a clinical perspective allows me weave things together," he said. (Photo credit: Kevin Morley)

Jeff Petraco, School of Nursing, Old Bridge, New Jersey 

Petraco earned his first degree — a Bachelor of Arts from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania — 42 years ago, becoming the first person in his family to graduate from college. On Saturday, he will receive his fourth degree, and his second from VCU.

“I thought about going back to school many times, but every time I thought about it I was given a new opportunity at work — either a new area or a promotion,” he said. “I have had lots of opportunities to do work that I wanted to do.” 

With his first two degrees (Petraco also holds an MBA from Temple University), he spent 31 years working in public health and social services, much of it for the city of Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania. But Petraco always had an interest in nursing. In 2010 he retired from his administrative career, and in 2013 he enrolled in the School of Nursing’s accelerated bachelor’s degree program.

“I wanted to keep working and I realized what I was missing was a clinical perspective,” he said. “Initially I was apprehensive because I had taken an environmental science class in college, but I hadn’t done biology, chemistry, any of those sciences. And I realized quickly that I enjoyed it.”

First-Generation Graduates - May 2018

He earned a bachelor’s degree in 2014, then decided to pursue an advanced degree in nursing. As an advanced practice nurse, he will be able to diagnose and treat patients. Petraco will teach this summer as a part-time clinical adjunct professor in the School of Nursing and will continue working as a research assistant, which he has been doing the past three years. He is examining social determinants of health, working with Pamela Parsons, Ph.D., director for practice and community engagement in the School of Nursing. 

“It has to do with understanding how to help people have lifestyles that promote better health,” he said. “The research has been with low-income seniors. I’m interested in how you keep people from engaging in the health care system for treatment — how you help promote better and healthier lifestyles.”

His advice for students: Know yourself, and know your passion.

“For me, working in a situation that isn’t aligned with my values and my passion is really difficult,” Petraco said. “I just took this career and professional development course at VCU and that was the advice we got: Know yourself, know what’s going to fulfill you, and when you do that, you can better match that with what you want to do.”

A family of supporters helped Sophia Booker on her path to a college degree. "A lot of people helped me on this journey," she said. "They didn't give up on me. I'm used to people leaving and I built up a wall, but they tore down that wall." (Photo credit: Tom Kojcsich)
A family of supporters helped Sophia Booker on her path to a college degree. "A lot of people helped me on this journey," she said. "They didn't give up on me. I'm used to people leaving and I built up a wall, but they tore down that wall." (Photo credit: Tom Kojcsich)

Sophia Booker, School of Social Work, Richmond, Virginia

Booker remembers attending orientation before her first semester at VCU. She approached the ram horns sculpture outside the Student Commons and made a wish.

“I remember saying, ‘I want to exceed my expectations,’” she said.

It was a fitting goal for a person who has spent much of her life breaking barriers and surprising herself. Booker lived in foster care as a child and has worked in the foster care system for years. She got involved as an advocate for foster youth at a young age — facilitating training for new foster parents and speaking at the General Assembly as a young adult. But she never imagined she was taking the first steps toward a degree in social work. Booker didn’t think she would go to college. Even after she enrolled at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, the idea of a four-year degree was dubious. 

“I remember getting accepted to VCU,” she said. “When I got in, I was crying. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m actually going to a university.’ That moment was a milestone for me.”

At VCU, her personal experiences and advocacy for foster youth led to opportunities. She worked with Rachel Rosenberg, a doctoral student in the School of Social Work, on a study Rosenberg conducted on the social networks of youth aging out of foster care. The two traveled to Dallas last October to present their findings at a conference. It was Booker’s first time on an airplane. 

“I was terrified. Everyone was asking me if I was nervous about presenting at the conference, and I was like, ‘No, I’m nervous about being on this plane,’” she said. “But I told myself I was going to step outside my comfort zone and do it." 

I was terrified. Everyone was asking me if I was nervous about presenting at the conference, and I was like, ‘No, I’m nervous about being on this plane.

She has done that throughout her time at VCU, she said, and has succeeded thanks to a large family of supporters, among them her twin sister Brigette; Jill Gaynor, her mentor at United Methodist Family Services of Virginia; Michal Coffey, director of VCU’s Campus Learning Center; and Elizabeth “Betsy” Farmer, Ph.D., associate dean for research in the School of Social Work. 

“They have pushed me,” Booker said. “A lot of people helped me on this journey. They didn’t give up on me. I’m really grateful.”

She said the reality of commencement has not hit her yet. But it will.

“I can’t see it. I never thought I would make it this far, so it feels very surreal right now,” Booker said. “I think once I’m there, it’s going to hit me all at once. It’s going to be really emotional for me.”

