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When Shelby Garner enrolled at Eastern, she was following in the footsteps of her mother, who attended the university for a short time before leaving school. But her sights were set on starting a new family tradition by being the first in her family to graduate from college.

A native of Berea, Garner didn’t travel far physically when she came to EKU to begin that journey, but it was big leap in many other ways. Helping her navigate that road was the NOVA program at EKU, a federally funded program that serves students with academic potential who are the first in their family to pursue a four-year degree. In fact, Garner appreciated the help so much she now serves as a tutor and peer mentor for other first-generation students in the program.

The junior social work major hopes to work for a domestic violence center, counseling survivors after earning her bachelor’s degree. Her goal is to eventually become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and open her own practice for domestic violence survivors.

But before that, she hopes to see the family tradition continue after her sister graduates from high school this year – she’s rooting to have a freshman sibling alongside her as she completes her final year at Eastern.

How did you decide to go to college and why did you choose EKU?

It was always just assumed I would go to college and be the first one to graduate. I just knew in high school that I wanted to do something big to help people, and EKU was my road to do that. I chose EKU because it was close to home.

What does EKU mean to you?

Freedom. Freedom to be myself and break out of my introverted shell, and freedom from my high school.

How do you define success at EKU?

Success for me means doing my absolute best. Even if that means falling sometimes and not knowing what's around the corner.

Who is your favorite faculty member?

Sierrah Anderson. She has pushed me to be my absolute best.

What are some unique opportunities you have had at EKU?

Being in the NOVA program has been an amazing opportunity for me! I've been a peer mentor with the program twice now and the second time was even more rewarding than the first. Getting to help people who are in the shoes I once wore is so rewarding.

What has made your EKU experience a positive one?

Making a whole new set of friends who believe in me and understand me. Most are in NOVA as well, so they feel the same struggle as me to be the first to graduate in our families. Having each other to lean on makes the whole experience so much more enjoyable.

When you graduate, what will you miss the most?

My professors and the NOVA program. I've had mostly amazing professors who are all so kind and eager to help. The NOVA program has helped me so much and I will miss it so much when I leave.