Ricardo Rodriguez nearly didn't become a music education major. "My parents wanted me to be a business major and I originally wanted to become a computer programmer," he said. "But I really liked music and then at one point, I was like, 'You know what, this is what I want to do.'" (Photo credit: Tom Kojcsich)
Ricardo Rodriguez nearly didn't become a music education major. "My parents wanted me to be a business major and I originally wanted to become a computer programmer," he said. "But I really liked music and then at one point, I was like, 'You know what, this is what I want to do.'" (Photo credit: Tom Kojcsich)

Ricardo Rodriguez, School of the Arts, Culpeper, Virginia

Rodriguez, a music education major, has a confession: He grew up not liking music.

“I originally did not like it at all,” he said, laughing. “It was one of those things my parents really wanted me to do as a hobby because I used to play a lot of video games. So they kind of forced me to play music.”

Rodriguez eventually grew to love music. He played saxophone in middle school and then joined the drumline in ninth grade. There, he found he had a knack for helping classmates learn to play.

“That’s when I realized I really liked education and knew I wanted to do both, music and teaching,” he said.

But Rodriguez enrolled at VCU undeclared. He thought about becoming a computer programmer. He considered majoring in business. He kept coming back to music. Finally, he decided to apply for a spot in the music education program. He auditioned and was rejected.

Then the jurors at his audition appealed the decision. 

“I was actually walking to the business building when I got an email saying that my decision had been overturned,” Rodriguez said. “And that’s how I became a music major.”

From those inauspicious beginnings, Rodriguez has flourished. He formed deep friendships with many of his classmates. He befriended Justin Alexander, Ph.D., director of percussion studies, and Alexander became his mentor. By the time Rodriguez began his practicum, just before he started student teaching, he knew he had made the right decision.

“That’s when I was like, ‘All right, this is becoming a thing — this is awesome, I get to do what I want to do,’” he said. “The first two years are spent learning how to play these instruments and learning how to teach, not actually being in front of the students. When I started my practicum that’s when I was like, ‘This is great. I’m loving this.’” 

Rodriguez will pursue a master’s degree in music performance at Texas A&M University-Commerce. He’s deciding whether to eventually seek a doctoral degree. He thinks about his winding path to graduation and is grateful for having experienced it.

“I feel very blessed,” he said. “My parents didn’t have any of this. They had to leave school to work for their families. They put in the time to give me something they weren’t able to get.”

Aspiring lawyer Jaren Butts was working at Texas Roadhouse when she found out she had been accepted to VCU. She celebrated with coworkers in the back of the kitchen. "They were congratulating me and giving me positive wishes," she said. "It was a very exciting moment." (Photo credit: Kevin Morley)
Aspiring lawyer Jaren Butts was working at Texas Roadhouse when she found out she had been accepted to VCU. She celebrated with coworkers in the back of the kitchen. "They were congratulating me and giving me positive wishes," she said. "It was a very exciting moment." (Photo credit: Kevin Morley)

Jaren Butts, L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, Virginia Beach, Virginia

Butts is expecting a lot of visitors this weekend. At least 40 members of her family are coming to Richmond. And her graduation from VCU might be the warm-up act.

“The room I reserved downtown for the party after graduation fits 100 and I’m expecting to fill up a good bit of that,” she said. “Both sides of my family. I’m a first-generation, so it’s an exciting experience. They want to celebrate with me.” 

It will be a party to remember, she said. Butts, who will graduate with a degree in criminal justice, has been accepted to eight law schools this fall. She knows where she is going but has not told anyone (her two finalists are George Washington University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). She plans to tell her family at the party.

“It’ll be a law school reveal,” she said.

Butts has always been fascinated with crime, forensics and criminal justice, and decided to pursue a law degree to address and combat racial injustices. She completed internships with the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office in Florida and the Richmond Police Department, and shadowed city officials in Norfolk, Virginia, including police officers, city planners and the mayor. At her current internship at Capital One, she helps conduct anti-money laundering investigations.

She is constantly challenging herself. Butts might pursue a career in cybersecurity law. She hopes to join the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Her interests vary. 

“Once I start to understand something I want to learn, I’m ready for something new,” she said. “I want to learn more about something specific or learn about something different.”

Take chess, for example. Butts came to VCU wanting to learn how to play, so she joined the chess club. She also played club rugby and club basketball, volunteered at Ram Pantry and with Habitat for Humanity and serves as chapter president of the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice and her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. 

“I wanted [college] to be a full experience,” she said. 

She’s excited to see the designs graduates put on their caps at commencement. Hers will feature stickers of different countries, the scales of justice, and a quote: “And off she went to change the world.”

“It’s the perfect place to see so many expressions — the sigh of relief or excitement about what’s next, what graduation means to them,” Butts said of commencement. “That’s what I’m excited about — that expression of so many people.”